In the photograph above, the American Theater stands between a cigar store and the McIntyre saloon. The shot is distant and partially obscured, butThe projection booth was a metal box, suspended by straps from the ceiling. When the projectionist moved, the picture swayed on screen. suggests that this nickel theater looked like many others. Nickelodeons typically filled their entryways with eye-catching frills: lights, posters, gilded ticket booths, and architectural flourishes. When ordinances allowed, they added music. An ornate sign, illegible at this distance, greets customers in the entryway. A temporary banner, probably announcing the current show, hangs above a display window. Another sign, most likely illuminated at night, projects from the building. Something sticks out slightly from the American’s alcove and into the sidewalk. Nickel theaters commonly put sandwich boards with more posters in that position. The Cleveland Vice Commission and some passersby objected to to the “blood-curdling advertising” thrust toward the sidewalk, but Bullock and others made their frontage as conspicuous asThe Princess Theatre, Chatham, Ontario. Film Index, May 1911. The Princess was larger and more elaborate than the American, but it demonstrates the visual effects that nickelodeons pushed at passersby. finances and ordinances allowed. Several shops on Superior, including the McIntyre saloon, have flamboyant electrified signs. In the dark, incandescent bulbs traced the pattern of every letter. The American lacks that extravagant and eye-catching touch, probably because of the cost.
Surviving descriptions of the American detail what a makeshift operation it was. The projection booth was a metal box, suspended by straps from the ceiling. When the projectionist moved, the picture swayed on screen. Bullock showed films of boxing matches, very short versions of Hamlet, and travel scenes from the American West. He mixed in crime, action, and romance stories. Several of these short films played in continuous rotation throughout the day. Customers came and left as they pleased, entering and departing at any point in the cycle. Audiences were active, and sometimes vocal, tending not to sit in perfect silence. One patron described stumbling about in “total darkness,” trying to find a seat. When he lit a match for light, the entire audience and the usher “loudly bawled [him] out.”
Bullock had several brushes with city authorities, even before The Collinwood Fire. In early 1907, Fred Kohler, Cleveland’s Chief of Police, announced that “We are going to stomp out all Interior of the Dreamland. The Nickelodeon, Nov 1909. The Dreamland stood at 703 Euclid Avenue, two blocks from Bullock’s American. Like the American, it occupied a narrow lot. The theater sat about 250 people. that is obnoxious in the picture shows. . . [even] if we have to make the men displaying them shut up shop.” The police arrested Frank Mosely, Bullock’s brother-in-law and a projectionist at the American, for “conducting an immoral show.” In May, the city council began debate on a bill restricting the attendance of school-aged children at movie theaters. Bullock spoke to the council on behalf of cinema owners, saying that “the legislative branch should not discriminate . . . against certain amusement places.” In December, police returned to the American, this time arresting William Hines, Bullock’s partner, for “exhibiting pictures inciting to crime.” They also hauled in the manager from the nearby Lyric theater. Both had been showing movies that included criminal acts.
Carmine Theater, 1912. John Sloan knew that incandescents and the buzz of night life gave nickelodeons their romance. The Carmine Theater is colorful, but in the harsh light of day, grit and garbage stand out. Instead of the flirtatious street life seen in Movie Theater (previous page), a dog eats trash, children sit on the grimy sidewalk, and a passing nun no doubt casts a disapproving eye. In December of 1907, beleaguered by Kohler’s crusades, “Fifty moving show picture men” met at the Hollenden and “formed an organization. . . . [They] resolved out of existence all features of the business which they thought would displease the people or the chief of police.” The exhibtors agreed to have “no vaudeville acts between films . . . ; nothing naughty or even suggestive; no pictures of bandits or burglars or holdups or other incentives to crime.” They sent a three-man committee, including Bullock, to declare their good intentions to Chief Kohler. “That’s fine,” Kohler said in local newspapers. “If [they] live up that, we will be satisfied.”
They didn’t. Ten weeks later, Bullock premiered The Collinwood Fire.