“Moguls and Movie Stars”: America Falls in Love

November 10, 2010

Continuing my celluloid love affair with Turner Classic Movie’s “Moguls and Movie Stars” series, I was struck in Episode 2 by just how powerfully the movie business literally exploded on the American scene.

In 1900 when they actually debuted, “movies” were basically 1 to 3 minute experiments on film that didn’t even tell a real story so they weren’t taken at all seriously by most of the American public. They were actually considered an oddity, a brief and unfortunate fad, a mindless amusement for the “lower classes” of American society.

By 1910, a mere decade later, movies were being attended weekly by over 26 million people, which was about 25% of the entire American population!

By 1914, every town in America with a population of 4,000 people or more had at least one theater.

By 1916, there were 21,000 theaters in America, each seating an average of 500 people. And that was even before the early 1920s when the ornate movie palaces like the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood (pictured below) were even built.

It’s hard to even comprehend the impact of that kind of explosive penetration into the American consciousness. The only comparable phenomenon that I can think of is the explosion of the Internet and home computers in the late 1990s and the first decade of this new century.

Another anomaly about the early industry that I didn’t know until I saw this episode was that the film business was originally a seasonal entertainment only. Theaters actually shut down in the summer months because there was too much light in theater buildings that had not originally been built with movies in mind; moreover, the heat inside those buildings was literally unbearable. Until, that is, an enterprising theater chain in the Midwest called Balaban and Katz started to place huge blocks of ice in theaters with even bigger fans positioned right next to them to blow cool air over the ice and onto grateful movie patrons. Of course, the fans often made a lot noise but the films were silent so the comfort of cooler air was worth it, except for those times when the fans were too strong, thereby melting the ice, and spraying customers with an icy blend. Hooray for Hollywood indeed!

By 1920, the film industry had grown from complete obscurity in 1900 into the 5th largest industry in America.

America’s love affair with the movies was in full bloom.

(Tomorrow—an eerie parallel, and warning, from 1915 about the dangers facing the film industry today.)

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