Uplift Theaters

Early in May 1907, just a month after the publication of the Chicago City Club's report on Chicago's nickel theaters and in the midst of the Tribune's ongoing campaign, a special meeting of the City Club was convened to debate its findings and to work out a policy for regulating the nickel theaters.138 Juvenile court judge Julian Mack argued for the complete exclusion of children under thirteen, a stance already articulated by the Tribune and in other accounts of the nickel theater business. Arguing against this, Jane Addams, founder of the settlement house Hull House, suggested that moving pictures and nickel theaters could be "made instructive" and thus productive of social virtue and moral growth if they were more closely supervised by the police and by citizen groups.139 Addams placed this potential cinema in a category reserved by others like Kingsley for playgrounds and parks, as a potentially positive force in the shaping of citizenship and of the urban environment. Addams's position was symptomatic of the growing interest of some middle-class progressive reformers in seeking to shape and use cinema as a way to reform mass audiences.

The debate in the City Club effectively mandated two distinct and opposing positions on the nickel theater business. On the one hand, a coercive approach aimed, if not at the total eradication of nickel theaters, at least at prohibiting children from visiting them. On the other hand, there was an attempt to shape the institution in such a way as to help mold a population of cultivated, moral, and socially responsible citizens. Nickel theaters became part of a broader debate about effective strategies for dealing with the widely perceived sense of a moral and social breakdown in the early twentieth century, split between what historian Paul Boyer terms "negative and positive environmentalist" responses to urban reform.140

Aside from the articulation of different regulatory strategies, the meeting had visible and productive effects on the nickel theater business, for Addams subsequently set up a model nickel theater within the confines of Hull House and sought to use moving pictures as part of the remit of settlement work. Such work was closely associated with a growing female reform activism in the late nineteenth century and with the goal of assimilating immigrants into American society and culture.141 Education was seen as central to this assimilation of immigrants, to the securing of a new American "type," and to the creation of "good citizenship." In her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams wrote generally of the aims of Hull House in this respect: "It seemed to me that Hull House ought to be able to devise some educational enterprise which should build a bridge between

European and American experience in such ways as to give them both more meaning and a sense of relation."142 For a brief period moving pictures were seen as one element of this strategy of acculturation and education, as Ad-dams (and others) sought to imagine and produce a cinema beyond the realms of the almost-established commercial aesthetic.143 Even the Chicago Tribune commented positively on the use of moving pictures "in connection with settlement work."144 Labeled by the Moving Picture World "the uplift theatre," the model theater opened at 335 South Halstead Street on 16 June 1907 in relatively close proximity to Sorenson's "tawdry" nickel theater and others showing films like The Unwritten Law, the two perhaps existing for a few months side by side as diametrically opposed understandings of the social function of cinema.

Addams's uplift theater can be linked with the tradition of the exhibition of "educational" moving pictures by traveling exhibitors such as Lyman Howe and Burton Holmes to middle-class audiences in venues like the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.145 Exhibitions such as these frequently focused on the nonfictional and tapped into the broader validation of the nonfictional within middle-class cultural practices in the late nineteenth century. Like these exhibitions, the uplift nickel theater showed principally actualities and travel pictures, interspersed with lectures, and "stories with moral lessons" and "happy domestic situations," but it differed in that it targeted working-class and immigrant children as part of a strategy of inculcating "better" taste.146

"Educational" films were validated more generally from this moment on, with an emergent sense that this educational role could be moved to center stage in the cinematic institution as a whole, with the nickel theater in effect becoming like a school. After the close of the experiment of the uplift nickel theater Addams praised the educational potential of cinema: "It is unfortunate that the five-cent theatre has become associated in the public mind with the lurid and unworthy. Our experience at Hull House has left no doubt in our minds that in time moving pictures will be utilized quite as the stere-opticon is at present, for all purposes of entertainment and education, and that schools and churches will count the films as among their most valuable equipment."147 Lyman Howe, a well-known traveling exhibitor, likewise asserted in January 1907 that "[t]he day is not far distant when every schoolroom will have its moving picture machine. ...I have the same forecast from more than 500 teachers who now realize the educational possibilities of the animated camera."148 Far from being schools of crime, the argument ran, moving pictures and nickel theaters were valuable adjuncts to the school, that institution seen by many as the primary instrument of moral formation and Americanization. Film exchanges began to shift the content of their lists, resulting in a revival of the scenic picture accompanied by a travel lecturer.149 Rhetoric about the educational potential of cinema, and about its potential use in schools, began here as a central strategy for some progressive reformers and for many within the film industry to counter the bad press garnered by "sensational" subjects such as The Unwritten Law.

Yet the uplift theater closed after just three months. Gertrude Britton, the manager of the theater, blamed the closure on the theater's inability to obtain suitable films. "Funny pictures of the kind desired by Hull House theatre," she noted, "were difficult to find. Those of the 'slap stick' and vulgar variety were numerous but not wanted."150 Industrial strategies already in place by 1907 helped influence a stance on the social functioning of cinema, effectively working against the validation of "educational" films and marginalizing a conception of cinema as a force for education and acculturation. The proliferation of nickelodeons and the association of cinema with a popular commercial culture had indeed led to the marginalization of traveling exhibitions directed at middle-class audiences.151 Later Addams would also acknowledge the difficulties Hull House had in reorientating film away from its commercial focus on entertainment, concluding that the efforts of Hull House in regard to nickel theaters were better served by assisting the Juvenile Protective Association in its campaign to gain knowledge about nickel theaters and thus improve them.152 In her 1909 book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, Addams argued that cheap and immoral moving pictures shaped "the moral codes and the data from which [children] judge the proprieties of life" in a way that was consistent with the widespread concerns about the suggestible effects of moving pictures articulated from early 1907 onward.153 It is worth noting also that such work had a general and long-term influence on the beginning of large-scale mass communications research. The Payne Fund Studies on moving pictures and youth, which were carried out principally by scholars associated with the department of sociology at the University of Chicago in the late 1920s, deliberately harked back to Addams's The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets in their projected volume entitled Boys, Movies, and City Streets.154 A published volume of the Payne Fund series of books, entitled Movies, Delinquency, and Crime, paid close attention to the question of the immigrant spectator in an analysis of the connection between cinema and delinquency, recalling the emergence of that concern from 1907 on.155

Even given the problems noted by Britton and Addams, there may actually have been a more prosaic reason for the demise of the uplift theater than the unavailability of films: it was, it seems, unable to attract a large enough audience. Moving Picture World had a report in June on the theater that, significantly, quoted children disaffected with the show: "'Bet your life its pretty, all right, and it lasts good and long and dat Cinderella show was swell, but its slow to make a go of it on dis street,' he said. 'Things has got ter have some hustle. I dont say its right, but people like to see fights 'n' fellows getting hurt, 'n' love makin', 'n' robbers, and all that stuff. This show here ain't even funny, unless those big lizards from Java was funny."156 Even supposedly malleable children voted with their feet. The uplift theater itself was seemingly not immune to the industry's commercial aesthetic, and it sat uneasily next door to Sorenson's "tawdry" nickel theater as the films shown failed to compete with the excitement of The Unwritten Law. Commercial and regulatory strategies interacted in complex ways, necessitating compromise strategies by reformers and by the film industry.

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