Tuesday, February 14, 2017


“Take a trip through rugged Scotland,” says the sign at the entrance to the Hale’s Tour attraction. Enough to catch the attention of Sandlander, a Scot as obsessed with anything to do with railway travel as with the creation and consumption of entertainment media. Were I twenty years younger I’d be seeing in this story the germ of an entrepreneurial challenge!

At the start of the twentieth century, in 1906, a man by the name of Thomas Saxe in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, borrowed the idea of the Hale’s Touring Car for what we would now call his movie theatre. He fitted up his Theatorium as a mock railroad parlour car. The patrons sat in the coach and gazed at a sheet behind which was a crude projecting machine. This threw moving images on the back of the sheet, while a man with a hose stood by and dampened the sheet so that the pictures would show through. There was also a device operated by a lever, which caused the floor of the Theatorium to rock, thus making the audience believe they were really viewing the landscape as viewed from a moving train. There were forty seats in this static Hale’s Car, modelled on the railroad cars which toured the country offering a similarly entertaining viewing experience.

This was at a time shortly before there were about ten thousand Nickelodeons in North America. Programs lasted from twenty minutes to a full hour and usually included a ten-minute melodrama, a comedy and a travelogue. Sometimes the films were supplemented by a singer or other performer. No venue of any consequence was complete without its compère, similar to the master of ceremonies in early English variety theatres and music halls. He was an entertainer who chattered throughout each film, commenting, amplifying, adding jokes and filling in the gaps if anything was lacking in the film. Amateur Night was a regular and popular addition to the program, not only with the audiences but with the owners, since it was inexpensive. It would not be wrong to see here the earliest origins of Karaoke! The illustrated songs with the lyrics projected on slides were characteristic of the cozy Nickelodeons and contributed to the ambient sound. The patter of the compère, the thumping piano and the singing were not merely elements of the overall entertainment. The soundscape masked the noise of early film projectors and, before owners bought a second projector, bridged the pauses required for reel changes.

The Nickelodeon provided working-class entertainment. A scholar notes that: “Movie theatres were not places in which respectable people cared to be seen. Educated people still considered the movies vulgar, low-class amusements.” Very little use was made of advertising the current or coming attractions since newspapers were addressed primarily to a small middle class. And a Nickelodeon or Theatorium had little need of promotion, their patrons being regulars seeking fellowship just as much as novel entertainment.

·        Today (or tomorrow) simulated realities, deploying holograms, VR, 4K HDR and the like?
·        ‘Pop-up’ events bringing people together for positive shared experiences?
·        A Nickel then is the equivalent of an affordable $1.20 now?
·        Compelling participation opportunities, next-gen transmedia Karaoke?

And I’d find a way of getting a railway train into the mix as well!

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