Sunday, February 14, 2010

Moving Picture Theaters and Vaudeville

Almost from the moment that the nickeldeon appeared, vaudeville was placed in opposition to proper film exhibition. Though the early nickelodeons were modeled on vaudeville and the venues were often known as "electric vaudeville theaters," attempts to mix live vaudeville acts with films frequently came under attack in the trade press. The following article, excerpted from James McQuade's "Chicago Letter" column in Moving Picture World, appeared in 1913 and is fully within the genre. Note, however, McQuade's insistence that vaudeville and motion pictures do not mix because they come from fundamentally different classes of entertainment. This is a rather bold claim by McQuade, as in 1913 the best motion picture houses would in most cities still have been ranked below the best vaudeville houses, and regular coverage of the motion picture houses by the local press was just beginning.

It is also worth nothing that McQuade carves out an exception for live music—both instrumental and vocal—on the moving picture theater program. This is no doubt in large part due to the example and success of Samuel Rothapfel ("Roxy"), whose ideas McQuade frequently reports on in his columns.

What is the destiny of the moving picture is a question that frequently forces itself upon us. Looking back over its brief past, we have seen it housed amid squalid surroundings and looked upon merely as a novelty that enabled one to pass away five or ten minutes of leisure time. Gradually it forced its way until it was considered worthy to form part of a program that was chiefly devoted to cheap vaudeville. Soon it outgrew this humble and degraded use and was deemed important and strong enough to stand alone as entertainment. It holds that position now; but there are some people engaged in the field of public entertainment today who are not treating the moving picture fairly. These people are impressed that they must continue to dabble in what they call “high class” vaudeville, and with several acts of this they associate several reels of pictures. They assume that their patrons want pictures as well as vaudeville, and vaudeville as well as pictures. They dislike to take chances in running a really high-class vaudeville on its merits or high-class picture programs on their merits. It is cheaper to compromise, and they give their patrons programs that offer neither standard high-class vaudeville nor standard high-class picture entertainment.

I have always held that really high-class vaudeville can and will continue to stand by itself and that really high-class moving picture programs can stand by themselves. Vaudeville and pictures do not assimilate. Vaudeville at best is low art; moving pictures at their best are high art—in some respects even superior to famous paintings, which are classed among the fine arts. Moving pictures assimilate with high-class singing acts, for here we have arts of the same standard and class associated. Music, whether instrumental or vocal, harmonizes with moving pictures. Both make an appeal to the imagination. The motif of a great moving picture can be suggested at the very beginning of its presentation, by appropriate music; and throughout the presentation, scenes and incidents can be artistically enhanced by musical accompaniment, because eye and ear are both made subservient to our delight and pleasure.

The destiny of the moving picture, as we all know, is still higher than the mere furnishing of entertainment. It has already been shown that its greater value lies in instruction. Its educational domain has scarcely, as yet, been entered upon, and we can only guess at the marvelous results that will be accomplished in this respect. Its high mission makes one zealous for its present good name, and all true friends dislike to see it affiliated with unworthy associates.

When one reads of the building of beautiful new theaters, with large seating capacities, and learns that the programs are to consist of “high-class” vaudeville, so called, and moving pictures, and that such theaters are pronounced by their owners “picture theaters,” there is mingled feeling of sadness and resentment. What we need at the present time are more managers of the Saxe Brothers and Sievers type, and of the same type that is so prevalent in the far West. And we need, too, presentors [sic] of moving pictures of the Rothapfel type. The time is close at hand when greater intelligence must be supplied for the conduct of picture theaters, both for their business management and for the presentation of pictures. The exhibiting department of the moving picture industry has not kept pace with the manufacturing and distributing departments.
Source: Ja[me]s S. McQuade, “Chicago Letter,” Moving Picture World 15 March 1913, 1088.