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  • Prosceniums and Screens:Audience Embodiment into the Digital Age
  • Becky Becker (bio)

In The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990, Richard Butsch chronicles the history of audience development in the U.S. as it transitioned away from live theatre to film and television. According to Butsch, theatre owners in the early twentieth century "worried that people were leaving drama theater for the movies. The galleries were empty, they said, because the boys who had formerly sat there now frequented the movies."1 Oh, how times do not change. But what is it about film that threatened to draw those early twentieth-century audiences away, well before the current conundrum of stadium seating, CGI, bigger and better 3D, and, perhaps even more aggravatingly convenient, streaming video? More fundamentally, what is it about the human brain, social conditioning, and human social interactions that have drawn such huge audiences to film since its inception? Is it merely the result of a more technologically focused society? Is it primarily the economics of film versus the economics of theatre? Or is it something to do with human embodiment and our conditioning over time?

Looking back on the critical moment of film's introduction to the spectrum of entertainments offered in American culture during the early 1900s, it would seem that class and convenience did play a large role in film's popularity over live theatre. As Butsch points out, "when people could not afford a theater or vaudeville ticket they could still muster a nickel for the movies. In the 1907-1908 recession many theaters closed but nickelodeons were booming. Lippincott's magazine said that the movies caused decreases in box office at legitimate and vaudeville theaters and disbanding of theater companies."2 [End Page 30]

Similarly, Robert Sklar asserts that movies "rose to the surface of cultural consciousness from the bottom up, receiving their principal support from the lowest and most invisible classes in American society."3 Even when times were good, immigrant working-class audiences saved their nickels for the community store-front movie houses, while middle-and upper-class audiences came to enjoy the finely decorated, comfortable theatre houses bought or built for the moving picture shows.

In an ongoing effort to draw the middle class to the movies, producers incorporated strategies that tended to alienate working-class audiences. Producers publicized their efforts at reforming the cruder aspects of nickelodeon culture—disreputable content and the potential for lewd or rowdy conduct—in favor of family entertainment.4 The change that seems to have had the greatest impact, however, was the movie theatre venue itself, as movie palaces of the 1910s and 1920s began to take the place of more community-oriented locales. In Butsch's estimation, "the essence of the picture palace was luxury at moderate prices, more expensive than the nickelodeon or the neighborhood house but less than big-time vaudeville or legitimate drama theaters. . . . It lured, then awed and silenced the audience. It shifted the predominant class of the movie house audience and changed the relationship of working-class patrons to the theater. While the middle class may have been attracted by the luxury they aspired to, working-class people felt out of place."5 Essentially, the feature that drew upwardly mobile audiences into the movie palaces—plush surroundings and comfort—pushed working-class audiences away. Aside from affordability, the working-class attraction to movie theatres as "centers of communication and cultural diffusion" was trumped by the ideals of high culture and proper audience etiquette.6

Arguably, drama critics and producers of live theatre in the early twentieth century contributed to the situation with their laissez-faire attitude toward lowbrow theatrical forms such as melodrama. While their intent may have been to "strengthen" live theatre through selectivity, the result was quite the opposite, as Butsch remarks, "the growth of upscale movie theaters unnerved supporters of drama, who feared further loss of drama patrons to these luxury houses. Drama critics showed little concern for the cheap melodrama theaters closed by competition from nickelodeons; these had tainted the image of drama. With their demise, drama could more readily claim a place in high culture."7 In essence, elitist...


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pp. 30-38
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