As you saw in the recent posting of a vintage vaudeville playbill, silent movies were sometimes part of a vaudeville show. These short films usually lasted no more than 15 minutes. They started creeping into vaudeville theaters in 1896. After 1905, they were more widely seen in nickelodeons. Here’s the first Nickelodeon in the country, opened in 1905. Nickelodeons were cheap entertainment; just a nickel. Vaudeville and theater plays were not exactly expensive, but they were too expensive for the lower economic class to attend. So a nickelodeon was the first place a poor person could go to see a moving picture show, also known as a flicker. Nickelodeons were cheap to run–you didn’t need anything but some folding chairs and a sheet for a screen–and because they were silent, immigrants who didn’t speak English could still enjoy them. No, they couldn’t read the titles (that’s what they called the words that interrupted and explained the action), but many flickers didn’t have any titles at all. Even when they did, people who were illiterate or couldn’t speak English could still get the gist of the story. Here’s a nine-and-a-half minute “short” about a train robbery that was hugely popular when it came out in 1903.
Nickelodeons declined in the 1910s as movies got longer. This longer format, called a feature, no longer fit into a typical 9-act vaudeville show where each act lasted about 10-15 minutes. Feature films were more expensive to make, and the price of a movie started climbing . . .