The History of Film Exhibition: Challenges and Methodologies

When first embarking on a study of early film exhibition, the entire process seems quite dreary. Even with a narrowly defined focus—a specific Oregon city and during a specific time frame—it can be difficult to even know where to begin. One of the biggest challenges about studying the history of film theaters is the scarcity of primary sources to determine where theaters were even located.
For instance, in his analysis of New York City theaters, Robert Allen relies upon an old city directory to measure the total number of theaters for a given year. However, as Ben Singer points out, even city directories are not a reliable source. He suggests that a company publishing a directory may have wanted to protect its reputation and not publish information for “hole in the wall” theaters. He found a police report that indicated the number of theaters that Allen found from the city directory only represented 40% of the theaters that were actually in New York City at the time. Luckily, this discrepancy in theater numbers is likely to be less pronounced in smaller cities, such as La Grande, Oregon. Nonetheless, the challenges that Singer rightly highlighted in his work persist even when studying a smaller area.
However, this is not necessarily a reason that we should give up on the endeavor of studying early film exhibition entirely. Even though primary sources are quite limited, there is still significant information that we can discern from just a sliver of a source. For instance, in my study of La Grande film theaters, I have found Sanborn Fire Insurance maps to be an invaluable resource. For the reasons outlined above, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use this single source to definitively claim to know how many theaters existed in La Grande at a given time. However, we are able to use this source to examine how a certain area, and even one single theater, changed over time.
In the present day, the Grenada Theater is located at the cross streets of Adams Avenue and Fir Street. According to its Google Maps entry, the theater was first built in 1927, but there is little additional information readily available. By looking at the historical record of the fire insurance maps, we can see when this theater first appeared, and how it changed over time.

In the maps from 1903 and 1910, there is no theater at Adams and Fir. Instead the space was simply sandwiched between the Masonic Hall and a furniture store. The two addresses–1311 and 1313 Adams Avenue still appear as two completely separated spaces.
However, in 1923, the space was first marked as containing “Moving Pictures.” Interestingly, this predates the Google Maps entry by four years. The map shows that a wall was knocked down, giving the theater a significantly expanded space. This suggests that in 1923, when the map was created, significant work had been done on the physical location and that the theater had already been well-established.
Furthermore, as late as 1949, expansion and improvements on the theater had continued. This latest fire insurance map shows a few key changes to the space. First, the 1311 and 1313 addresses are still labeled, but are written in slightly different positions which may be an indication of the fact that the theater space was no longer seen as two that had been hastily combined, but a proper single location. Additionally, the “row of wooden posts” from 1923 has been removed, and it appears that the building has been redone to only have two large pillars for support. Finally, this last map labels the movie theater as containing a balcony, an addition that may have been added to further improve the moviegoing experience.

As the work of Allen and Singer show us, discerning information about early film exhibition can be incredibly difficult work. The scarcity and inaccuracy of many primary sources significantly hinders the research process. However, despite these challenges, there are still many potentials when it comes to researching early film exhibition. Even from limited primary sources–such as just a few fire insurance maps–it is possible to tease out many inferences and ideas about how film exhibition evolved and developed.

 

“The Jazz Singer” at Bligh’s Capitol Theatre

   

Above is an advertisement for the musical program, The Jazz Singer, at Bligh’s Capitol Theatre in Salem Oregon. This advertisement was published in the Statesman Journal on 22 July, 1928.

In relation to other advertisements on the page, this one was the most eye-catching due to its boldness. A disadvantage to this advertisement is it does not have any information about the price and dates of showing. It might have been at the bottom of the advertisement, but overtime and through digitizing it’s no longer there. 

This advertisement is interesting, particularly because of the program. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film with synchronized speech, which explains the use of ‘vitaphone’ and ‘movietone’ across the middle of the advertisement. The exhibitor wanted the focus of the advertisement to be on the brand new kind of program viewing in order to get the maximum amount of viewers. This also attributed to the popularity of the program. The Jazz Singer, was released in October of 1927, which means this program was available in Salem in less than a year. This further illustrates the programs level of popularity, considering the population and Westward location of Salem.

This program also had a big-time entertainer, Al Jolson. While Jolson was extremely popular among program goers, it is also important to acknowledge the racism embedded in the entertainment industry. Al Jolson did the majority of his programs in blackface, and at the time this was not a problem. Jolson used racial stereotypes, and was still considered to be the ‘greatest entertainer’ of the time. While blackface is not encouraged in the entertainment industry anymore, it is still important to recognize how it was sensationalized and welcomed at one point in time.

 

        

For context, Bligh’s Capitol Theatre was located on State Street in Salem Oregon in 1926. It was built in 1926, and burned down in 1935. It was then rebuilt and stayed open until it was closed in the early 1990’s, and eventually torn down in 2000. Throughout its lifespan the Theatre remained in the same location but the street names changed over time. 

 

Cited:

Statesman Journal, 22 July. 1928, pg 2.

Digital Sanborn Maps. Sheet 109. Image

Portland State University and the Oregon Historical Society. “Capitol Theatre (Salem).” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/capitol_theater_salem_/#.WuDvEYjwZm9

“Al Jolson Biography.” Biography, www.biography.com/people/al-jolson-9356888

“The Man Who Knows” at Antlers Theatre, Roseburg, Oregon

I chose this article/advertisement on a vaudeville event happening at the Antlers Theatre in Roseburg, Oregon, because it stood out for me from the rest of the other newspaper ads. The picture of this ad is not only interesting to look at but also a huge segment in the second page of the The News-Review, one of the main newspapers of Roseburg during 1917. Under the picture is an article about the coming of the Great Alexander who, from what it looks like, is a very famous magician in the west coast area. The article states that he’s done shows everywhere from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.

The News-Review, 9 Apr. 1917, p. 1–2.

The ad then shares that this “great” magician, who is commonly named “the man who knows,” will be having a showing at the Antlers Theatre for three days only. Something that is interesting to mention is that this article shares no date as to when these events are happening nor how much the admission cost is in order to get in the event. This could mean that there’s other advertisements elsewhere for this information or that Roseburg was such a close-knit town and they could have used word of mouth to share this information. The short article mainly describes in great detail the show that you will experience if you choose to come to this event. The article states that, “Alexander’s performance is divided into two parts. The first being a series of the most mystifying, astounding and puzzling feats of magic…[and] the second part is portrayed in an oriental setting with oriental dancing and scenic effects.” From looking at other advertisement and articles on the Antlers Theatre, it is understood that they have a great variety of performances and entertainment. This article shows that moving pictures were not the only marvel at the time. Even Alexander, a “man who is heralded by people in the west as the greatest brain marvel in the world today,” people found entertaining at theaters in Roseburg, Oregon.

“The Seven Swans” at the Majestic Theatre

On May 24, 1918, an advertisement was placed in the Corvallis Gazette for the upcoming show, “The Seven Swans,” to be played at the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis, Oregon. This silent film portrayed Marguerite Clark, an actress who was at the height of her fame in the year of 1918. This can be shown by simply just looking at the advertisement and noticing that her name is the largest font on the entire ad. The five reels told a story about characters in a mythical world, where princes can be magically enchanted into swans by the Queen of the Bouncing Ball and eventually returned to their human forms in a dramatic ending through hastily sewn magic robes by Princess Tweedledee.

The film premiered on Christmas Day in 1917, in New York, and was based on the fairy tale, The Seven Swans, by Hans Christian Anderson. The film didn’t reach Corvallis until 5 months after the premiere in December, but given the amount of films that, in this time period, took over a year to reach Oregon, the Majestic was able to get this one pretty quickly.

According to the advertisement, if someone were to attend the film, they would “live in the ‘old days’ over again” when they see this picture which was “staged with the hand of a magician,” and if the characters’ fun names weren’t enough in themselves to get a person to go see the film, the high praise written in the advertisement would be sure to give the potential film-goer the final push.

“The Seven Swans” wasn’t the only entertainment of the night, though. Also according to the ad, there was to be a screen telegram and a “Mutt and Jeff Comedy” as well. A “Mutt and Jeff Comedy,” as it turns out, was a generally short (averaged about a half reel long) comedy film based on the “Mutt and Jeff” comic strips which were very popular in the time period.

 

American Film Institute Catalog, “The Seven Swans.” https://search.proquest.com/docview/1746496105/C8913650F40F4E85PQ/1?accountid=14698

Historic Oregon Newspapers, The Corvallis Gazette, page 2.

A Big Year for the Arcade Theatre

            

As I continue to do research on theatres in La Grande, Oregon from 1914-1921, I ran across an article in the La Grande Evening Observer which states that in the spring of 1916, the Arcade Theatre was going to remodel. The news came from the newest manager of the Arcade Theatre, Mrs. H. B. Leiter. So far this is also the only theatre I have come across with a female manager. Mrs. Leiter was going to remove the vaudeville shows entirely from the theatre. She claims that the movies are becoming higher in quality, and that is what audiences really want to watch, not vaudeville. Mrs. Leiter also reminds the readers/audience that they are seeing the same quality pictures for 10 cents, that others are seeing in Portland for 15 cents, as a way to entice them to continue coming to the Arcade.

I have no real explanation as to why Mrs. Leiter would remove vaudeville from the theatre, except that around that time, there were traveling movie showings. Calvin Pryluck talks more about these traveling movie showings, explaining that they had a circuit they would travel, stopping in towns large and small, and showing their movies. While Pryluck couldn’t find evidence, there are stories of some of these itinerant movie showings traveling around Eastern Oregon up until the 1950’s.

For Mrs. Leiter, these itinerant movies could have been a problem for her business if they were able to show a wider variety of movies, while she was showing vaudeville and movies. The second article, which was found directly underneath the first, talks about how Mrs. Leiter is also going to redecorate the theatre to make it new and attractive. She states that she wants everyone to feel at home while at the Arcade, as well as how well taken care of the children will be, especially since from time to time, the Arcade will play specific movies directed towards the children. The remodel, as well as the language directed at the family, could possibly be another way in which Mrs. Leiter is competing against the itinerant shows. While we may never know exactly why Mrs. Leiter was remodeling the theatre and removing vaudeville shows, she was at least making her mark on the Arcade Theatre.

La Grande Evening Observer, 4 Jan. 1916, p.8

“The Itinerant Movie Show and the Development of The Film Industry” Hollywood In The Neighborhood (Calvin Pryluck): 37-52

Future Location of Alta Theatre in Pendleton

East Oregonian, March 11, 1913, p. 6

Using the Sanborn map from 1910, I used several different sheets to track out the future location for one of Pendleton’s theaters, the Alta Theatre.

Using Cinema Treasures, I was able to find the location where the Alta used to be (25 SE Dorion Ave) as well as its first day of operations: September 6, 1913. Using Google Maps to help better contextualize the 1910 Sanborn Map, I had to scour through several of the sheets for the downtown area before I saw the building that would become the Alta Theatre.

The Cinema Treasures entry for the theater included a newspaper clipping that reported it was “OPPOSITE CITY HALL,” so I knew the approximate zone. It would have been easy to find the location if Pendleton hadn’t changed Alta Street to Dorion Avenue. I finally found the location on the corner of Main and Alta by comparing how the present location is on Google Maps. The Alta Theatre likely replaced the business within the lower right quadrant of building 4 which functioned both as a Chop Mill and housed Baled Hay & Feed.

Three years from this Sanborn zoning yet six months from the opening of the Alta Theatre, on March 1, 1913, there were a total of five competing theaters in Pendleton, at that point a town of around 5,000. The theaters included the Oregon Theater, the Grand, the Cosy, the Pastime, and the Orpheum. It is pretty amazing that despite its smallish size, there was a major boom in Pendleton for theaters. The oldest theatre, the Cosy, had opened in 1906 alongside the Pastime theatre.

Most theatres were in the heart of downtown off of Main Street; in the early 20s the Centre Theatre would be built at 355 S. Main St, then in the mid-30s the United Artists Theatre would open at 108 S. Main St. Through the placement of all the theaters downtown, it likely created much competition that drove theaters (like the Cosy in 1919) out of business.

The Houston Opera House – Klamath Falls, Oregon

While diving into my research on theaters in Klamath Falls, Oregon during the 1905-1910 time period, I came across the Houston Opera House and learned some interesting information worth sharing.The Houston Opera House was originally purchased in 1897 by John V. Houston, a man who moved with his family from Colorado in 1894. When the original Houston Opera House was purchased, it was described as a vacant two-story building on Main Street near Second Avenue in Klamath Falls.

The Houston Opera House in 1900 (Klamath Falls, Oregon)

Houston was said to have added a brightly painted wooden façade and a large stage inside. John V. Houston and his brother, J. A. Houston, named this building the Houston Opera House to honor their father, who had loaned them the funds to get started. The original Houston Opera House, “…Quickly became the city’s cultural center, with community dances, costumed balls, club meetings, concerts, basketball games, and even church services on Sundays” (Oregon Encyclopedia).

In 1908, The Houston Opera House was renovated and became the only modern theater in Klamath Falls. These renovations included its ‘auditorium being fitted with 32 private box chairs, a horse shoe gallery to seat 250 people, folding seat chairs along the new scenery, drops, and flaps.

The Evening Herald , 9 Sept. 1908, p. 1

After researching The Houston Opera House, I came across information that stated the theater burned down twenty-six years after its purchase. A piece of research I discovered that I found most peculiar came from the Herald Newspaper. In the Wednesday newspaper on September 9, 1908, an article discusses how the newly renovated Houston Opera House will have eight new fire exits. Aside from advertising how the newly improved Opera House is the only modern theater in Klamath Falls, the theater uses its incorporation of more fire exits as a way to persuade people to come to the theater. While it is ironic that approximately 12 years later the Houston Opera House burned down, I became fascinated with trying to understand why discussing fire exits in a newspaper was seen as an advertising tactic for the theater. After researching fires near Klamath Falls during this time period, I discovered that forest fires were very prevalent during 1908. Just five days before the newspaper regarding the innovations to The Houston Opera House was published, The Evening Herald wrote an article regarding raging forest fires at Yamsay Mountain that had been active for weeks and were making their way toward Klamath Falls. Perhaps incorporating the increase of fire exits in the theater made people during this time feel safe and more comfortable with being ‘stuck’ in a theater for specific durations of time. All in all, I found this discovery to be interesting and insightful as it helped me to understand why fire exits were seen as an important promotional strategy.

“Everywoman” at the Grand Theatre in Salem, Oregon

On September 4, 1920, the Capital Journal in Salem, Oregon, posted an ad for the black and white silent film, Everywoman. The ad portrays pictures of all the actors and actresses, including lead actress Violet Heming at the top center, proclaiming the presentation of the film by Jesse L. Lasky and “A Paramount Artcraft Picture.” According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the film was about 7 reels long, with a publication date of December 1919. The original publication date provides the information that Everywoman took almost a year before reaching the town of Salem for a showing, also shown by the date of the published advertisement.

The Capital Journal ad then describes Everywoman as “The imperishable Story of a Woman’s Heart – The sublime spectacle of lavish beauty. The Picture Beautiful Beyond Words.” Following the film description is a list of prices; 50 cents for the lower floor and balcony, 35 cents for the gallery, and 15 cents for children.

Capital Journal, Sept. 4, 1920, p. 2

This film was to be played in the newly renovated Grand Theatre, previously known as the Grand Opera House, as told in a previous Capital Journal article almost a month prior to the Everywoman newspaper ad. This begs the question, was Everywoman the first film to be shown in the brand new Grand Theatre? The timeline would match up, with the article announcing the renovation published on August 12, 1920, and the ad for Everywoman published on September 4, 1920, giving a little over a month for renovation and enough time to advertise the first feature to be shown. If this theory is correct, then it would also tell us that Everywoman was a relatively successful film, as the owner of the advertisement and newly renovated theatre would want to start off with a popular showing in order to create some excitement in the city and some revenue for the Grand Theatre.

The First Motion Picture Shown at the White House!

Advertisement for Caberia at Norm Theatre in Monmouth, OR
“CABERIA”: Earth’s Greatest Spectacle! – 1916

In this advertisement for “Caberia” in Monmouth, Oregon from the May 19, 1916 issue of the Monmouth Herald, the advertisement found on page 6 makes great exclamations about this film “CABERIA” coming to the town. With exclamations such as “Nothing like it ever before in Monmouth”, “Earth’s Greatest Spectacle”, and “The Wonder and Marvel of the Present Era”, we are able to deduce the true popularity and success that this film had cultivated in the town of Monmouth. When finding this advertisement, the phrase that stuck out most to me was “Precisely as shown at the White House.” I found this phrase interesting to include in an advertisement all the way in Monmouth, Oregon and I began to wonder about the origins of this phrase and why the manager of the theater and/or the advertiser decided to include this information and what they were referring to with its inclusion within the advertisement. Upon further research into the matter I found that the newspaper had actually misspelled the popular Italian film of the time, Cabiria (1914). During my research, I learned that Cabiria was “the first motion picture to be screened on the grounds of the White House” (Drees). With this historically significant fact taken into consideration, we can begin to understand the true impact that this film had not only on the town of Monmouth, Oregon, but the United States as a whole.

Though the advertisement does not include much information about the film itself other than length (“12 Big Reels”) and run time (“3 Hours Entertainment!”), the positive reception of the film speaks volumes for the film and sufficiently advertises that this film is one not to miss. With the main focus of the advertisement to publicize the coming hit attraction to Norm Theater, the advertisement also includes the admission cost and states that “all seats reserved for evening performance.” This phrase further indicates the true success of this film by demonstrating that seats must be reserved in advance in order for citizens to view the film. With the influence of newspaper articles and advertisements driving the success of numerous theaters and motion picture programs, we can see firsthand with this advertisement how true success and influence was cultivated within the town of Monmouth, Oregon for the film. Through the inclusion of these overly positive phrases, we can see how the manager and/or advertiser were able to manipulate and persuade the citizens of Monmouth, Oregon to go to Norm Theater in order to view the film.

Works Cited:

“Caberia.” The Monmouth Herald [Monmouth], 19 May 1916, p. 6.

Drees, Rich. “ Italian Silent Classic Cabiria Restored.” Italian Silent Classic Cabiria Restored, 23 Mar. 2006,

www.filmbuffonline.com/News/2006/CabiriaRestored.htm.

The Pastime Theatre – Pendleton, Oregon circa 1916

In the September 21, 1916 edition of the East Oregonian there appears an advertisement for the Pastime Theatre, located in Pendleton, Oregon. The ad is part of a page headed “Pictures and Plays in Pendleton,” although the page itself consists exclusively of advertisements outlining the appeals of various Pendleton theaters and containing no actual information about the pictures showing.

Pastime Theatre advertisement. East Oregonian, September 21, 1916, p. 5.

This advertisement’s strategy for promoting the Pastime is primarily threefold. It focuses on the film companies whose films the Pastime shows, the stars who appear in those films, and the Pastime’s practice of only booking films “which have made good in larger cities.” This latter element seems to be especially important, as it is advertised in bold type with the statement “The only theater in Pendleton using the open booking system.” This copy implies a greater degree of selectiveness and therefore quality in the films that the Pastime shows, differentiating it from its competition.

Even in 1916, only about five years after newspapers began to carry content related to photoplays, name recognition of stars and production companies (Fox, Mutual, and V.L.S.E. are named in this ad) served as a major promotional strategy for at least one Pendleton theater. Charlie Chaplin is the only star mentioned in the ad who is still recognizable, but William Farnum and Clair Whitney are also advertised.

Additionally, the appearance of the tag lines “good music,” “courteous treatment,” and “best pictures” seem to sum up the Pastime’s brand image. The “courteous treatment” element is especially interesting, as it highlights the vestiges of the opera-house experience that characterized movie-going throughout the early twentieth century and contributed to the audience’s experience of “going to the movies.”

Of course the quality of the musical accompaniment was of great importance during the era of silent film, and a longer description, located elsewhere on the same page of the Eastern Oregonian, of the Pastime’s attractions asserts the quality of the three-piece orchestra employed by the theater.