Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Before I see a movie it is necessary for me to learn something about the theater or the people who operate it, to touch base before going inside… If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.

Why a Digital Library Devoted to Moviegoing?

In the years from 1896 to 1930, going to the picture show became an established feature of everyday life in thousands of communities across the country. Most Americans still lived on farms or in small towns, and movie theaters were frequently the first and were often the only places in a given town in which commercial entertainment was presented on a regular basis. Their centrality made theaters key contact zones, where nationally circulated popular culture was received and situated within local norms, traditions, and contexts. In many small towns, the local Bijou or Regal was the largest and most frequently visited public space that wasn't a church or a synagogue. In most American towns and cities for most of the 20th century, movie theaters were located at the heart of commercial, civic, and social life, and for most white Americans, moviegoing was inextricably linked to the experience of going to town. But movie theaters were also socially contested spaces, especially in the South. The complex of racial segregation and exclusionary law, custom, and practice known as "Jim Crow" determined the experience of and access to movies and movie theaters for all Southerners- white, black, and American Indian- until the 1960s.

Until the advent of the videocassette player in the 1970s and the relocation of movie viewing from movie theater to living room, watching a movie necessarily entailed "going to the show": making the decision to travel, whether around the corner every week or twenty miles into town twice a year. Moviegoing was inherently a social experience, repeated more than a billion times in as yet uncounted places across the country. The act of moviegoing did not just mean watching a particular movie. It was going out, meeting friends, holding hands, booing villains, eating popcorn, and gathering afterwards in the soda shop. In many places where movies were shown, movies were not the only or even the primary attraction. Live music, variety acts, travel lectures, war bond rallies, revival sermons, turkey raffles, and the running commentary of the person sitting behind or beside you might be part of the show. For African Americans, and particularly in the South, moviegoing also meant being turned away from the box office of "white" theaters, climbing outside stairs to the balcony "reserved" for black moviegoers, being allowed to enter a white theater only late on Friday nights after the last showing for white audiences, and/or going to an African American theater.

Many theaters changed their programs twice or three times each week, and in small towns, once a movie's run ended, it might never be played in that town again. In the 1920s, most of the approximately 25,000 commercial movie theaters in the U.S. were in small towns, and many small towns had but one theater. Going to the show meant going to see whatever entertainment your local theater manager offered, not choosing to see a particular film. Most people's memories of moviegoing endure much longer than their memories of what happened in any particular film they might have seen. And, as Walker Percy's narrator in The Moviegoer suggests, memories of particular films often are inseparable from memories of the circumstances under which that film was experienced.

Going to the Show comprises a searchable database of more than 1200 movie exhibition sites in some 200 North Carolina communities; a collection of contemporaneous artifacts (newspaper ads and articles, photographs, postcards, city directories) illuminating the experience of early moviegoing in N.C.; more than 750 digitized Sanborn® Fire Insurance Map pages reflecting the central business districts of 47 towns and cities between 1896 and 1922; and an interpretive case study of early moviegoing and urban life in Wilmington. It is the first digital library to document and represent the experience of early moviegoing for an entire state, and the first to use film history and the history of moviegoing to illuminate the role of Jim Crow race policies in the urban South.