Nickelodeon’s were the original movie theaters. Many had gaudy facades but, inside, they were dark dank rooms with wooden benches to watch short movies. Movies ran on a reel and people could watch as long as they wanted, or as long as they could stand the oftentimes filthy interiors. Possibly because Nickelodeon theaters are successors to Edison’s coin-operated kinetoscopes, the term is often confused for a type of coin-operated machine.
Colonel William Austin coined the term for a museum. However, Harry David and John Harris popularized the term for their chain of movie theaters. They opened the first Nickelodeon movie theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905. For five cents, a nickel, patrons could enter and watch movies as long as they pleased.
Despite the stark interior, Nickelodeon’s were wildly popular. Early Nickelodeon’s tended to show the same films over-and-over, relying on new people each week.
However, in the early 1900s movie distribution changed. Filmmakers sold films to distributors who rented them to Nickelodeon’s. Therefore, the films changed from week-to-week attracting the same audience to different movies. By 1910, over one-fourth of all Americans went to Nickelodeon movie theaters weekly.
As time went on, filmmakers found it more profitable to make longer films. Nickelodeon’s also preferred longer films because there was less work splicing together or changing the shorter ones. Movies morphed from reality-based films, that required bringing a camera to a place, to fiction films, that allowed movies to be filmed on sets. Longer fiction films also offered artistic talent, similar to plays.
As films became longer and more professionally produced, the wooden bench Nickelodeon’s became less attractive. In 1913 a new type of theater opened in New York City featuring plush seats, air conditioning, and a beautiful interior, the Palace Theater. Copycat theaters sprung-up around the US. Originally, the theater was dual-use, for both Vaudeville, plays, and movies. But as time went on, they eventually showed only longer, high-quality films. The higher quality Palace theaters eclipsed and eventually shuttered the Nickelodeon’s.