The first Public Cinema was probably in the 18th century. It was a large room similar to a lecture theater, where people paid to see performances, which were often representations of famous plays and musical performances. There were also specialist “conversation rooms” for hire so that people could speak together socially, or listen to speakers, in an appropriately refined setting. The term first appears in English usage in the late 19th century meaning any place where admission is freely available to the public. In the 20th century, cinemas grew out of the circus and vaudeville shows, as they developed into performance spaces with film projection facilities. In this sense, the first Public Cinema would be the Circus Theater on Tiller Road in Portland, Oregon, since it has all three elements, circus performance; vaudeville show, and cinema (theater and film projection).
Circus Theater (Tiller Road)
The Circus Theater opened in Portland in 1905. It was a unique theater built on the site of a former animal circus, on a road called Tiller Road. It was built by the film pioneer, Albert E. Smith, who leased the former animal menagerie and circus grounds. The theater had a rounded ticket booth and a large open-air box office at the entrance. The Circus Theater was an example of a combined circus and vaudeville performance as well as being the first cinema as we understand it today. The building had a cinema and a stage where a circus or vaudeville show could be staged. The theater was huge and could accommodate about 1,400 people. A fire in 1911 destroyed the wooden building, but it was rebuilt again with a concrete and steel structure.
Vaudeville and Cinema: A Short History
The word “vaudeville” has a long history. It is a French word meaning “for the voice” since it was originally performed by choruses. It was popular in France from the 16th century and was introduced to the United Kingdom by Charles II after he was restored to the throne in 1660. The earliest vaudeville shows in the USA were burlesque performances on the vaudeville circuits in the 1870s. Vaudeville shows were often satirical, and the performers were predominantly female. The French-American comedian, Philadelphus Allen, was one of the first performers to introduce a vaudeville show to the USA. He coined the phrase “variety entertainment” and called his show the “variety show”. The first vaudeville cinema shows were probably “nickelodeons”, which were arcades that showed short films and had a coin-operated machine with a dial, which you turned to select the length of film that you wanted to see. The nickelodeon was a combination of a very short film, a performance, and a social gathering place. It was invented in 1894 by Thomas Edison, who created a peephole kinetoscope machine called the Kinetoscope. The term “nickelodeon” was coined by a showman called George Smith, whose business partner, Frank Marvin, invented the coin-operated machine.
Early Cinema in the UK
Early cinema in the UK was largely either amateur or exhibitionist in character. The earliest films were stag films, recorded by amateurs, or films made by traveling showmen and other itinerant performers. These films were generally short, sometimes as little as 20 seconds, and were designed to be shown one at a time to an audience of one person. Amateur films were shot in people’s homes or outdoors, on holidays, and with children as subjects. These films were sometimes projected for larger groups of friends. Exhibitionist films were mostly produced by people who wanted to show their films to their friends and families, but many were also made for commercial distribution. Exhibitionist films were shot indoors, in domestic settings, and with children as subjects.
Public Cinemas in the US: From Nickelodeons to Omnibuses
The nickelodeon boom started in 1898 and led to the first generation of American Public Cinemas. A nickelodeon was an exhibitionist cinema that charged five cents per admission. The nickelodeons changed the exhibitionist nature of early cinema and brought it into the public realm. There was also a shift in subject matter away from the content of exhibitionism, which was largely about the lives of women, children, and families. Cinemas started to feature more action-oriented genres like westerns and action-adventure films. The first cinemas were often in converted buildings, such as disused warehouses, or makeshift tents or wooden sheds. The invention of the “moving picture machine” was the result of a combination of technologies. It is a collaboration between the optical and chemical sciences, harnessing the chemical reaction of silver salts and light to create images, with the mechanics of rotating wheels and shutters, to project them.
The Public Cinema is an important part of the history of cinema. The first Public Cinema came about through a combination of the exhibitionist nature of early cinema and the social gathering places to see those films. Public Cinemas were often makeshift and the form of the Public Cinema changed over time. The advent of television led to changes in the cinematic experience and the form of the Public Cinema.