Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mary Pickford and the Nickelodeon

Seventeen-year old Mary Pickford believed that nice people didn't go to nickelodeons. In 1909 there were thousands of these makeshift theatres in America, showing the latest rage -- motion pictures -- and they were often housed in converted storefronts, the plate glass windows covered over. Most stage actors like Mary, considered moving pictures, or "the flickers" as they were often called, beneath them.

 Nickelodeons were so called because the price of admission was usually a nickel. For that price, one might see three reels of motion picture film and an illustrated song. Tickets for a Broadway show or vaudeville were expensive, out of reach of most of the working poor. But nickelodeons were affordable.

Often located in downtown neighbourhoods, nickelodeons were potential fire traps, cramped and fetid, the seating a collection of rickety old chairs. A piano player or violinist would be seated at the front next to the screen (usually a white sheet hung up) to provide musical accompaniment to match the action in the silent film.

The stock stage companies of which Mary had been a part and which had provided her and her family with a living, shut down for the summer months because the theatres got too hot. But the voracious appetite for motion pictures created by the nickelodeons meant the film studios were busy year round.

And Mary Pickford was looking for work.


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