Bright photographs made of light—photographs that moved—suspended in the dark like dreams that had been captured in the night and put on display. It was a totally new kind of theater in the first decade of the 20th century, where the actors weren’t confined any longer to the stage proscenium: they could be out in the street or on a moving train or up on the roof. It was a play in black and white and silver whose only limitation was imagination. It really was like a dream.
That’s why they called the place Dreamland. It was on Fourth Street in the Brunswick Hotel, and a seat in the photo-play cost 5 cents, so it was Mansfield’s first Nickelodeon.
What you got for your Nickel
The sign outside said Dreamland because people in 1906 recognized the word dream as a sort of synonym for Moving Pictures—there were ‘dream’ theaters all over the country—but once inside the lobby it was called The Arbor. There was an actual flowery trellis arching over the door to get into the theater, like you were passing out of this world into a garden of fantasy.
The seats were nothing special, just straight wooden folding chairs arranged in rows in a long, narrow room that had a piano player at one end underneath a white wall, and a projectionist at the other end who cranked the machine once the lights went out.
The crowd was there to have fun. They stamped their feet and laughed uproariously and sometimes read the silent picture script titles out load. Between picture reels they all sang and the words were shown up on the wall in special sing-along slides that were projected in color.
Each silent moving picture story lasted about 7 minutes—that’s how long it took to reel 1000 feet of film through the machine—with any luck. The Arbor had a problem with their emotional projectionist who got overly excited when the plot got too thrilling and started cranking the projector faster and faster.
For only 5 cents you could step into a dark cave and leave your troublesome life outside and dream you were in someone else’s life…a funny life, or a melodramatic one, or a nerve-wracking war-torn narrow escape. You could go to five different worlds in one hour, and when you got back your own life seemed like a different place. It was amazingly therapeutic.
People couldn’t get enough and soon there were six more Nickelodeons in town. The next silent picture theater to open was the Alvin on Third Street in the DeSoto Hotel. This whole concept of leaving your world behind and journeying to exotic other dimensions made the moving picture houses more than mere theaters—they were like travel agencies. The Alvin advertised itself as the Japanese Theater because it seemed there wasn’t anyplace farther from Mansfield than Japan.
The Star Theater was like the White Star Ocean Liners that could take you away across the seas to anywhere in the world. As the new theaters opened up, each was more opulent and ultra-illuminated on the nighttime streetscape so you entered through a portal of grandeur like a member of the aristocracy: The Royal, The Grand, The Majestic, The Ritz.
In today’s media-saturated culture, where you can easily watch full length Technicolor films on your phone sitting anywhere you want, it is not easy to imagine what an astonishing revolution it was when stuttering black-and-white, 7-minute silent movies flashed into town and changed forever the way we look at the world and imagine the new possibilities for our lives.
Part 2: More photos of silent movie theaters from 1910-1928, including The Royal, The Ritz, The Madison and The Ohio.