Hometown Show provides a historical sketch of movie theaters in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, from 1906-1919. The timespan covers a period that film historians define as the “nickelodeon era,” a time of rapid change and growth in filmmaking and moviegoing in the United States. Only a few of the movie theaters in Eugene and Springfield could be classified as nickelodeons in the strict sense, but as a whole the theaters illustrate the trends in movie theaters and moviegoing taking place elsewhere in the United States during this period.
Nickelodeon theaters appeared all over the country in cities and small towns in response to the massive popularity of the movies at the turn of the 20th century. In May 1907, there were 2,500-3,000 nickelodeons in the United States. By November of that year, there were 4,000-5,000, according to Moving Picture World, an early trade publication.
In 1909-1912, Eugene supported six theaters, three of them having more than 600 seats apiece, all for a population of about 9,000 people.
Nickelodeons, named for the 5¢ admission they typically charged, were most often located in small, storefront spaces in the heart of commercial districts with easy access to public transportation where they could capitalize on potential audience from passers-by. Nickelodeon theaters had few of the comforts and luxuries that moviegoers would enjoy in the grand movie theaters built after 1910. The average nickelodeon seated 200 or fewer people. The audience sat on wooden chairs or benches in buildings that had poor ventilation. A piano player or gramophone might provide musical accompaniment to the silent pictures.
More than Movies
Although there were theaters and opera houses in Eugene and Springfield prior to 1906, there were no theaters devoted solely to showing movies until later. Well into the 1910s, most of the theaters in Eugene and Springfield provided a variety of programming that included films along with vaudeville, music, dancing, minstrel shows, lectures, and novelty acts such as hypnotists and “educated chimps.”
Movie theaters were obviously in competition with each other, but they also had to compete with other amusements and leisure activities available to people. In 1912, Eugene had an ice skating rink with “fancy skating” and speed skating exhibitions as well as a live orchestra. There were billiards halls (also with live orchestras), the YMCA, dances, traveling chautauquas, musical performances at churches and the university, social clubs, and lectures.
The local theaters engaged in a variety of creative strategies to attract audiences. Some were what one would expect. Theater owners placed advertisements and small news items in the newspapers to promote upcoming shows. Display posters in front of the theater entrance attracted the attention of people walking by.
Other strategies were more creative, and likely based on the guidelines described in Picture Theatre Advertising (1915) by Epes Winthrop Sargent. For example, the Savoy dubbed itself “Eugene’s Leading Moving Picture House,” and the Rex claimed to be “The House of the Best,” following Sargent’s suggestion to establish a catchline or slogan to help brand a theater.
Sargent also encouraged coupons for reduced-price tickets, and free tickets for schoolchildren with good grades, both of which were used at the Bell in Springfield. Contests promising gold watches and other valuable prizes were another popular way to lure audiences.
The goal wasn’t just to bring in people to watch movies, but to engender goodwill, to present the theater as a desirable business in the community, and to counter perceptions of movie theaters as dirty, unsafe, and morally suspect.
Many of the local theaters hosted election returns. Theater staff worked with Western Union Telegraph to collate the results, and then projected them up on the screen. Live music kept audiences entertained between announcements.
In Springfield, the Bell accommodated all kinds of non-movie uses for the community, including sex hygiene lectures, Red Cross meetings, political gatherings, and Springfield High School plays.
To attract women and families into the theater, movie exhibitors were encouraged to host “beautiful baby” contests as early as 1909 by the trade industry journal Moving Picture World (“The Brayton Baby Show Scheme,” 15 May 1909, p. 632).
Censorship and Regulation
During the nickelodeon era, social reformers frequently targeted the movies as morally corrupt and dangerous, especially for children. The motion picture ratings system was still fifty years away in the future, and the film industry had little formal regulation before the 1920s. In 1909, the Board of Censors of Motion Picture Shows (later the National Board of Review) was established in the attempt to provide national oversight of motion picture content, with varying levels of success. At the local level, censor boards emerged as a means to control the content of films shown in specific states and cities, such as Portland, Oregon (see Mary Erickson’s article about the Portland Censor Board).
In 1910 the Eugene City Council voted to ban boxing films in the city. Any theater violating the ban would have to pay a fine between $100-$200. These were enormously popular filmed matches of well-known fights that were seen all over the United States at that time. The Shell, the Bell, and the Aloha in Eugene, and the Electric in Springfield, all showed fight films. Men, women, and children all attended these shows.
Sunday shows were also controversial in Eugene and Springfield, as elsewhere in the United States. The concern was that movie theaters would compete with churches, further endangering the moral lives of citizens. Locally, movie theater owners had to pay $30 extra per quarter to run shows after 6:00 p.m. on Sundays. Wallace Potter, owner of the Bell in Springfield, objected to the additional fee, claiming that Sunday movies didn’t interfere with anyone’s ability to practice their religion. Furthermore, he argued, the public was adamantly against closing theaters on Sundays. A few years later in 1920, Springfield voters overwhelmingly voted against a proposed ordinance to shut movie theaters on Sundays.
Eugene and Springfield had no censorship organization to control the programming in local movie theaters. In fact, in 1916, the Rex Theatre proudly showed a full, uncut print of “God’s Country and the Woman,” a film that had been heavily censored in Portland only a week before. The Portland Censor Board objected to the love story that resulted in a baby born out of wedlock. The film was so heavily cut that critics complained there was nothing left but the scenery. The citizens of Eugene were surprised at the outcry over the film and found nothing objectionable in it. The Eugene Daily Guard even ran an editorial against movie censorship, but placed responsibility for ensuring good and wholesome pictures on filmmakers and theater owners. “Ostracise the man who makes an indecent picture. Drive him out of the industry…Refuse to play suggestive, immoral, dirty pictures” and there will be no need for censorship laws.
When theaters did show potentially controversial movies, their ads were careful to explain why the films weren’t actually scandalous or indecent. When the Bell Theatre in Springfield showed “The Inside of the White Slave Traffic,” the ad claimed that the film was “endorsed by press and clergy” and there was “nothing in these pictures to offend the pure-minded.” Unless of course “you sympathize with crooked police work and the ruin of innocent young girls.” In that case, “DON’T COME. You will be offended.”
Likewise, an ad for “The Island of Regeneration” at the Savoy in 1915, showed a racy image of scantily clad woman but promised a film “that dared to put nudity into a Picture where the Story Demanded it; to handle strong love scenes in all their purity.”