Movie Theaters and Cinema Through The Decades


Since the invention of cinema in the 19th century, motion pictures have transported people across the world into different times and places. As soon as the invention found its footing, people began to come together to see films. As movies started to get bigger with longer run times, the advent of sound and everything in between, modern day movie theaters were formed.

Small rooms that housed inventions like the vitascope became popular and eventually, nickelodeons, where folks could see movies for a nickel, were all the rage. With the advent of Hollywood and the studio system, lavish movie houses were constructed. By the 1930s you could get snacks and other concessions with your film, and by the 1950’s drive-ins were super popular. Now we have 4D flicks and dine-in experiences. Throughout the years, cinema and movie theaters have come quite a long way.

1. 1890: Magic latern shows

1890: The Praxinoscope Theatre 1890: The Praxinoscope Theatre | General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

The earliest movies were nothing like the ones that we go to now. In fact, they were first called magic lantern shows. People would flock into small rooms, pay a few cents and watch moving pictures through slides using machines like The Praxinoscope.  Now, we attend movies with our family and friends, but in the beginning, before there were any storylines and certainly before there was sound, this was how people first went to the movies.

Next: The first theater 

2. 1896: Edison’s Vitascope Theater

Vitascope Vitascope | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1890’s the world had moved on from lantern shows. In France in 1884, Louis and Auguste Lumière shot their first film called, Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon. The brothers just filmed their employees leaving their factory and called it a movie. Obviously, it didn’t have the plot of The Lord of the Rings or anything, but for movie-goers, it was a marvel.

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This was considered the first ever motion picture, and it sparked a frenzy across the globe which led to the creation of cinemas and silent films being shown in mass.  On Oct. 19, 1896, Edison’s Vitascope Theater was opened to the general public. It had 72-seats and was designed solely for seeing films.

Next: It only cost a nickel. 

3. 1905: The birth of nickelodeons

Garden Theater in Pittsburgh 1902 Garden Theater in Pittsburgh 1905 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

In cities across the United States, people in the movie business had to come up with a marketing tool to make sure that folks could actually afford to come to see motion pictures. In 1905 in Pittsburg, movie theater owners Harry Davis and John Harris established the nickelodeon. Patrons paid one nickel to go and see the latest film playing. It would become the model after which our modern day movie theaters were born.

By 1907, around 3,000 nickelodeon theaters had opened, and by 1914 an estimated 27 percent of Americans were going to the movies every week.

Next: The death of vaudeville.

4. 1910: Converting vaudeville theaters

The Orpheum Theater in 1910 The Orpheum Theater in 1910 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

While some movie theaters were constructed from the ground up, others like The Orpheum Theather which was located in Allentown, Pennsylvania were converted from vaudeville theaters. The Orpheum opened in 1906 for live acts like Fred and Adele Astaire, Jack Benny, and Bing Crosby. The theater played a mix of silent films when no acts were in town. However, by 1920, vaudevilles were a thing of the past, and theaters like The Orpheum began showing silent films only.

Next: Not exactly silent cinema. 

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