During the Nineteen-Teens the number of silent picture
theaters in downtown Mansfield took a quantum leap. After spending generations of life confined
to one’s own mundane experience—seeing only one’s own town and experiencing one’s
own not very exciting life—the opportunity to escape into all these new five-cent
alternative realities was intoxicating.
To give an idea of how quickly the new craze evolved in
American society all you have to do is look at Mansfield’s city
directories. When the phenomenon began
in 1906 the first cinemas in Mansfield were still being listed as ‘Opera
Houses.’ By 1910 they were ‘Moving
Pictures,’ and by 1915, when the 7-reel hour-long “features” were commonly
being shown, the theaters were called ‘Motion Picture’ houses.
In the summer of 1913 there were no fewer than 9 different
theaters to watch movies—all of them within a quick walk from the Square. Places like the Memorial Opera House and the
Orpheum vaudeville theater still promoted stage shows on a regular basis, but
they could see where the audience nickels and dimes were going and gradually
included more and more movies in their season schedule as well.
Mansfield even had an experimental ‘outdoor’ movie house for
about 5 years. With bleacher seating on
the sides and rear, and chairs in the center—like a basketball arena—the films
were projected onto a large screen mostly at night…because the Air Dome Theater
had no roof. They advertised ‘See the Stars
under the Stars.’ Somehow they were also
able to show afternoon matinees, according to the ads. The Air Dome space was eventually enclosed
within a few years to become the airy Third Street Market.
A Flickering Fad
Every year brought new improvements to the quality of the
pictures, and evolution of the movie houses trying to lure customers. The Majestic replaced their piano player with
a small orchestra that played behind the screen, equipped with sound effects
personnel who fired guns, slammed doors, and whirred sirens.
For folks in the 1910s—whose first glimpses into the hypnotic, flickering dream world were made by Charlie Chaplin and The Perils of Pauline—it seemed as if civilization was at its apex and life couldn’t get much better. Within a decade, however, most of Mansfield’s nickelodeons faded in the 1920s when movie palaces with velvet seats and chandeliers made the old picture houses look cheap. And shortly after the “talkies” hit the screen in 1927 all the old silent film houses went quiet for good.