The invention of moving pictures changed the world. Today, movies are shown in every possible format imaginable. But more than a century ago, most films had to be viewed through a small lens and were made to move by being run through a projector. The development of larger-format movies and being able to show them to larger crowds of people all at once revolutionized the way Americans viewed the movies.
The first official group viewing of a film was recorded as far back as 1894, when a man named Charles Frances Jenkins showed a short film of someone dancing to a group of reporters, family members, and friends. He called the invention a Phantoscope and later sold it to Thomas Edison, who renamed it the Vitascope. Once Edison was able to get his hands on it, films were more widely shown in New York City. In New Orleans, a storefront theater opened up called Vitascope Hall. This is widely believed to be the very first official movie theater.
The first official permanent movie theater was located in Buffalo, New York, on Main Street. It was opened by Thomas Edison and had plush seating for more than 70 people. Mostly travel films were shown at the time, but people were amazed to finally see moving pictures on a large screen. In 1902, a permanent theater opened in Los Angeles, California. A film entitled The Great Train Robbery was shown there. The film lasted 12 minutes, but it gave filmmakers all over the country a much-needed morale boost and encouraged more people to begin filming so they could showcase their work to others. Soon, movie theaters were opening across the country in places like Pittsburgh and other major cities. Soon after the small theaters took off in popularity, much larger venues called movie palaces began to open.
The movie palace took film viewers to a whole new level of luxury with plush seating and sound that was much clearer. They also featured air conditioning and something called pivot seating, which allowed others to easily get up without bothering the others in their seats. Soon, all theaters adopted this style of seating and it became the standard. People’s love for the big screen and glamor of film combined with a nice evening out made the movie theater a huge success.
By the 1920s and 1930s, big names were buying theaters, like Paramount, Loews, Warner, and Fox. These giants dominated the business until an anti-trust ruling came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. In the 1950s through the 1980s, movie theaters dominated American’s thirst for entertainment. While they are still popular today, modern technology like DVD players and digital media have made going out to the movie theater less popular than it once was.
Movie History Resources
For more information about the history of movie theaters in the United States, please refer to the following websites:
- 100th Anniversary of First-Ever U.S. Nickelodeon Theater: A movie critic reflects on the history of movie theaters and how they got started.
- The History of the Drive-In Movie Theater: Learn about how drive-ins came to be from this article.
- The First Drive-In Movie Theater: Discover the history of America’s first drive-in movie theater, a very popular way to watch movies in years past.
- America’s Vanishing Historic Movie Theaters: This article has historical information as well as some breathtaking photos of some of America’s historic movie theaters.
- American Picture Palaces: Click here to learn about America’s old movie theaters and their evolution.
- A History of Movie Theater Snacks: We can’t forget the popcorn and sodas! Read this article to find out more about the history of snacks in America’s movie theaters.
- A History of Motion Picture Palaces: Here is another good page that talks about the rich history of movie theaters in America.
- Movie Theaters in Kansas: Here is a snapshot of movie theater history for the state of Kansas.
- Air Conditioning Goes to the Movies: Learn more about how air conditioning was finally brought to the popular movie theaters.
- 10 Beautiful Old Movie Theaters Around the Country: This slide show features photographs of some of the country’s most beautiful old movie theaters.
- The Great Train Robbery: Relive the fascination people must have felt when they watched this pioneering movie for the very first time.
- Edison and Motion Pictures: Learn more about Thomas Edison’s role in the motion picture business.
- Pittsburgh’s Nickelodeon Theater: This article talks about the first nickelodeon theater in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1905.
- The History of Early Cinema: Learn about the history of both the first movie theaters and the birth of cinema here.
- The Varsity Theater: A Case Study (PDF): An academic study looks at a one-screen, locally owned movie theater and how it fits into the wider history of movie houses.