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Pittsburg Gave Birth to the Movie Theater Idea

From The Dispatch, 16 November 1919, by E. W. Lightner.

First Exclusive Motion Picture House in All the World Stood on Smithfield Street;
Was a New Thing in Thrills Then, and 7,000 Attended the "Nickelodeon" Every Day

"Epur si muove!" exclaimed Galileo Galilei insistently in the days of the Inquisition, proclaiming his theory of the revolution of earth and other planets around the sun and also their axial diurnal revolution, in contravention of the long-entertained and absurd conviction that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was flat. Galileo perfected the theory of Copernicus.

That was the scientific discovery and establishment of a mighty moving picture show, but in this day, when it is known to every school child, it doesn't possess an approach to the inspiration evoked among all school children by the moving picture shows of film and camera and theater which are far more fascinating to them than the movements of the solar system, things of beauty and joys forever. It may not be doubted that if these wonderful spectacles had been suddenly sprung upon the church and the public 300 years ago, when the immortal Italian was under detention and his writing listed in the index expurgatorius, they would have been suppressed as diabolical inventions and their operators declared disciples of the Black Art.

First Moving Picture Theater

If Pittsburg did not have the honor of the invention of the moving picture, it has the undisputed distinction of the first theater devoted exclusively to exhibition of moving picture spectacles. They had a fragmentary presentation for a few years previously; a brief, isolated, lonely existence; halting, trembling, flickering as little stunts sandwiched in variety or vaudeville entertainments; fragments which were hardly prophetic of the great future which was then in the making for the wondrous exhibitions of this day. To such a marvelous height of perfection have they reached that it may seem impossible to attain any striking advance; yet it is the assertion of scientists of the camera and the film, of mysteries of light and kinetic forces, that we are only beginning to see down a long vista of vastly more amazing accomplishments.

The first exclusive moving pictures theater in Pittsburg and the world was opened in 1905 by Harry Davis and John P. Harris in the Howard Block, west side of Smithfield street, between Diamond and Fifth avenue. Curious to say, the second exclusive picture theater of the world was opened in Warsaw, capital of Poland, by a Pittsburg Polander, who saw the Davis-Harris adventure and recognized the possibilities of presenting so wonderful and profitable a development in his native country.

The Primitive Exclusive

With a ready cunning for adaptation, the proprietors of the Smithfield street "movie" named it the "Nickelodeon," combining the price of admission with "odeon," the ancient name of Grecian theaters, where under a roof plays were rehearsed and presented. The front of the theater was covered with burlap, on which with greater or lesser art was depicted all sorts of fetching symbols, possibly more conservative in motif than some of the brilliant pictorial masterpieces of this day displayed in front of myriads of such houses, and telling thrillingly of frequent changes of motion plays within and the famous "stars" which had part in their making.

No "barker" paraded himself to the front of this theater to shout with insinuating voice: "Here you are, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys! Walk right in and see the most wonderful exhibition of any time, ancient or modern, everything life-size and moving exactly as in real life!" But to attract attention a phonograph was placed in the lobby which discoursed attracting music, classic and unclassic. This, however, was a musical invitation of rather short life, as the neighboring storekeepers made vigorous objection. It wooed and won the passing public and drew them into the theater while otherwise they might have found attraction among displays of things mercantile. The phonograph was courteously discontinued, but the little theater continued to be filled daily and refilled and filled again.

Decidedly Continuous

The original and only "Nickelodeon" was opened at 8 o'clock of the morning and the reels were kept continuously revolving until midnight. A human queue was continuously awaiting the ending of a performance and the emptying of chairs. Inside an attendant would announce, "show ended," and spectators would be hustled gently to the street and new spectators welcomed, seated as quickly as possible, and the picture would again respond to the magic reel. If a "barker" was not thought recherche for the street, a refined "lecturer" was employed for the inside who would eloquently describe and explain the mysteries of the picture.

In this little house, an Aladdin-like transition from a storeroom to a theater, no fewer than 7,000 patrons were entertained nearly every day. It was a new thing in thrills. From 8 o'clock of the morning until 12 o'clock at night visitors streamed in and out and nickels streamed into the box office. The fewer than 100 seats had each and all of them occupants who were held "spellbound" with amazement by the moving picture and wonder as to the means of production.

It was in the broadest sense of the phrase a "theater for the people." Not only did it attract the young million, but the million of the grownups as well. It was an absorbing and educational entertainment for a nickel, or just five little bronze pennies.
What a vital consideration for those who could not afford the higher prices for variety or "legitimate," and who could appreciate a moving picture when possibly the spectacle of live and moving actors would be less readily understood and appreciated.

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