The new movie theaters in Bangor and other cities across the nation became one of the great democratic institutions a century ago. Almost anyone could afford the nickel admission. A fellow with a nickel, perhaps a shoe shine boy, could find himself sitting next to the man whose shoes he had shined that morning. But he had to know how to act. No hissing, spitting, or wearing big hats. And be careful of that sneezing powder.
By the summer of 1908, Bangor’ s first full-time movie theater, The Nickel, was only a year old. A competitor, The Gem, had existed for just a few months. Thousands flocked to see the flickering films and to sing along with the illustrated songs. A whole new class of people including farmhands and shop girls as well as the impoverished inhabitants of Hancock Street and what remained of the Devil’ s Half Acre turned out. They were people who were rarely, if ever, seen at the Bangor Opera House, where the fare — plays, polite vaudeville and an occasional movie of import — was more sophisticated and expensive.
Theater etiquette — how to behave in a movie house — became an important subject. At The Nickel, Manager James P. Forrest and his staff of stern, but polite ushers made sure customers behaved.
Right from the start, it was announced the ladies’ room would be staffed by a matron and no suspicious males would be allowed to loiter around the premises. The Nickel would be safe and clean.
But its democratic character was made clear as well. Reserved seats were abolished in March. About 200 seats in the center of the theater, among the choicest in the house, had been available for reservation, the Bangor Daily News said on March 7, 1908. In the future a nickel would buy you any seat, and it was first come, first served.
Big hats came off as well early on. Ladies of distinction still wore extravagant headgear decorated with flowers and feathers and so forth. Sitting behind one of these damsels was quite a disappointment for the average 10-year old. “Beginning Monday afternoon, all ladies who patronize the Nickel Theater will be required to remove their hats. Doubtless the majority will be very glad to do so,” the newspaper announced on May 1. The story didn’ t tell whether men had to take off their hats.
The battle against vulgar and disruptive patrons began around this time as well. Two Bangor “boys,” Roscoe Flagg and Fred A. Milton, were arrested in April and charged with malicious mischief for scattering sneezing powder around The Nickel.
“The sneeze powder nuisance has recently become very pronounced in the public places of Bangor and the managers of the theaters have been very anxious to stop the practice …,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 17. “The powder is very obnoxious to say the least … Besides being unpleasant it is claimed that the powder is harmful especially to people of delicate health and nasal trouble. Two men in Portland, who were recently arrested for this same charge, were given six months in jail.”
Spitting in public places was another nasty habit to be quashed. In April, the Bangor City Council passed an ordinance. In June the first arrest occurred at The Nickel. Whitfield Gilbert was apprehended by the janitor, who was also a special policeman.
“A few more arrests, members of the police force say, would do much to break up a nuisance which has become disgustingly prevalent mostly on the streets although public buildings have suffered,” commented the Bangor Daily News on June 25. Fear of the spread of tuberculosis contributed to bans on spitting, as well as the revolting nature of the practice.
The Nickel struck another blow for civility late in July when Patrolman O’ Donahue “unceremoniously yanked from his seat” a man who was hissing one of the songs being performed by a local singer between movies.
Apparently, the unnamed individual was let off with a reprimand. “I don’ t know what made me do it. I liked the song all right,” the offender told someone who told the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 2.
Manager Forrest said hissers would be severely punished in the future. “I have been advised by an attorney, and I know my rights in this matter,” he told the reporter. “Hissing comes under the head of creating a disturbance in a public place, and there is a legal penalty. The next time a person is caught doing so he will be imprisoned and I shall prefer charges.”
What about the First Amendment right of freedom of expression? Nobody cared. In such manner were Bangor boys taught civil behavior in public places a century ago.
Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.