"Like nickels in a slot": Children of the American working classes at the neighborhood movie house
This essay presents an ethnohistorical (1) account of the social conditions of children's moviegoing during the late 1920s and early 1930s at the Strand theater in Springfield, Massachusetts. (2) The focus is placed specifically on a neighborhood theater and on this historical moment, because this field of space and time provides fertile ground in which to sift for traces of American working-class culture and subjectivity as these continued to form and reform in relation to both the ideology of Hollywood films and the stratified social geography of the local urban landscape.
The reproduction of cultural practices and subjectivities is neither predetermined in the individual nor guaranteed. Rather, as Roy Rosenzweig concluded in his pioneering study of working-class leisure in Worcester, Massachusetts, cultural transformation is an ongoing relational process of socialization that is subject to both intraclass and interclass contestation and marked by an historically specific dialectic of continuity and change across generations (215-21). (3) As the experience of family is crucial to this process, I am particularly interested to excavate the cultural space of the Strand as it was inhabited by youth and used by parents in ways that were in keeping with a distinctively community-based, working-class tradition of childhood and family organization. At the same time, this mode of social organization was being subject to cultural interventions launched by elite groups from outside the neighborhood through such means as the attempt to create "family nights" at the Strand.
Scholarship on American film exhibition and moviegoing sometimes figures the late 1920s and early 1930s as a period of standardization based upon the model of studio-integrated movie palaces in large, northeastern cities and the vision of a sweeping middle-class audience. (4) However, the generalizability of the picture palace experience to moviegoing in any given northeastern city, let alone to other cities in the Northeast or beyond, is questionable. Gregory Waller, for instance, has observed that this viewpoint can be sustained only if we accept that moviegoing during this period was largely an urban phenomenon and that "the experience of audiences in a relatively small number of opulent theaters was representative of moviegoing throughout the 'urban centers' of the Northeast, which, in turn, was somehow comparable to the experience of going to the movies in the rest of urban ... America" (195).
My interest in this study is precisely with the smaller theaters that persevered--at great difficulty, to be sure, given the constraints imposed by their "subsequent-run" status--in the marginal spaces beyond the palaces, (5) An important point, yet one easily overshadowed by the crush of centralization marking the film industry during this era, is that although studio integration established Hollywood's dominance over local exhibition, it did so not by eradicating differences between sites but by advancing what was already shaping up, according to Robert Sklar, as "a class system for motion picture theaters. Its categories ranged from the handsome new palaces down through older, downtown, neighborhood and small-town theaters" (144-45). (6) Or as Miriam Hansen has observed, picture palaces became highly...