Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Pianist?: Dessie Jones

The highest paid female employee at the Joyland-at $9.00 per week-is named in the ledger as Dessie Jones. Although her role is not indicated in the ledger, it is likely that she was a pianist. Dessie Jones's distinctive given name makes her easier to find in the 1910 census than many other "Joneses." She appears in the 1910 census, living with her parents and siblings at 113 Wright Street. Her father, Lee Jones, is listed as "laborer-odd jobs." Dessie Jones was only thirteen years old in 1910, which helps to explain why her name does not appear in city directories at that time. Her family's connection with the movie business and with the Joyland appears in the 1911 Wilmington City Directory, where her father is listed as an "electrician" (projectionist) at the Airdome. Joyland founding manager Frank Peiffer left the Joyland to open the Airdome, an outdoor theater on Front Street in 1911.

Thirteen might seem an early age for anyone, particularly a young woman, to be a salaried employee at a movie theater in 1910. However, tens of thousands of young women under the age of sixteen were wage earners in North Carolina in 1910. Many young people ended their schooling at age 12. The state's burgeoning textile industry relied upon the labor of young women. A thirteen-year-old spinner (almost all spinners were young women) in Wilmington's Delgado mill could expect to earn between $4.00 and $6.00 in 1910.

Pianos were the MP3 players of turn-of-the-century America. Millions of American homes had a piano in the parlor (if a family could not afford to buy one, a piano could be rented), and at least one family member-usually female-was encouraged to learn to play. Families spent hours each week playing, listening to, and singing along with popular songs rendered on the piano. Sheet music, sold in dime stores and department stores, circulated the latest tunes, and their covers advertised the performers who sang them in vaudeville theaters or on Broadway at a time before their voices were widely heard on photograph records. Thus, every town had quite a few young women who could play the piano well and accompany singers.

The piano was the most common instrument in early movie theaters. Even the roughest and most simply repurposed storefront theater had a piano and hired someone to play it, at least between reels. The films shown in movie theaters until the late 1920s were silent, and we now think of the movie pianist's job as providing musical accompaniment for each film as it was shown. However, it is unclear whether this was yet standard practice in 1910 (in Wilmington, at least) or if the piano was used principally to accompany illustrated song singers while the one-reel films were being rewound. Robert Headley's chronicle of early exhibition in Baltimore cites a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun in 1910 that complained about piano accompaniment to films shown in theaters there, while acknowledging the role of young women in early movie performance: "The pianos in these places are always lusty instruments, sharp and strident in tone, with so soft pedals in their mechanism apparently. The performers are always young girls of quite astonishing vigor and endurance." (Quoted in: Headley 2006, p. 33)