America’s Early Movie Theater Alternatives

Here are the ways Americans watched films outside of movie theaters long before Blockbuster and the Internet.
Shawshank Theater

This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today. 

As much as we would love to be sitting in a dark theater eating buttery popcorn and watching thirty minutes of trailers, that’s just not possible right now. Sometimes it feels like we will never experience movies the same way again, but people have always found other ways to watch them. To understand how we will continue to adapt to watch movies in the future, we need to take a step back in time.

Before cinemas were designed to be the best possible way to experience movies, we viewed moving images in a variety of ways. At first, innovators showed their motion pictures in temporary theaters that could be packed up and moved on to the next fair or exposition. In 1895, Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat made a public screening at the Cotton States and International Exposition to show off Jenkins’ movie projector, the Phantoscope. Jenkins and Armat showed their short silent films among other exhibits of technological advancements in machinery, agriculture, and more.

There were also ways to watch early forms of cinema without being part of an audience. The “peep show” machines were designed for a single person to view movies. Mutoscopes were typically placed at arcades or piers where people would insert a coin to watch a series of photographs flipped in succession to create a moving image. As the “peep show” name suggests, these machines included programs that showed risque images of women, but there were also special versions of theatrical films, including those starring Charlie Chaplin, available following their initial release.

Watching with an audience was more popular, yet most early films were screened in buildings intended for other purposes, such as vaudeville theaters. They needed to accommodate both screenings and live performances, which didn’t allow for as many screenings as a designated movie theater would. Soon people began converting old spaces into places to watch movies all the time. The first “nickelodeon” theater, named for the cost of admission, was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1905. Nickelodeons showed short films continuously and seated very few people. The longer films grew, the more comfortable and elaborate the venues became, and watching movies in designated theaters became the standard.

Not everyone had access to those theaters, especially those locked away from free society. Movies were integrated into prisons as well, which required a different kind of set up than a normal theater experience. Even the hardest of prisons like Sing Sing in New York gave inmates opportunities to watch movies. There, movies were screened in the chapel as early as 1917.  Lewis E. Lewes, the well-known Sing Sing warden from 1920-1943 said that his inmates loved Westerns, crime films, and domestic dramas.

Similar to what’s depicted in a scene in The Shawshank Redemption, the setup was unlike a theater experience in some ways. Inmates were crammed in places not made for viewing movies. Guards were often close by to make sure inmates weren’t doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing, which could cause a lot of distractions. In prison screenings, there were not trained projectionists like in movie theaters to screen the movies.

There was no separation between the audience and the projector in these prison setups, which made screening movies while nitrate film was popular very dangerous. In a Texas prison in 1928, a group of inmates was trapped in their chapel after a film they were watching caught on fire. Someone had been smoking and tossed the cigarette too close to the projector and the nitrate film exploded. Two men died and several were injured because the prison didn’t take the proper safety precautions and even had the men locked inside the chapel.

Hollywood also found the audience in prisons to be an opportunity for publicity. When 20th Century Fox released Johnny Apollo, the 1940 crime drama starring Tyrone Power and Dorothy Lamour, they hosted a preview screening for inmates and journalists at Sing Sing. This screening was used to create buzz for the movie by showing it to a “convict audience,” but it gave prisoners a privilege that regular citizens get to have. While their movie-watching experience was often crude and even dangerous at times, they were able to stay connected to culture with screenings of movies long before copies of films were readily available to the public.

Sometimes historical events prevented large sections of the public from attending movie theaters as well. During World War II, the entire country’s entertainment industry came together to help entertain soldiers overseas when they weren’t busy fighting on the front lines. Hollywood was more than happy to provide entertainment for troops. Stars like Judy Garland, Marlene Deitrich, and Bob Hope all gave live performances for soldiers, but studios also made it possible for soldiers to watch films even when they were far from movie theaters.

In addition to instructional training films and newsreels, soldiers had access to copies of plenty of Hollywood movies. During World War II, the Overseas Motion Picture Service, a government liaison between troops and Hollywood, distributed over 43,000 feature films to soldiers, including some movies before they were released in the United States. The common assumption is that soldiers looked for exclusively escapist films like musicals and comedies, but they also enjoyed the version of combat that Hollywood created in their war dramas. For some, it helped give them an idealized image of what they were fighting for, which is escapist in its own right.

Most of the descriptions of how soldiers watched movies involve haphazard setups wherever there was room for men to congregate around a screen. Army troops often screened movies outdoors and sat on the ground or on supply boxes. Screenings were often interrupted by inclement weather or even threats of attack. On Navy ships, the crew would set up among bunks inside the ship if the weather was bad. Seating arrangements would depend on military rank. The atmosphere of these screenings better aligns with the “rowdy screenings” we have now, where audience members are encouraged to yell out comments and sing along with what happens on screen.

Soldiers had plenty of time to smoke (from a safe distance from the film stock) and chat about the movie between reels since they only had access to one projector and needed to pause completely to switch reels. After shipping prints across oceans during a global crisis, copies of movies weren’t in the best condition and sometimes cut out in spots. Probably heightened by the poor screening set up, the sound for copies of movies was also disappointing for soldiers. However, these disappointments gave ample time to joke around and have fun, which was the main focus of these screenings.

The largest separation from theaters for the general public came from the popularization of television after World War II. The first TV set was invented in 1927, but it was not an affordable possibility for most Americans until after the war. By 1949, televisions weren’t just used for newscasts, and Americans could watch entertainment shows like The Texaco Star Theater and Howdy Doody if they were within range of broadcast stations. From 1946 to 1951, the number of televisions in America rose from 6,000 to 12 million.

It’s no wonder that Hollywood began seeing the real threat that television posed on its industry. When television stations were looking to fill airtime with Hollywood movies, studios were stingy with the kinds of movies they gave license to play. Most independent television stations aired bad copies of B-movies or movies that studios knew they couldn’t make any money off of if they rereleased them in theaters. The general rule for stations who wanted to play movies on television in the 1950s was that it had to be made before 1948. This excluded the most popular films of the time as well as most movies made in color. This was the first time the regular citizens could watch movies in their own homes, without having to own a movie projector and copies of films. It wouldn’t be the last.

The rising popularity of television in American homes started the shift to watching movies at home, but the real threat to movie theaters came later. The next installment of Origin Stories will take a look at how watching movies outside of theaters evolved even further in the following decades and what the future of watching movies will look like.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_