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Living nickolodeon with Rock Altman

Connor Rogers | Monday, September 21, 2009

 The lights go down in the movie theater. One spotlight remains fixed on a piano. A man in a vest and bowtie takes his seat, ready to tickle the ivories. The audience prepares for a movie experience like no other.
Last Thursday at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, audiences were taken on a journey back to the theater of early 20th century America. Rick Altman, Ph.D., presented “The Living Nickelodeon.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a nickelodeon was an American storefront theater that would show moving pictures for the price of just five cents. These films were not like the feature length movies that we have today. Instead, shorts of three-five minutes, would constitute about half of a 20 minute entertainment program. 
What would the other half consist of? Illustrated songs. While a technician had to change the film reels, the projector would display hand painted glass slides onscreen. These slides all told a story that was connected through a song. A pianist in the theater would play this song while images were projected onscreen. Each slide corresponded to each line of the song, and culminated with a lyrics slide so the audience could sing along.
Rick Altman began his presentation by asking the audience to check all preconceived notions of film at the door. The audience suspended their disbelief as they began to travel through time. Altman also reminded the audience that the nickelodeon was a hot spot for audience participation. Such participation was not limited to singing along with the songs, but also making jokes or heckling when the occasion called for it, or even when it did not. 
The images appeared onscreen and audiences were amazed by the beauty of hand painted glass slides. What was even more remarkable was that many of these slides were discarded after 1913, so to still be able to view them is a rare treat. Rick Altman also had the technical competency to play the piano and sing the songs. While he did not have the vocals of an opera singer, he was comical by incorporating accents and innuendos when necessary. 
As for content, the illustrated songs both tickled your funny bone and tugged on your heartstrings. Some were about little lost children without any mother. Others were about two lovers being parted. Still others had some erotic undertones (or overtones).
In addition to the entertainment of the slides, the audience also got an education. Professor Altman would discuss the historical aspects of how these illustrated songs went from being a huge sensation to virtually non-existent. By the end of the performance the audience had laughed, sung along, made some jokes, and even got a little history lesson.