Film History: Lights, Camera, Austin!

Film History: Lights, Camera, Austin!

Friday, October 13, 2017

By Susan Rittereiser

October is the watershed month when it comes to Austin film history. Motion pictures made their debut in the sleepy little Texas capitol back on October 10, 1896, at the Hancock Opera House, located at 112-14 West 6th Street. The Hancock began showing movies as part of its regular billing in 1910 and was the first theater to permanently install a movie projector. This image shows the Hancock around 1900.

Live performances and vaudeville, however, still ruled as the entertainment kings amongst the general public. The Hancock offered a mix of live and film entertainment, with movies Wednesdays-Saturdays, and vaudeville and other live performances all other times. Movies were nicknamed “chasers” back then because they were often used in between live performances to usher or “chase” the audience out of the theater in order to get the theater ready for the next performance. On September 17, 1913, the Austin Democratic Statesman advertised the first “talkie” in Austin, calling it the “perfect synchronization of voice and action.” These pictures were relatively short and sweet, a few minutes in length at most. Neither the Democratic Statesman nor the Austin American-Statesman even mention a title (if there was one) for this first talking marvel.

The popularity of projected motion pictures for entertainment soon gave rise to the nickelodeon (from the word nickel plus “odeon,” the Greek word for theater), a multi-purpose theater that charged a nickel for admission and featured other forms of entertainment as well, such as lectures, illustrated songs and slide shows. By 1908, there were ten thousand nickelodeons operating in the United States. Studios could barely keep up with the public appetite for new films. Small theater ventures took over storefronts along Congress and Sixth streets offering Austinites a chance to see films. Storefront theaters usually consisted of a few rented or borrowed chairs, a white sheet hung along one wall, and a hand-cranked projector on a table. Nickelodeons ran much like the storefronts, but showed movies 7 days a week, usually more than 10 shows a day. They were often billed as ”family-friendly” attractions, with some advertisements encouraging parents to send children to the theaters alone as management would “pay close attention to the little ones.” Nickelodeons usually made use of existing buildings and storefronts to show movies.

Nickelodeons started giving way to “movie houses” with the advent of full-length narrative films, whose length required more comfortable settings than could usually be found in the small nickelodeon theater. D. W. Griffith’s notorious The Birth of a Nation helped usher in this change. Films were no longer “nickel” affairs, but billed to a richer clientele, with Griffith’s film showing at the Hancock, ironically, on Halloween, October 31, 1915 for a whopping $2.00 admission fee. As the film industry became a legitimate entertainment source for consumers, architects began designing “movie palaces” to maximize the movie going experience. Some were still designed to be multipurpose, perhaps out of fear that movies would not completely replace live theater as the preferred entertainment.

C06326 Exterior view of the Paramount movie theater, then known as the Majestic.

Now known as the Paramount Theater and still in use today, Austin’s first movie palace was called “The Majestic.” It had its grand opening on October 11, 1915, with a standing-room-only crowd for the comedy play When Knights Were Bold. Most tickets sold for 25 cents each. That night, prolific theater designer John Eberson, known as “Opera House John,” proclaimed his creation to be “one of the best theaters in the country.” (C062326.)

C02673 Interior view of the Majestic theater looking at the stage from the balcony.

Located in the heart of downtown at 713 Congress Avenue, it was built in just eight months by Austinite Ernest Nalle at a cost of $150,000 (that’s about $3.5 million dollars today!). The neoclassical-styled Majestic boasted an in-house Estey pipe organ and a lavish interior with 1,316 seats. As can be seen here, the stage and movie screen were handsomely framed by an ornate proscenium arch. Still in use today is the theater’s original “hemp house” system of ropes, pulleys and sandbags which are used to “fly” scenery on and off the stage, as well as the hand-painted landscape fire curtain (not shown). Discovered in the mid-1970s hanging from the rafters in near perfect condition, the fire curtain is considered one of the oldest remaining curtains in the country. (C02673.)