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Sally Dixon Traces the Origins of Cinema in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is a film town, no doubt about it. The recent public outcry to save an indoor footbridge at Monroeville Mall, located in the suburbs east of the city, is a perfect example. Featured prominently in the George A. Romero film Dawn of the Dead (1978), the footbridge was removed during recent renovations at the mall. With the fate of this cinematic artifact in question, however, fans mounted a successful petition campaign to save the bridge. Two weeks ago, during a press conference that featured zombies and conservators, the bridge was given to the Heinz History Center as a way to preserve its place as part of the city’s storied, filmic past.

Pittsburgh has a reputation for being film-friendly, but this reputation stretches back farther than 1978 when zombies roamed the local mall. In my role as archival assistant for CMOA’s Time-Based Media Project, I’m steeped in this rich, although somewhat dusty history. I say it’s time to pull back the curtains and bring these amazing stories into the light—let’s just make sure we put UV filters on the windows first so we don’t damage the records.

As the first film curator at Carnegie Museum of Art, Sally Dixon was well-versed in the history of film in Pittsburgh, and told that story to WQED radio host Jim Sweeney in the early 1970s. We have an audio recording of this conversation in the Department of Film and Video archive that we’ve digitized and transcribed (PDF) in the hopes of sharing Dixon’s knowledge and experience with you.

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Audio tape of Sally Dixon’s conversation with John Sweeney. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive.

Poised and conversant as ever, Dixon starts her tale at the beginning with the first Nickelodeon Theater, which as many of you may know, was here in the city on Smithfield Street across from Kaufmann’s, later Macy’s. She tells the WQED host:

“Okay Jim Sweeney, I’m finally getting to this thing. I’m going to give it to you as clearly and concisely as I can. I think I’ll begin with Harris and Davis. Those two men. John P. Harris, who later became a state senator from Pennsylvania, and Harry Davis were in the entertainment business as well as real estate, and were supplying all of the local theaters with not only his travelling stock company shows but opera, and a bit of this and that…Harris and Davis were the ones who did start the nickelodeon, which is sort of the feature thing that we keep talking about in this city, though by no means is it the only exciting and important thing in film history. That is, in the overall contribution to what was happening nationally and internationally in film. It was just one of our contributions. I was intrigued with the tremendous amount of stuff that I found and fairly important stuff as far as hometown boy makes good at that. It’s a tale. It’s a tale. But let’s begin with Harris and Davis.”

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Photograph of the first Nickelodeon Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, ca. 1905. Carnegie Museum of Art, Department of Film and Video archive.

In the recording, Dixon goes on to recount how Harris and Davis were pretty well known in the entertainment industry in Pittsburgh, and even before they opened the first nickelodeon in 1905, they were showing films between acts in their downtown Avenue Theater. They ordered the projector (cinematograph) from the Lumiere brothers in France and had their very first showing on April 12, 1897. Dixon is giddy as she tells Sweeney about the first film the two men screened:

“The film that they showed was a one-reeler called The Charge of the French—and I’ll spell this for you—”C-U-I-R-A-S-S-I-E-R-S.” And I nearly flipped when I saw this, because that’s the first film I showed at the museum in the History of Film Series when it opened March 1, 1970. Funny coincidence.”

Dixon then goes on to talk about how Harris and Davis opened that first theater and how it affected the city—“The beauty of it was, it cost no more than a glass of beer. So the average working man who had never really had a chance to see this kind of thing in such a way could come”—and how the theater inspired other Pittsburghers like the Warner brothers to get into the movie making industry.

But the most intriguing part of this story, for me anyway, comes later when Dixon discusses the beginnings of independent filmmaking in the early 1900s—this time it was my turn to flip. She tells Sweeney:

“This first feature [film] was an independent film, which meant in those days unlicensed. Which meant that many theaters had to become independent theaters in order to play it. They liked this in that independent films were generally all good whereas the licensed or non-independent films had to be bought in packages from the big studios. And they’d give you one good film maybe and then three bad ones. So it did force many of them to become independent, but it upped the quality of film again because of course the independent could do what he want[ed]. He was bound to do something that he thought was really good because he’s selling them one at a time, rather than these package deals. That intrigues me too that Pittsburgh then was the home, as it were, of the independent film movement back then. And here today we’ve got our independent filmmakers and a great resurgence of independent film making going on in Pittsburgh with those that we bring to the museum in conjunction with that part of our program. So it was happening then too that we seem to be home to the independent filmmaker.”

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The first program notes issued by the Film Section (later the Department of Film and Video). Carnegie Museum of Art, Department of Film and Video archive.

These words have helped me understand how and why the film program got started at CMOA. In a way, Dixon saw her work in the Film Section as a continuation of a Pittsburgh tradition. Independent film already had a long history in the city when she arrived on the scene in 1970, and in her conversation with Sweeney, she chooses to frame her work as a continuation of that legacy. Always smart and strategic, Dixon blended the old with the new and seems to have made a point of starting her program out where things began all those years ago at the small theater in downtown Pittsburgh.

As fascinating as this history may be, Dixon admits right off the bat to Sweeney that much of the story of film in Pittsburgh is hearsay—a lot of he said, she said—but rather than trying to justify her version, she leaves it up to her audience to decide what they want to believe. She tells him, “You can either print them as truth or as questionable.” Here I plan to do the same, which after all is part of my job as an archivist. It’s up to us as professionals to steward the records of history; it’s up to you the public to decide what is memorable. This summer dozens of Dawn of the Dead fans rallied to save the bridge at the Monroeville Mall from destruction. Hopefully we the people of Pittsburgh will decide to do the same with the rest of our storied, filmic history.

Program Notes is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.