In 1911, the Cleveland Baptist Brotherhood published a report on vice in the city. After months of visiting places of amusement, interviewing, and collecting data, the commission foundThere was not, continued the report, ‘a question of greater importance than the relationship of public amusement to social vice.’ trouble almost everywhere. Saloons stayed open past the statutory closing hour of midnight and even served liquor on Sundays, encouraging public drunkenness. Some saloons kept “call lists” of prostitutes and arranged assignations for customers in back rooms. While the number of brothels in the city seemed to be shrinking, a red-light district with fifty-seven “disorderly houses” still operated openly. Dance halls served liquor to young women, leading them astray. “Pool rooms,” said the report, “do the young men of Cleveland more harm than houses of ill-fame. They breed crime.” Vaudeville shows were “extremely demoralizing . . . cater[ing] to the tough and immorally suggestive.” Movie theaters, allowed to operate on Sunday, drew more people than Churches and showed “objectionable” films of “robberies, lock-picking, safe blowing . . . betrayalJohn Sloan, Movies, 1913. Sloan twice painted the cinema that Alfred Benda sketched at the bottom of this page. Here, the Carmine Theater offers A Romance of the Harem, just the sort of title to capture the censors’ attention. The movie, bright lights, and posters draw couples, friends, and children. Young men and women give each other the eye. To Sloan, it’s a luminous and enchanting scene rather than a vicious one. of marriage vows [and] irreverence for parents.” There was not, continued the report, “a question of greater importance than the relationship of public amusement to social vice. . . . [I]t is necessary to wage a continuous warfare against immoral exploitation.” Other vice commissions in large and small cities throughout the United States came to similar conclusions. In one report, William Foster, President of Reed College, and Charles W. Elliot, President emeritus of Harvard, declared the nation to be in a “social emergency.”
Grouping movie theaters, saloons, and brothels as amusements that threaten public morals seems unlikely in the present day, but anti-vice crusaders routinely saw connections. They worried that the movies, with their emphasis on crime and self-indulgence, introduced young women to desires that would end in sexual ruin. They believed that nothing good could come of pushing young men and women close together in a darkJohn Sloan, Movies, Five Cents, 1907. Social types and classes mix joyfully in Sloan’s interior view of a five-cent theater. A fancy lady welcomes us with a backward glance; a slumped over man slumbers behind her. A black woman enjoys the show; others push in from the aisle to join the fun. Tightly packed together, everyone shares the moment of onscreen passion.
room, and that the darkness provided cover for fallen women already plying their trade. Tickets were inexpensive, generally costing only five or ten cents, and theaters sometimes drew rowdy immigrant and working-class audiences. Children skipped school to see the shows and sat near adults who might be engaged in immoral acts. In 1907, Chicago created the first film censorship board in the nation to address some of the moralists’ worries. New York relied on elaborate licensing procedures that often led to bribery. Cleveland, like other cities, struggled to regulate the rapidly growing business and the accompanying fears of moral decline. In 1908, the year of the Collinwood fire, Cleveland had almost no codified municipal oversight of motion picture houses in place, even as they spread throughout the city. William Bullock had opened Cleveland’s first cinema in 1904, but by 1911 the vice commission counted 120 movie theaters spread through every neighborhood and drawing a daily audience of 70,000 viewers.
In the absence of other authority, anti-vice watchdogs and Fred Kohler, Cleveland’s imperious Chief of Police, kept their eyes on the nickel theaters, making certain they stayed within the bounds of decency. Engaged in his own form of neighborhood policing, Kohler haunted the Hollenden’s bar and lobby and toured Superior Avenue every afternoon, stopping at saloons, pool halls, theaters, and cigar shops, looking for tips and reminding businesses who ran the city. No theater in Cleveland would have been more visible to the Chief of Police than William Bullock’s American. He may have stopped in there routinely on his regular rounds to make sure the place was staying in line. What must Kohler have thought when he first saw bright posters for The Collinwood Fire plastering Bullock’s storefront and the crowds outside waiting eagerly for a chance to see the carnage that had occurred only days before? Maybe, as in John Sloan’s happy painting above, people stood bathed in light from nearby signs, chatted, flirted, and checked out others passing by. Or maybe the outrageousness of Bullock’s offering left them intrigued but somber or even dumbstruck. It wasn’t just the showing of the movie, but the flamboyance, even the audaciousness of the publicity that struck the Chief. People did such things. It was human nature. He knew that. He must also have known that ministers, city councilmen, and others would be calling on him to do something to stop it.