Column: Nickelodeons of Noblesville

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Commentary by David Heighway

Long before the television network Nickelodeon existed, there were real places that were given this name. These were small theaters where it cost 5 cents to see the show, usually a silent film with some live entertainment. Some evolved into vaudeville houses with a full set of performers. Noblesville had a few that flourished between 1906 and 1909. They were sometimes disapproved of, but were a success with a public that was hungry for cheap entertainment.

The first one that appeared was the Home Amusement Company, which opened in December 1906 on the north side of the square. The next one was the Crystal Theater, which opened in May 1907 on South Eighth Street. It was a temporary structure with wooden sides and a canvas top and could be dismantled and put away in winter. This was followed by the Exhibit, which opened September of that year on the south side of the square. The Vaudette opened by December, replacing the Home Amusement Company. Both were run by John H. Wise.

The films shown were short, (much like a modern YouTube video), and, at one point, the theaters were changing them every night. The films had live musical accompaniment and the theaters would show “illustrated songs,” slides of music and lyrics that let the audience sing along.

A person who appeared regularly onstage was Charles Watts, a hometown boy who became a professional acrobat performing under the name of Charles Gillette. Eva Henderson, a singer, was another frequent performer.

The live theater could be unpredictable. There was some excitement in November 1908 when magician Donn V. Smythe was performing at the Vaudette. He did a trick with a gun that fired blanks and managed to severely burn his hand when the gun went off accidentally.

There also was trouble in April 1908 when the city passed an ordinance for an annual license fee of $25. However, Leonard Wild declared that he didn’t have to pay it for the Wild Opera house. He had been given a special 10-year license for $1 when he first opened in 1895, when the city was eager to have a legitimate theater. The license was extended in 1905, so Wild claimed immunity from the ordinance. Representatives from the Vaudette, the Exhibit and the Crystal went before the common council and requested that all theaters be required to pay equally. The council ordered the city clerk to collect the fee from Wild.

For a while, these places generated a lot of excitement. John Wise painted a new curtain for stage of the Vaudette in November 1909. He did a scene showing Ninth Street at the southeast corner of the square, which showed the signs for the Citizens State Bank (now Copper Still) and the Old Corner Drug Store (now Corner Cottage).

However, after 1909, there isn’t any mention of them in the local newspapers. Films had become longer running with multiple reels, and going to the movies became an event. Larger movie houses were needed and the films were acquired by the Olympic Theater, which later became the Diana, and the American Theater, which later became the Logan Theater. The Wild Opera House was still running movies with its live shows. The nickelodeons had served their purpose and the public moved on.

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