Live nickelodeon at DPAC
Conor Rogers | Thursday, September 17, 2009
When most people hear the word “nickelodeon” they think of “Hey Arnold!” or people getting slimed. However, before the hit television network, the term had an entirely different meaning. Nickelodeons were small theaters in America during the early 20th century. The etymology of its name comes from the cost of admission – one nickel (although most of them actually charged a dime).
The nickelodeon fostered the growth of moving pictures which at that time were still in an infancy state. Many people often think of nickelodeons as predecessors to our present day movie theaters, i.e. Cinemark 14 or Loew’s. This is true in some respects. The nickelodeon was a popular leisure time activity for the middle class and could often constitute a weekend’s entertainment. People would often bring popcorn and other delicious goodies into the theater as well.
This is where the similarities between nickelodeons and current movie theaters end. In movie theaters today, a typical presentation consists of previews for upcoming films followed by a two-hour-long feature length film. That was not the case in the early 1900’s. A typical show consisted of short films accompanied by one or more musicians.
But what few people know is what took place between these short films – illustrated songs. In the time between short films (presumably while a technician was changing reels) audiences were entertained by illustrated songs. While the music played, glass sides were projected onto the screen to give the audience visual entertainment. These slides also encouraged the audience to sing along.
The discovery of these slides is due in large part to the work of film scholar Rick Altman. Altman was one of the first to realize that the early nickelodeons were not just movie theaters, but rather multimedia theaters. I personally had the opportunity to ask him about some of his work and how he made such a fortunate discovery.
Altman attended Duke University for his undergraduate studies. He claims that at that point, “films weren’t really my thing.” It was not until graduate school at Yale where he felt a stronger pull toward cinema. While spending a year studying abroad in Paris, Altman attended the cinema with his wife regularly. As they became more and more avid moviegoers, they started to look for older movies. “We were looking for things that we hadn’t seen before. Things that we heard were good because people had written about them,” Altman said.
In a film club at Yale, he began reading older articles about the film history and film theory. Some articles mentioned “illuminated songs” but never explained what they were. Puzzled, Altman began some research. He soon discovered that these were glass slides that accompanied each line of the song with the goal of getting audiences engaged in the song.
Unfortunately most of these glass slides had been discarded as junk shortly after feature films began to dominate the cinema. Even the Library of Congress, stockpile of all things cultural, did not have any of these slides in its archives. Through a stroke of good luck, Altman was able to locate a plethora of 20,000 slides thanks to the Bergh sisters in Minneapolis, Minn. He claims he was extremely lucky to find such an incredible amount of slides that might otherwise have been thrown in the trash.
With the discovery of these slides, Altman continued his foray into the area of film sound. It is important to note that before Altman there was virtually nothing written about film sound. Even film theory itself was still young.
Altman now aims to show audiences these illuminated songs in “The Living Nickelodeon.” This project is aimed at recreating the early theater experience for audiences. It promises to be a show unlike any other.
I had the opportunity to ask Rick a few more questions. I asked him about the lack of interest in older films among college students. He laughs and tells me “I’ll have students who tell me. ‘I love classic movies … like “Star Wars.'” He continues, “Well, I think some films take a little background to explain, but it’s up to the professors to select films that will get students really excited. With the right plot and the right characters, you can get almost any audience excited.”
I also inquired as to where he thinks the future of film is headed. His main interest is in the extras now available on DVD. He says, “We are very lucky to have all these extra available to us, particularly short films. I think that as people do more digging, a lot of stuff that no one knows about will surface.”
Rick Altman is currently a professor of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. “The Living Nickelodeon with Rick Altman” takes place tonight at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m.