Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies 1905-1929
'Nickelodeon City' covers everything from the 1905 opening of the world’s first nickelodeon—the popular, eponymous nickelodeon in Pittsburgh’s downtown, which was actually where the name originated—to the collapse of the city’s prosperous film industry in 1929.
As I write this review, Pittsburgh is in the midst of the 27th annual Three Rivers Film Festival. But what some people many not know is that this region’s interest in the moving pictures predates 1981. In fact, Pittsburgh played an integral part in the early foundation of the film industry by bringing cinema to the everyday public.
The film industry was so popular in this region that by the mid-1910s “the approximate number of movie-only theaters…[was] somewhere in the range of two hundred,” according to Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies 1905-1929. The reason for this entertainment boom is simple—at a time when this city was a machine, churning out plumes of thick smoke and steel, nickelodeons offered citizens an inexpensive respite from the harsh realities of the industrial world—all for the low, low price of 5 cents.
Nickelodeon City covers everything from the 1905 opening of the world’s first nickelodeon—the popular, eponymous nickelodeon in Pittsburgh’s downtown, which was actually where the name originated—to the collapse of the city’s prosperous film industry in 1929. In doing so, the book profiles the major players—individuals who eventually went on to found, run or work for some of the biggest production companies of the golden age of film such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as well as Paramount, Fox and Warner Bros.—and examines early film promotion, distribution, exhibition and state censorship.
Though only a few relics of that time remain (the now-named Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, for one), most have disappeared. But thanks to the in-depth research of Michael Aronson, an assistant professor of English at the University of Oregon and former graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, the past may be gone, but the history is preserved. Aronson acquired most of his research from the long-defunct Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin, the first known regional trade journal for the movie business.
So next year, while you’re at the 28th Annual Three Rivers Film Festival, remember this: The nickelodeon was “a site and sign of cinema’s modern emergence in America. And the history of the nickelodeon cannot be written without Pittsburgh.”
Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies 1905-1929; Michael Aronson; University of Pittsburgh Press, $35.95 (Hardcover)