On this day in 1905, some 450 people attend the opening day of the world’s first nickelodeon, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and developed by the showman Harry Davis. The storefront theater boasted 96 seats and charged each patron five cents. Nickelodeons (named for a combination of the admission cost and the Greek word for “theater”) soon spread across the country. Their usual offerings included live vaudeville acts as well as short films. By 1907, some 2 million Americans had visited a nickelodeon, and the storefront theaters remained the main outlet for films until they were replaced around 1910 by large modern theaters.
Inventors in Europe and the United States, including Thomas Edison, had been developing movie cameras since the late 1880s. Early films could only be viewed as peep shows, but by the late 1890s movies could be projected onto a screen. Audiences were beginning to attend public demonstrations, and several movie “factories” (as the earliest production studios were called) were formed. In 1896, the Edison Company inaugurated the era of commercial movies, showing a collection of moving images as a minor act in a vaudeville show that also included live performers, among whom were a Russian clown, an “eccentric dancer” and a “gymnastic comedian.” The film, shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, featured images of dancers, ocean waves and gondolas.
Short films, usually less than a minute long, became a regular part of vaudeville shows at the turn of the century as “chasers” to clear out the audience after a show. A vaudeville performers’ strike in 1901, however, left theaters scrambling for acts, and movies became the main event. In the earliest years, vaudeville theater owners had to purchase films from factories via mail order, rather than renting them, which made it expensive to change shows frequently. Starting in 1902, Henry Miles of San Francisco began renting films to theaters, forming the basis of today’s distribution system. The first theater devoted solely to films, The Electric Theater in Los Angeles, opened in 1902. Housed in a tent, the theater’s first screening included a short called New York in a Blizzard. Admission cost about 10 cents for a one-hour show. Nickelodeons developed soon after, offering both movies and live acts.