Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Manager and Illustrated Song Singer: Edward J. Reilly

The highest-paid employee at the Joyland, earning $22 per week, is referred to in the ledger as "Reilly." An article in the October 2, 1910, Wilmington Star helps us to identify him as Edward J. Reilly. The article reports that he is the manager of the Joyland and a performer as well: he is the illustrated song singer. "Reilly" received 16 payments, most of them on Saturdays, and most of them for the same amount: $22. His salary represents nearly 20% of the Joyland's total expenses over the fifteen weeks covered by the ledger.

Edward Reilly had been singing in storefront movie theaters in Wilmington since September 1907. A notice in the Wilmington Dispatch from September 25, 1907, says his success as an illustrated song singer at the Theatorium was "phenomenal."

However, his performing career seems to have been part-time prior to his involvement with the Joyland. Born in 1887 (and thus 23 years old in the fall of 1910), Edward J. Reilly was the son of John W. Reilly, who in the 1900 census is listed as the superintendent of the Wilmington gas works. The 1909 Wilmington City Directory lists Edward Reilly as a collector for his brother James's real estate office.

Reilly's multiple roles-as both manager and performer-at the Joyland was not unusual. Edward Huston, manager of the Majestic Theater in Wilmington in 1907, also played the cello in the theater's "orchestra." Percy Wells, co-manager with James Howard at the Bijou, also operated the projector in the early days of that theater.

It is unclear whether Reilly served as both manager and performer at the Joyland for the entirety of the period covered by the ledger. In one of its regular columns on theatrical activity in Wilmington, the Wilmington Star noted on November 13, 1910, that there was "great improvement" at the Joyland since "the change of management." If Reilly was removed as manager, however, this is not reflected in the ledger: he continues to draw his salary of $22 throughout the period covered by the ledger, and no new employee is added. Reilly's role as singer continues to be noted in newspaper coverage of the theater.

Today we are seldom aware of the person who manages the movie theaters we attend, but in 1910, particularly in small towns and cities, movie theater managers played a much more public role. Their names frequently appear in ads for their theaters, and whether or not they literally performed as a part of the program, they played a central role in representing the theater to its patrons and to the wider community.

The Joyland ledger also reflects the manager's many less visible tasks. The manager contracted with film exchanges for a regular supply of new films; rented illustrated song slides; oversaw the frequent shipment of films from and back to the exchange by rail; arranged for advertising and publicity for the theater; hired and supervised all the other employees; kept the theater's books; shaped the program (how many reels? how many songs?); fielded complaints; dealt with the local authorities regarding the full range of matters that would apply to any downtown business (taxes, garbage, security, building codes, etc.); and, perhaps most importantly, established and maintained the image of the theater as a safe and wholesome place for all ages and strata of the (white) community to spend a nickel and an hour.