Wilton, Milford played roles in movie history
Movies have been a big part of American culture for more than 100 years.
At one time, almost every town had a theater, or at least a place where movies could be shown.
Jeffrey Klenotic, associate professor and director of communicative art at the University of New Hampshire, has been studying the neighborhood theater for 15 years. He recently presented his program "A Theater Near You" at the Wilton Public & Gregg Free Library.
Klenotic said his interest is in how the neighborhood theater was integrated into cities – but it is more about the people who went to them.
In recalling their childhoods, he said, "People almost never remember the movie or who was in it, but they had memories of the theater."
His project is to map all of the theaters in the state up to World War II, including those at town halls and Grange halls. He still has a few of the smaller towns to go.
"Thomas Edison is responsible for it," he said of movies, by inventing what he called the kinetoscope – an individual viewer inside a box – in 1894. "But Edison was wrong about the 20th century."
Klenotic said Edison saw movies as home entertainment.
"The kinetoscope would do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear," Klenotic said.
Sometimes called "automotive vaudeville," movies were shown at Canobie Lake Park in 1896. There were about 160 showmen traveling across northern New England who followed the routes of circuses, lecturers and politicians. Shows were presented in multipurpose venues, Klenotic said.
Two of the earliest venues were the Town Hall in Wilton and Eagle Hall in Milford, both of which had programs in the late 1890s.
One of the first real theaters opened in Hillsboro in 1905, a nickelodeon.
"By the 1930s, they were all over the country," Klenotic said.
Wilton was one of the first in the state to show "talkies," beginning in 1913. One advertising gimmick, Klenotic said, "was giving away live turkeys (in a drawing). Later, they gave away $5 bills."
Although earlier there were "talking pictures" at the town hall, "most people preferred the silent," Klenotic said.
In 1914, Wilton had a second theater, on the second floor of Proctor’s Store, where the Post Office is now. It existed until the 1920s, advertising "pictures up to the minute."
Charles Sawyer, of Greenville, was the projectionist. He later opened his own theater.
The Star Theatre on Middle Street in Milford was another early venue. The proprietor was May Richardson, who started the theater in 1912.
"About 10 percent of theater operators were women," Klenotic said.
One of the earliest, and most controversial, films of 1916 was the three-hour "Birth of a Nation." Its first New Hampshire showing was in Wilton. Taxi and train runs were provided for Milford residents.
"But movie theaters had a bad reputation," Klenotic said, "morally questionable, and the industry had to create a safe environment for women. Men were encouraged to not smoke or use profane language."
The transition to sound in the 1930s gave rise to the movie star industry requiring longer films.
Movie theaters were everywhere, reaching a high point in the mid-1940s. There were five theaters on Manchester’s Hanover Street and three on Main Street in Nashua.
"Movies helped people survive the Depression," Klenotic said. But after World War II, he said there was "the advent of television and suburbanization, and people were more inclined to stay home."
Audience members recalled the theaters they had attended, ate popcorn and talked about the ’50s.
Many of Klenotic’s slides were of advertisements from The Cabinet. Others were taken from old postcards. For more information, email jeffklenotic@ mappingmovies.com.