How to [Not?] Enjoy the Movies in a “Beautiful New Palace of the Silent Art” – 1921
Evening Examiner, Oct. 12, 1921, p.14.
How to enjoy the movies in Peterborough – or maybe not?
In October 1921 the Evening Examiner carried an unattributed story under the headline “How to Enjoy the Movies.”
The article had no byline – standard practice in those days – and at first glance it seemed likely that the paper had picked it up “off the wire,” from some unnamed source (also standard practice).
After looking at the piece a little more closely, I am wondering whether it might actually have originated in Peterborough with the Examiner. An Internet search offers no indication that it was ever published anywhere else.
Following is the article in full.
I haven’t altered or corrected the text except to break it up into paragraphs (the whole article as printed in the paper was presented in two paragraphs).
HOW TO ENJOY THE MOVIES
You think you will drop in to the “movies” for a few minutes, and if happens to be the [theatre where] they have those luxurious wicker chairs, you choose a handy one, right near the aisle, and settle back. There is a nasty rain outside, but in here it is nice and warm and comfortable.
Presently a party of young people come in and settle directly behind you. They appear to be a great many of them. They make a loud noise and spend some time selecting seats. After two or three bumps, you sit forward until they are all settled. A cautious look around reveals that there are only four, two of each sex. One of the girls is powdering her nose and the other seems to be looking for something on the floor. She wriggles around, finally locates it, and settles down.
Then they begin in earnest. The girls read the titles aloud and make remarks about them in half-whisper. They giggle about every little while and tell all they know about the actors in various pictures. It is a good deal. The vaudeville arrives, and they recognize one of the performers as an old acquaintance who visited the town some years ago. They know a good deal about his private life and tell each other.
The young man directly behind you appears to have some difficulty with his knees. Every once in so often he changes their position and makes you get it in the back. He makes no excuse however. You look aorund [sic]. There are no other aisle seats vacant, so you resolve to endure to the bitter end.
The young fellow at the farther end is very silent. The girls decide that he has gone to sleep and start to “kid’ [sic] him. Their voices are louder now, and they giggle at every remark. Suddenly something descends upon your head. You have been contemplating the picture, and it is rather a shock. You are surprised. No excuse is made.
Then whispering ensues. Then the young man directly behind proffers some information about the dancer, but is contradicted immediately by the girl next him who says she knows all about that young lady. He subsides into a morose silence, and gives you another vicious jab in the rear with his replaced knee. You shift your chair a little. The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around and in doing so knock your elbow. No excuse is made. They arrange their two pairs of feet on the cushioned chairs, and another era of whispering, giggling, fussing, conversation starts in.
The comedy provides some situations which give them a chance to snicker. They do so. The young man re-adjusts his feet once more, and nearly capsizes your chair. No excuse is made. You move a couple of fet [sic], and quiet down a little bit. Then the girl says she wants to go and sit beside “Jack,” who is at the farther end, and the other one won’t let her. A slight scuffle ensues. The young men say nothing. You can hear him just behind re-arranging his feet once more, but this time you are out of range, so it doesn’t matter.
The feature unrolls its romantic story, and the girls whisper and giggle some more. They are talking about another girl now, and enjoying themselves immensely. Finally the hero embraces the heroine, the young man changes his position for the last time, and you all go home.
The article provides a rare and valuable look at the silent movie-going experience of the early 1920s. But I’m left wondering about the possibility of it indeed being a first-hand account of what it was like to go to a movie in Peterborough almost a hundred years ago.
In 1921 Peterborough had three movie theatres: The Allen and the Capitol, both on George Street, and the Regent on Hunter. The Grand Opera House, also on George Street, had both live performances and motion pictures.
First, I am assuming that the writer is a man, given the details presented and the circumstances (thinking nothing of venturing into a theatre alone, for one thing).
One possible clue to the origins of the piece is the reference to the theatre as a place where “they have those luxurious wicker chairs.”
Peterborough’s brand-new Capitol Theatre, which opened earlier that year, boasted of “Beautiful Gold and Blue Wicker Chairs.” (Not in itself convincing proof, because wicker chairs were common at theatres in those days, especially in boxes or loges.)
According to the story, the theatre’s program that evening included a vaudeville act. The Capitol had vaudeville acts daily during that time (which, again, doesn’t prove anything, because many theatres of the 1920s programmed both silent films and live acts).
A check of the weather conditions (he writes about “a nasty rain outside”) in the previous week or so indicates only one “showery” day, so that isn’t much help.
Perhaps stronger clues appear in the writing itself. The article is unpolished, laden with errors – it seems it was not closely edited, at least in a way that you’d expect in a widely distributed article. Among its phrases, for example, are “They appear to be a great many of them” and “they giggle about every little while.”
The typos or pitfalls of the writing are plentiful: “You look aorund” or “ . . . contradicted immediately by the girl next him” or “The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around . . .”
At one point the writer mentions, “You move a couple of [feet?], and quiet down a bit.” In the context, it is probably “they” – the youth sitting near him – who quiet down, not, as the syntax would indicate, the writer.
As the writer makes himself comfortable in his wicker chair and the group of four younger people clamber into place, a picture is on screen (“The girls read the titles aloud”). Soon, though, the vaudeville “arrives.” Shortly after that (amidst disruptions) the author is again “contemplating the picture.” Next he overhears “information about the dancer” (which would seem to refer to the vaudeville rather than a picture); but then he speaks of “the comedy” (seemingly a reference to the standard comedy short of a film program).
After that, “the feature” comes on (“The feature unrolls its romantic story . . . Finally the hero embraces the heroine”). What, then, did the earlier mention of “picture” refer to?
It all makes for a confusing flow of content.
Quite possibly, then, the article was a somewhat unprofessional (shall we say?) account of going to a movie in Peterborough rather than being a generic piece relating an experience that took place in some other unknown city.
It might simply have been an overly long letter sent to the editor as a complaint about the movie-going experience, and the paper responded by quickly printing it, more or less as is (or was).
Even if that wasn’t the case, the local editor of the Examiner thought that the event would be familiar enough to local readers to make it worth publishing.
Here are some other attractions of the previous week or so.
Note: I passed the original Examiner article on to Luke McKernan’s website “Picturegoing: Eyewitness Accounts of Viewing Pictures,” where it was posted Sept. 14, 2018. See this wonderful website at http://picturegoing.com/. McKernan commented: “This article appears in a Canadian newspaper, but may originate from another source. My thanks to Robert Clarke for bringing this piece to my attention.”
Visit McKernan’s website: http://picturegoing.com/?p=5462.