Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Transition from Short Films to Features

As you may know or may have gathered from some of my previous posts, I am currently working on a project dealing with sound and music in early American cinema. The previous post is culled from my current reading and concerns the remodeling of a theater in Nashville. What I find especially interesting about this account is the way it reflects the change from the program of shorts, which dominated the era of the nickelodeon, to the program centered on the long feature, which dominated the later years right up until today.

The earlier program operated under what was basically a vaudeville, variety aesthetic (in the early days, movie theaters often billed themselves as "electric vaudeville"); this aesthetic would later become a basis of many radio and television variety shows, but would also characterize both media as a whole (with schedules developed around presenting a wide variety of programs throughout the day—as opposed to later radio, especially FM, which developed into narrow formats aimed at slicing off a particular demographic, and to cable channels, which are also based on the principle of the format). The later film programs retained significant allegiance to the variety aesthetic inasmuch as the feature was understood to be only a portion of the program. But aside from the so-called "special features"—the most prestigious films that initially would normally be distributed via some sort of "road show" modeled on traveling Broadway shows and could run upwards of 3 hours and cost $5 for the best seats—the feature in a regular movie theater rarely took more than 80 minutes of a two-hour plus program; these programs would include comedies, serials, newsreels and other shorts as well as live entertainment; the cost for these shows was at most 50 cents for the best seats at peak times.

August 1917 is quite late to be moving to feature programming. (Eileen Bowser's fine treatment of the industrial change from production of shorts to features, The Transformation of the Cinema, 1907-1915 ends two years prior.) The first paragraph of the article notes, for instance, that, prior to its renovation, the Elite was one of "the few remaining five-cent houses." The theater in fact had seemingly been one of the lower class of theaters. Not only had the Elite been using what I presume was some sort a mechanical organ or orchestrion ("player orchestra"), but the instrument had also been located at the back of the theater near the exit, indicating that its purpose was probably more ballyhoo than playing to the picture. Though it is billed as joining the ranks of the "high-class feature house," the Elite will evidently continue to rely on a mechanical instrument for music, having invested in "a modern Melville Clark Apollo player piano." (Information on the Melville Clark Piano Company, which specialized in player pianos and would be taken over by Wurlitzer in 1919, can be found here.) The piano has been moved to "the screen end," where it will be "operated by hand during performances." At a time when most theaters profiled in The Moving Picture World were boasting the ever-increasing size of their orchestras to symphonic proportion, the Elite was evidently still not investing in an actual pianist, even if its management saw an advantage to paying someone to operate the player piano by hand (or rather foot) rather than setting the machine to "automatic," as we might infer had been done formerly with the "player orchestra" located near the door.

In terms of the program itself, the article makes a point of mentioning that the Elite is adopting a policy of a weekly change of program. During the earlier period daily or bi-weekly changes of program were far more common, and the way the article mentions the change here indicates that in Nashville at least the weekly change remained somewhat uncommon—even among the "high-class" theaters that had adopted feature programming.

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