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The first cinema: A personal essay

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AUGUST 26, 2023

The night of our fifteenth trip to the movie theaters this summer, with the car recovering from the rattle of the drive, you asked me one of those questions you tend to ask. “What was it like for the people who went to the first movie theater?” The bright red AMC lights beamed through the car’s dirty windows. In the comfort of our vacation’s routine, we were far from that answer. There have been countless showings since our first movie theater; 118 years since the world’s.

Your answer lies in the summer of 1905 — when people’s fantasies turned black and white. The first cinema opened on the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was a small storefront with colorful posters and a sign of glittering lightbulbs forming the site’s name. Nickelodeon: a title stemming from the Greek word for theater paired with the 5-cent price of admission.

On the theater’s first day of business, there were 450 tickets sold. The next day — 1,500. How much would you bet that there was a couple just like us among those ticket holders? Two similar people in the swarms of curious moviegoers. From 8 a.m. to midnight — those long business hours — there must have been crowds full of women’s long dresses and men’s fitted suits, everyone there to experience the origins of the movie theater industry. The very first site of your favorite event.

Almost exactly 118 years after those opening days, we would find ourselves among our own swarm. On the weekend of July 21st, the double feature of Barbie and Oppenheimer was projected before the masses for the first time. Pink shoes skirted across the popcorn-littered carpets, and we arrived there in the outfits we had prepared weeks in advance. The sun was still bright; the auditoriums completely dark. And as the sky turned navy, we returned to the same site dressed in some distant version of what we would’ve worn to the Nickelodeon.

My black dress and collared shirt, paired with your fitted suit and gray coat. You held a cigarette prop — never to be lit — between your lips as our camera’s lightbulb winked once, twice, four times. Still images kept for our books.

At the Nickelodeon, there were 96 seats in one room. It’s unclear which movie was first shown, but it was either “The Baffled Burglar” or “The Great Train Robbery.” Whichever it was, the movie became massively popular. The audience watched the short silent film — no more than twenty minutes in length — projected onto a large white sheet. Often, a pianist would be in the room, playing music to lance the silence, adding depth and tension to the images on screen.

What would it have been like to be in a dark room with strangers for the first time — not to watch others but to watch something entirely inanimate, entirely novel? What would it have been like to emerge from that room and be engulfed in the deafening sound of people discussing their experience, yearning to feel it again?

What would it have been like to be in a dark room with strangers for the first time — not to watch others but to watch something entirely inanimate, entirely novel?

It might’ve been like when we went to our first cinema — two summers ago. We carried ourselves and a friend there on the basis of a joke, and we conveniently sat next to each other in that back row, in that vast darkness. And we talked about the experience for days. 

And then we would go again. And then we would drown ourselves in each others’ thoughts and perspectives, and then we would go again.

Following the success of the first, thousands of Nickelodeons would appear all over the country, but the film industry was developing faster than the small storefronts could withstand. The original cinema was demolished only five years after opening, replaced by a larger one — the likes of which we visit today. The other Nickelodeons, one by one, would eventually die out by 1915.

What an experience it would have been, to have been there with you. But in our summer of movies, you immortalize our interest and yearning. You never stop asking those kinds of questions you tend to ask — even as the seasons change.

So as the sky grows navy quicker, use the winter darkness as our cinema. Keep thinking and keep questioning and keep talking about the best and the worst of movies, and picture me in your left seat for it all.

Contact Logan Roscoe at 


AUGUST 26, 2023