Walking East 3rd Street: The American Movies Theater

Walking East 3rd Street is a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2012 Intro to Public History course. Each pair of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of one particular block of East 3rd Street and sharing with us something fascinating they discovered along the way. All posts in the series are written by students.

The fifth post in the series, by Alyssa DesRochers, Claire Wolford and Dominique Jean-Louis, focuses on East 3rd Street between Avenues B & C.

East 3rd Street between Avenues B & C

The American Movies Theater was constructed in 1913 on East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C. It was one of many small theaters that could be found in the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, and that offered inexpensive entertainment to it’s primarily immigrant population. The building was designed and built by Louis Sheinart, a minor architect who designed many theaters in the East Side, and played a mixture of American and foreign films. Owned by the Interborough Theatrical Company, the theater was operated by Charles Steiner, who had been in the movie theater business since 1908, when he converted his father’s stables on Essex Street into a small theater.

A 1936 view of the tenement buildings across the street captured a partial image of the American Movies Theater marquee.

On April 11, 1914 Steiner put an advertisement in the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper for his new American Movies Theater. The ad said it was the “the best, richest theater on the East Side” and also highlighted some of the architectural features of the building. There was no balcony in this theater and all of the 600 seats were purportedly near exits. The roof could also be opened so it became an open air theater during the hot summer months. As a small, low priced theater, the American Movies Theater was termed a nickelodeon – a name that derived from the often only 5-cent ticket price. The first nickelodeon was built in a converted storehouse in Pittsburgh in 1905. Earlier, moving pictures were shown in temporary booths set up at fairs or in between acts in live theaters. When movies were first being made in the 1890s, live vaudeville acts were the popular form of entertainment. These variety shows featured singing, dancing, comedy skits, and other novelty acts, and eventually included short movies. In New York’s Lower East Side, the vaudeville programs were tailored to the unique community. Yiddish vaudeville presented the Eastern European Jewish immigrants with wholesome entertainment that communicated Jewish values and forms.

Charles Steiner, operator of the American Movies Theater and many other theaters in New York’s Lower East Side.

But the live theaters were expensive to operate, and therefore, charged higher prices for admission. As the movie industry grew, new technologies and business structures increased movie production and distribution, and moving pictures gained popularity. Movie theaters were able to accommodate more spectators in a day, and had fewer costs, such as paying actors and decorating sets, than live theaters. In an amusing reversal of roles, vaudeville acts were often performed between movie showings while the film reels were changed.

Theater-goers in early twentieth-century New York City.

Nickelodeons boomed during the first decade of the 20th century; in Manhattan in 1907 approximately 200 licenses were granted for small movie theaters, and they served an estimated two hundred thousand people per day. They were especially popular in the Lower East Side, where the working class immigrant population could enjoy the cheap entertainment. A Harper’s Weekly writer described the “Nickel Madness” as a “harmless diversion for the poor,” and noted that “the popularity of these cheap amusement places with the new population of New York [immigrants] is not to be wondered at” because “the imagination is appealed to directly and without any circumlocution.” At the time of the American Movies Theater’s opening, this zenith of Jewish cultural influence and heightened immigration from Eastern Europe gives us an additional context with which to understand the “nickel madness.” The American Movies Theater specialized in Yiddish-language silent films which often presented a biblical storyline re-purposed into the silent-film aesthetic.

Judith of Bethulia (1914) played at American Movies Theater during its first year of operation.

These Yiddish silent films often showcased the vampy, glamorous aesthetic of early silent film, but they also illustrate the role of women in Jewish movies. Vassar professor Peter Antelyes posits that the representation of the Jewish woman, especially in a diversifying urban world, formed a central concern of Yiddish vaudeville and nickelodeons. The Jewish woman embodied “the anxieties and ambivalences attending assimilation in all its aspects, from the preservation of community to the allocations of authority over issues of gender.” The films shown at the

American Movies Theater thus preserved old cultural norms while embracing new cultural forms, communicating messages about cultural identity, both in the faces on the screen and those surrounding them in the darkened room.

The American Movies Theater building today.

In 2005, a website called Cinema Tresures created a post about the theater. Shortly after, dozens of commenters who had grown up nearby began to publish their memories regarding the theater, with additional input from hobby historians and scholars. This page functions as a 21st century epilogue to the story of how a movie theater creates, reinforces, and complicates community and memory, showing us that although the screen may no longer be silver, the show goes on.


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