Pittsburgh was the epicenter of the nickelodeon boom. Until now, accounts of what was often called 'the Pittsburgh Idea' have been more myth and legend dressed up with a few scattered facts than coherent history. Nickelodeon City is a book that was waiting, needing to be written. Who would have guessed it could be done with such perceptiveness and depth.
From the 1905 opening of the wildly popular, eponymous Nickelodeon in the city's downtown to the subsequent outgrowth of nickel theaters in nearly all of its neighborhoods, Pittsburgh proved to be perfect for the movies. Its urban industrial environment was a melting pot of ethnic, economic, and cultural forces—a “wellspring” for the development of movie culture—and nickelodeons offered citizens an inexpensive respite and handy escape from the harsh realities of the industrial world.
Nickelodeon City provides a detailed view inside the city's early film trade, with insights into the politics and business dealings of the burgeoning industry. Drawing from the pages of the Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin, the first known regional trade journal for the movie business, Michael Aronson profiles the major promoters in Pittsburgh, as well as many lesser-known ordinary theater owners, suppliers, and patrons. He examines early film promotion, distribution, and exhibition, and reveals the earliest forms of state censorship and the ensuing political lobbying and manipulation attempted by members of the movie trade. Aronson also explores the emergence of local exhibitor-based cinema, in which the exhibitor assumed control of the content and production of film, blurring the lines between production, consumption, and local and mass media.
Nickelodeon City offers a fascinating and intimate view of a city and the socioeconomic factors that allowed an infant film industry to blossom, as well as the unique cultural fabric and neighborhood ties that kept nickelodeons prospering even after Hollywood took the industry by storm.
Michael Aronson's Nickelodeon City is a marvelously original scholarly contribution to our understanding of the first decades of filmmaking. For anyone who loves Pittsburgh and the movies, this elegantly written book is a real treat.
"Nickelodeon City works on several levels at once. It is one of the best local histories of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. But it is also a history of early twentieth-century urbanization and commercial amusements. . . . Aronson enriches film history by extending its boundaries. . . . There is [not] a dull sentence in the entire book."
As smart in it's analysis as it is engaging in it's style and painstaking in it's research, Nickelodeon City is a welcome addition to the history of early American cinema. Aronson offers a detailed and evocative picture of film culture in Pittsburgh. [It is] a richly textured account of the city that also manages to be a significant contribution to film studies.
Focusing on Pittsburgh, the legendary origin of the nickelodeon, Nickelodeon City offers an engaging, especially useful model for situating the history of exhibition and movie-going in individual towns and cities within the complex dynamics of everyday life as well as wider social and economic forces.