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America’s Early Movie Theater Alternatives

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07.06.2020
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This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today.

As much as we would love to be sitting in a dark theater eating buttery popcorn and watching thirty minutes of trailers, that’s just not possible right now. Sometimes it feels like we will never experience movies the same way again, but people have always found other ways to watch them. To understand how we will continue to adapt to watch movies in the future, we need to take a step back in time.

Before cinemas were designed to be the best possible way to experience movies, we viewed moving images in a variety of ways. At first, innovators showed their motion pictures in temporary theaters that could be packed up and moved on to the next fair or exposition. In 1895, Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat made a public screening at the Cotton States and International Exposition to show off Jenkins’ movie projector, the Phantoscope. Jenkins and Armat showed their short silent films among other exhibits of technological advancements in machinery, agriculture, and more.

There were also ways to watch early forms of cinema without being part of an audience. The “peep show” machines were designed for a single person to view movies. Mutoscopes were typically placed at arcades or piers where people would insert a coin to watch a series of photographs flipped in succession to create a moving image. As the “peep show” name suggests, these machines included programs that showed risque images of women, but there were also special versions of theatrical films, including those starring Charlie Chaplin, available following their initial release.

Watching with an audience was more popular, yet most early films were screened in buildings intended for other purposes, such as vaudeville theaters. They needed to accommodate both screenings and live performances, which didn’t allow for as many screenings as a designated movie theater would. Soon people began converting old spaces into places to watch movies all the time. The........

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