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People Longing for Movie Theaters During the 1918 Flu Pandemic Feels Very Familiar in 2021

9 minute read

After being closed for almost exactly a year, New York City plans to partially reopen movie theaters on Mar. 5. While many questions remain as theaters slowly reopen across the county, one thing is certain: people have missed going to the movies in the past year as much as they did during the 1918 pandemic.

Newspaper articles in the digital archive of the Influenza Encyclopedia, produced by the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, reported elation about the reopening of theaters. Back then, if people weren’t watching movies in theaters, they weren’t watching them at all. Unlike film buffs in the early 20th century, most people in the COVID-19 pandemic have been able to watch movies the entire time, streaming them from home or even going to outdoor screenings. But just like today, there was trepidation about heading back to an enclosed theater, along with great excitement about seeing movies again.

From around 1905 and 1908, movies became the premiere form of entertainment for the masses. Dubbed the nickelodeon era because films usually cost a nickel, theaters ranged from a storefront to setting up chairs and a projector and a screen. Filmmaking itself was also more diverse, where virtually anyone with a camera and a couple of actors could make a movie, according to William J. Mann, author of 2014 book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.

But from 1908 to 1917, movie palaces noted for their gilded and red velvet interiors opened to cater to a more affluent clientele, and the studio system started to emerge.

“1918 to 1920 is a turning point for the industry,” says Mann. “There was already a move within the industry to consolidate and create a more structured production system and more efficient distribution and exhibition system, and the fact that the pandemic happened in the midst of that made those changes even more profound. Movies had been just novelties in 1910, but by 1918, they’re huge moneymakers, a vital part of the economy.”

As the deadliest wave of the 1918 flu pandemic hit in early fall on the East Coast, movie theaters closed for several weeks, and as the virus made its way West, pictures houses in those regions shut-down too.

On Oct. 9, 1918, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry announced it would stop sending new releases to America’s 17,500 movie theaters from Oct. 13 to Nov. 9 until “the grip crisis” has “subsided”—a move that impacted more than a million employees, the New York American reported. About 60% of film production in California came to a halt. The movie industry worried it was “the beginning of the end,” Benjamin Hampton wrote in his 1931 A History of the Movies, and filmmaker and writer Lewis Jacobs said insiders feared “seemingly imminent ruin” in his 1939 The Rise of the American Film.

About a week after the Chicago health department closed picture houses, an editorial headlined “We Miss Our Movies” ran in the Oct. 22, 1918, edition of the Chicago Herald And Examiner:

Until the grip closed the movies, few persons of whatever age realized how important the pictures had become in their lives. In a few years, and so gradually as to be almost imperceptible, the custom of watching them has grown upon individuals of all mentalities to a greater extent than they realized until they suddenly were deprived of them.

Who would attempt to calculate the volume of light that has been shed upon humanity by the spinning film! ‘An hour to kill’ no longer exists in the scheme of things…

Before the ‘flu’ arrived some of us may have felt of the motion picture that we could ‘take it or leave it alone.’ Our belief is slipping…

Just like during the COVID-19 pandemic, people in the early 20th century found a variety of ways to still watch movies.

The Atlanta Constitution reported that people applauded Charlie Chaplin’s face as it was projected onto a large screen outdoors. In Nashville, prominent businessman Tony Sudekum introduced a mobile movie projector, mounting a moving picture machine onto a three-ton white truck, decking it out with Liberty Loan posters and hit the road to show patriotic films. One of his teammates on this venture boasted that the “moving movie getup” could have “the whole shootin’-match rigged up into the ding-bustedest traveling circus that ever bit the sawdust trail, by heck.”

Not all movie theaters closed, however. In Michigan and New York City, some were enlisted to fight the epidemic. A speaker would explain how influenza spreads and the dangers of the virus, and then show educational slides on good hygiene practices. “The moving-picture theatre was of great assistance to the Department of Health in furthering the work of public health education during the epidemic,” New York City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland wrote in a Dec. 17, 1918, letter to the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry.

The rationale behind keeping these movie theaters open was that that they were among the only ways to disseminate public health to mass audiences in the era before the golden age of radio and TV, according to Ben Strassfeld, film historian who wrote “Infectious Media: Debating the Role of Movie Theaters in Detroit during the Spanish Influenza of 1918” published online by the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2017.

The movie industry also hoped the public health campaigns would improve public perceptions of movies. The educational use of movie theaters came at a time when “the industry has spent the last decade trying to achieve respectability, and appeal to middle class, upper class audiences and women,” says Strassfeld. “Part of the way that they did that was by building newer, safer theaters that obeyed fire safety codes and had better ventilation to distance the industry from its early roots in storefront Nickelodeon theaters.”

By the end of 1918 and early 1919, many cities thought they were over the worst of the pandemic, and thought they knew how to keep it under control. So when movie theaters did reopen, the precautions will sound familiar in the COVID-19 era. They ranged from spaced-out seating to mask requirements.

“The gauze guard must adorn countenances,” as the Nov. 14, 1918, Oakland Tribune reported. In nearby San Francisco, moviegoers packed sold-out theaters “en masse and also en masque,” as the San Francisco Chronicle put it. In Spokane, Wash., theaters opened at half-capacity, keeping every other row of seats vacant for social distancing. In San Antonio, Texas, the health department said anyone who coughs in a movie theater must immediately leave to “avoid the embarrassment of being requested by the ushers to do so,” and each theater was supposed to assign a man “who shall have as his sole business the spotting of any person in the audience who coughs,” reported the Jan. 15, 1919, San Antonio Express.

One man in Rochester, N.Y., took it upon himself to inspect the city’s motion picture houses and wrote a letter to the Rochester Times-Union editor on the “abomination” of conditions, “bodies packed together, like sardines” in “muggy warm” theaters, observing that “half the audience was coughing and sneezing, spitting and hawking.” Running in the Dec. 31, 1918, edition, the watchdog called for ushers to patrol the showings every hour with “antiseptic loaded guns spraying the atmosphere,” otherwise, “there is not the slightest possibility of stamping out the epidemic of influenza in Rochester.”

Nationwide, many movie theaters opened to sold-out audiences, boosting not only morale, but local economies. In Portland, Ore., the reopening of movies “probably means more to more people than any other feature of the re-established order of things” because ticket buyers also hit up the “late lunch houses,” sweets shops, and “chocolate counters,” per the November 16, 1918, edition of the Oregon Daily Journal.

“Unmuzzled” movie lovers also flooded the theaters in Seattle the day they re-reopened, the Nov. 13, 1918, edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, noting that excitement about theaters re-opening was boosted by with excitement over the end of the fighting on the Western Front. “The health commissioner must have realized what a martyrdom he had imposed on the people when he saw the joy with which they cast the six layers of medicated cheese cloth from their countenances and emerged from their disguises,” the paper reported.

But not all picture houses and production companies were able to restart so quickly. Smaller studios either went under or were bought by larger studios, according to Strassfeld. Mann points out that movie theater chains crop up, as mom-and-pop movie theaters had to shut down, enabling people like [Paramount co-founder] Adolph Zukor to swoop in, buy them up. Studios also began to control theaters. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this system of controlling the means of production, distribution and exhibition of films violated anti-trust laws in the late 1940s.)

The movie business has changed over the last century, but why people love films has stayed the same.

“That we never appreciate the things we have until we lose them was shown clearly yesterday when the theaters and movies of Atlanta opened their doors again at the regular hours after the long intermission due to the ‘flu’,” according to the Oct 29, 1918, edition of the Atlanta Constitution. “For years Atlantans had taken it for granted that the best amusements available would be furnished them, and a certain blasé feeling resulted. For the last few weeks, however, with all these good things barred, this feeling vanished quickly, and the patrons would have been glad to see the very poorest movie of the period of the two or three reelers, or the very worst vaudeville or miniature musical comedy now on the market.”

“Get out new masks for the whole family,“ wrote San Francisco Examiner columnist Annie Laurie, whose Nov. 16, 1918, column described seeing actors on the big screen again as “the sunshine after a day of hanging fog and gray mist; it’s like a light in the room when the shadows begin to fall and sad memories lay their icy fingers upon the human heart.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com