100 years ago

As promised, the Bioscope is starting up a new occasional series, to be called 100 Years Ago, which will reproduce texts from the original British film trade journal The Bioscope, from exactly 100 years ago.

The Bioscope included reports on film and film exhibition around the world, and this piece reported on a strike of nickelodeon projectionists and singers (songs were a common part of early cinema shows) in Chicago.

Artistes and Operators Strike

A somewhat humourous situation recently arose in Chicago, where the ladies and gentlemen who warble such sweet music at the five-cent picture shows joined forces with the bioscope operators and “struck.” There are now over 400 picture shows, employing about 900 people, and they have formed an Operators’ Union. The strikers complain that some of them have been forced to work twelve hours a day. One of the leaders say [sic] “I have known several instances where they did not have time to stop for their meals. I saw a performer bite into a sandwich, leave it on a chair until his act was done, and then finish it.

“If we cannot secure eight-hour days and the pay we ask, this army of employees will stand at the doors of these amusement places Monday and persuade patrons not to enter until the union demands are met.”

On the following Monday, Miss Leonora Drake stood in front of a five-cent theatre on the West Side, and warbled the latest illustrated song. Actors and actresses stop [sic] beside her, and when the crowd paused to listen they called out to them:

“Stay where you are. Don’t go in that theatre. It’s unfair. We’re on a strike, and if you’re with us stay on the outside. She’ll sing. Don’t you think that’s worth a decent salary?”

And while Leonora sang, theatre patrons stood outside and listened.

All over the city striking five-cent theatre artists adopted similar tactics to compel theatre owners to agree to union demands. Vaudeville performers did their turns for nothing out in the middle of the street; teams danced and sang, and moving picture operators, with no machines to operate, explained to the crowds what the strike was for, and declared that five-cent theatre artists were being driven like slaves for the entertainment of the public.

Latest advices [sic] from the scene of war do not tell us if the strike is ended yet.

The Bioscope, 16 October 1908, p. 17

I don’t know what happened to the strike, but on leisure (including cinema) and the eight hours in the day rallying call of American workers at this time, see Roy Rosenzweig’s classic Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and leisure in an industrial city, 1870-1920 (Cambridge university Press, 1983).

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