While studying at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, Michael Aronson grew fascinated with the city's role in the earliest days of motion pictures. And it wasn't just that Pittsburgh had once boasted about 200 movie theaters, earning it the sobriquet "nickelodeon city." Aronson's discovery of an old regional trade journal for the movie business helped lead to his new book Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905-1929 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 320 pp., $35.95), which details how the city embraced and sustained the nascent entertainment industry. The extensively researched work documents Pittsburgh's enterprising businessmen, colorful promoters and venues, as well as the impact Pittsburgh's movie-biz men had well beyond the three rivers.
Aronson, now an assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of Oregon, recently spoke to CP by phone from Eugene.
Is it fair to say that Pittsburgh is "nickelodeon city"?
The idea that Pittsburgh had the very first movie theater is wrong, but it's clear that the craze for five-cent movie shows called nickelodeons started in Pittsburgh. Yet movies had been around for [some] years, and even some movie theaters had been around for that long. The question is: What is it about Pittsburgh that's so special that makes that happen?
One of the surviving early theaters, East Liberty's Regent [today, the Kelly–Strayhorn], was opened in 1914 as a dime-house, and it was a failure, even as a nice movie theater in a nice neighborhood.
Pittsburgh was particularly entrenched in holding on to that nickel. Economists call it "nominal price rigidity," which basically means that for certain things, once prices are set, it's hard to raise them. With the nickelodeon, a lot of its initial success came from that five-cent pricing, because it dropped the price of high-quality commercial entertainment in half. The nickelodeon was a bargain: You were getting a kind of theater experience that working-class people particularly couldn't otherwise get at that price. And movies are democratic -- the movie is the same for a nickel [as] if you see it somewhere else for a quarter.
I was surprised to learn that there were state censorship boards for movies, beginning in the early teens, and the Pennsylvania censors were known as the strictest. Your book posits that in some ways this was a boon to both local theaters and the general industry.
It was constantly a balance for the exhibitors because they had to take the measure of their own community. What's clear is that, in general, Pittsburgh was against the censorship. But because of the ways that movies were distributed, [censorship] impacted places that didn't have to obey the Pennsylvania censorship laws. The interesting part is the way that Pittsburgh becomes the hotbed of resistance.
And it's definitely one of those things that become part of the fabric of the promotion. Like in New Jersey, they would often advertise, "This movie cut to shreds in Pennsylvania" -- which was all about promoting the films as somehow dangerous, something that's always been part of the movies.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered about Pittsburgh's cinema history?
That these local distributors were willing to go to jail [rather than] censor their films, and to show films uncensored. One particular distributor, Mayer Silverman, went to jail a couple of times. Even the idea that this was a jailable offense. ... But Silverman was willing to make a stand, so he found it financially or ideologically appropriate to refuse the censorship board, go to jail, and then crow about it. It does support the myth of uprising Pittsburghers, but I just didn't expect it of the movies, or from the guy in the suit.