How Cinemas Taught Early Movie-Goers the Rules & Etiquette for Watching Films (1912): No Whistling, Standing or Wearing Big Hats

I admit, I some­times pay a pre­mi­um at a cer­tain din­ner the­ater chain with a lob­by-slash-bar designed to look like clas­sic indie video stores of yore. It’s not only the padded reclin­ers and half-decent grub that keeps me com­ing back. Nope, it’s the rules. Print­ed on the menu are a list of dis­rup­tive behav­iors that will get you uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly tossed out—no refunds and no back­sies.

I’ve nev­er seen it hap­pen. Giv­en what peo­ple put down for tick­ets, din­ner, drinks, and/or a babysit­ter, it’s unlike­ly many risk blow­ing the evening. But know­ing that the the­ater takes silence seri­ous­ly brings seri­ous movie­go­ers peace of mind. What is a movie, after all, with­out the all-impor­tant dia­logue, music, and sound cues?

Well, it’s silent film. And even then, when movies were sound-tracked with live accom­pa­ni­ment and dia­logue appeared on title cards, peo­ple wor­ried very much about dis­trac­tions. It just so hap­pens that talk­ing and tex­ting (obvi­ous­ly) were the least of ear­ly audience’s con­cerns.

For one thing, the cin­e­ma was a place where class­es, races, sex­es, and ages “mixed much more freely than had been Vic­to­ri­an cus­tom,” notes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate. There were the usu­al con­cerns about cor­rup­tion of the “del­i­cate sen­si­bil­i­ties” of ladies.

“But female cin­e­ma-goers were just as like­ly to be seen as a prob­lem,” writes Onion, “giv­en their sup­posed propen­si­ty for wear­ing big hats and chat­ting.” The melt­ing pot demo­graph­ic of the nick­elodeon could be exhil­a­rat­ing, and audi­ence mem­bers found they some­times lost their inhi­bi­tions. “Some­how you enter into the spirt of the thing,” observed author W.W. Win­ters in 1910. “Don’t you slip away from your­self, lose your ret­i­cence, reserve, pride, and a few oth­er things?”

These days we’re accus­tomed to cram­ming in elbow-to-elbow next to any­one and every­one, and we most­ly heed the onscreen cajol­ing to put our phones away and keep qui­et, even when we aren’t quar­an­tined in spe­cial­ty bou­tique chains or local art­house the­aters. Then again, if cer­tain behav­iors weren’t an issue, there wouldn’t be ads pro­hibit­ing them.

Enor­mous hats and applause (and applause with things oth­er than hands) may be relics of cinema’s infan­cy. But swap out those admo­ni­tions for oth­ers of the smart­phone vari­ety and these lantern slides instruct­ing view­ers in 1912 about prop­er movie the­ater eti­quette don’t look so dif­fer­ent from today… sort of.

We might want for inter­mis­sions to return, espe­cial­ly after the two-hour mark, and wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of keep­ing us in our seats for post-cred­it scenes, big block­buster movies just said “Good Night”? See more of these delight­ful pub­lic ser­vice announce­ments from 1912 nick­elodeons at Back Sto­ry Radio.

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Cre­at­ing Spe­cial Effects in Silent Movies: Inge­nu­ity Before the Age of CGI

Enjoy the Great­est Silent Films Ever Made in Our Col­lec­tion of 101 Free Silent Films Online

The Char­lie Chap­lin Archive Opens, Putting Online 30,000 Pho­tos & Doc­u­ments from the Life of the Icon­ic Film Star

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • WDS says:

    From ’68-’70 I worked for a small the­ater chain in Mis­soula Mt. The own­er of the chain — ALWAYS had an inter­mis­sion in a block­buster type film over 90 min­utes. At that time, if it was a new film, they were lucky if they got 10% of the box-office the first week … and he more than made up for it with inter­mis­sion snack return. Accord­ing to him the only time he did­n’t was after he start­ed play­ing the film “Wait Until Dark”. The scene where the per­son you thought was dead jumps out from behind the couch, made him take the inter­mis­sion out and actu­al­ly close con­ces­sions five min­utes before show time …LOL I guess the main floor clean-up from what was tossed from the bal­cony at that moment was a bit much for him to pay for … LOL

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.