Saturday, August 1, 2009

Female Pianists in the Nickelodeon

This is an interesting short item from an early issue of Moving Picture World suggesting that nickelodeons had begun to hire female pianists of a higher social class. The author claims that these pianists generally played a higher class of music and that their social status required that they not draw attention to themselves—indeed that they tried to remain as anonymous as possible so as not to jeopardize their social standing. It is worth pointing out that the "invisibility" imagined here would become the general model for film musicians in the silent era.

The nickelodeon shows have furnished occupation for young women, many of them girls, who, after they have practiced the piano for years, found they could not earn a living as well as the girl who had learned nothing but to wash dishes. There must be two score of the moving picture shows in Pittsburgh, not to speak of those in Allegheny and McKeesport, and every one of them has a piano player.

The piano players at the nickelodeons of a year or so ago furnished excruciating music, for they were usually girls who played at street carnivals and the attractions in the private parks. As the shows became known and people of taste learned that frequently very interesting scenes were represented, the managers sought for girls of another social class, with the result that the quality of music has improved and the higher class selections indicated as appropriate by the manufacturers of the more artistic films are played with taste and precision in many of the shows. With the coming of these girls facilities for withdrawal from the public eye had to be provided. Even now one sees, at a few shows, the girl piano player boldly face the incoming audience, with the lights turned up; flirting with the ushers and altogether comporting themselves with the same freedom as a member of a peripatetic German band; but at other places, as soon as the film has passed through the machine and a new audience is coming in, the piano player slips under [181] the stage and is not visible until the lights are turned down and the film starts again. It is said that some of the girls have a very good social standing, and that their friends do not dream that they are earning an honest living by playing the piano in a public place.
Source: “Trade Notes,” Moving Picture World 25 May 1907, 180-81.