Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

With the construc­tion of movie palaces through­out Pennsylvania in the years immediately fol­lowing World War I, ushering – quite ordinary employment in the days of the nickelodeon – became a much-sought-after vocation. For it was then that movie house showmen first pronounced that service was the “personality” of show business, and that ushers were an individual house’s premier salesmen. And as salesmen, they were touted through the years following World War II when declining audiences demobilized whole platoons of “hand-picked Apollos,” Until those melan­choly days, however, the youth privileged to serve as ushers gave special meaning to a showman’s boast that he- sold tickets to movie theaters – not to movies.

Despite the nickelodeon’s role in revolutionizing mass entertainment at the opening of the twentieth century, rela­tively little – if any – of this crucial stage in the develop­ment of the cinema in Pennsyl­vania is documented. That this new breed of theater did em­ploy ushers is, however, more than a matter of conjecture. Pennsylvania’s first motion picture theater, the Nickelodeon at 433-435 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, relied heav­ily on just such an individual. What his duties included al this ninety-six-seat house is not dear, particularly since programs, changing every fifteen minutes, attracted an average daily attendance of seven thousand patrons!

The extent to which attend­ants were employed in actually seating patrons may have depended on the nature of the house they served. If it was in one of the grittier shopping districts of Pittsburgh, and if it was crowded and unsanitary, then the ushers’ primary du­ties probably involved what amounted to crowd control – keeping order among an un­ruly audience of poorly paid, foreign-born laborers and their families. On the other hand, if ushers were employed by a theater located along a busy and prosperous commercial thoroughfare catering to Phila­delphia’s emerging middle class and long-established carriage trade, they may have graciously seated patrons, emulating the etiquette usually associated with the city’s legiti­mate playhouses.

The strength of movie houses in the decades follow­ing the heyday of the nickel­odeon lay in their ability to attract not only one segment of the population, as opposed to another. but all segments. Ultimate showmen, much like those sometime-Pennsylvanians, the brothers Warner, found the means to do so as they vied with Marcus Loew and William Fox. among others, in the construction of opulent movie palaces, the most splendid structures patrons had ever seen. Built to last forever, such houses were the quintessential home of the usher, lauded as the golden youth of America and idealized as being brave, true and acne-free.

A movie palace represented a seductive escape from the petty annoyances and frustra­tions of everyday life and, in fact, the theater structure itself provided that escape no less than the fare offered on the screen. Within the gilded inte­riors of the Mastbaum in Phila­delphia, the Stanley in Pittsburgh or the Warner in Erie, the patron savored a magical world far from the stale realities of daily exist­ence. Here, the patron was treated as a monarch for whom the palace was ostensi­bly built or, at the very least, welcomed as an honored guest. Those charged with treating the patron as royalty were, of course, the ushers, the theater’s most important salesmen. Their challenge was to make ticket holders feel wanted. and their special responsibility was to convince customers that they were in competent hands, freed from the cares of the day.

According to a pamphlet published by the Motion Pic­ture Theatre Managers Insti­tute, movie palace ushers ideally were to be young men between 17 and 21 years of age, living at home and not dependent on ushering for a livelihood. Young women of the same ages first appeared as theater attendants during World War I because so many young men had been drafted for service. If the pamphlet’s author had a preference, it was surely for adolescent boys because they were “easier to secure and handle.”

In the Midwest, Barney Balaban of thee Balaban and Katz theater chain of Chicago agreed. further specifying that the young men selected should be 5’7″ and of normal weight for their age. Further­more, they should be keenly alert, both physically and mentally, demonstrating by their appearance and de­meanor that they had come from “wholesome homes of refinement.” Possibly the Bala­ban and Katz ushers con­formed to this profile, but in western Pennsylvania, the applicants for ushering posi­tions – both male and female – were invariably drawn from the working class, a bonus in the manager’s eyes. Such a staff was easily impressed by the vision of an elite guard and no less awed by its fanciful uniform.

At Pittsburgh’s Enright Theatre, which opened De­cember 28, 1928, the house­hold troops wore pale blue jackets trimmed with gold and navy trousers, the uniform subsequently adopted by the Stanley Company for its movie houses in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. But dress alone did not give the usher necessary credentials. For the Enright Theatre, that was the result of four months of strict training that had begun in September. The school’s goal was to insure that the usher, in his behavior, was the very embodiment of the much­-touted word “service.” Those who greeted the opening night audience did so believing that they were the hosts and the theater’s patrons were their own special guests for the evening.

To train them for their roles, neophytes were carefully re­hearsed in the standard phrases that formed the basis of most conversations between usher and patron: “Yes, sir”; “No, sir”; “Yes, ma’am”; “No, ma’am”; “Thank you, sir”; “Thank you, ma’am.” They were also cautioned never to order or to command patrons, but rather to make requests, prefacing each with “Kindly.” In the same manner, and re­flecting the true spirit of serv­ice, ushers were to use basic expressions such as: “This way, please”; “Kindly pass down the aisle”; “The next usher will seat you”; “This row, please”; “The stairway to the right, please”; “Kindly use the exits to the left, please.” Similarly, when responding to patrons’ queries, they were advised that positive informa­tion often led to trouble. For example, when queried about the time of the next show, an usher was instructed to reply: “It is scheduled to start at …” Or, when asked the merits of the film being screened, the response was to be: “The com­ments have been very favor­able, sir. I believe you will like it.”

Perhaps the most trying of exchanges between ushers and theatergoers were with noise­-makers, “petting” couples, intoxicated individuals and what service manuals referred to as “morons and degener­ates.” To handle noise-makers, ushers were never to scold, “Hush!” Instead, they were trained to say. “Pardon me, sir. Please be a bit more quiet.” If that failed, the usher was to avoid arguing with the of­fender and immediately sum­mon a member of the executive staff. The gambit used with the couples whose petting was disturbing or bothersome to fellow patrons was polite but direct: “It will be necessary to call one of the executive staff if your attitude does not change.” If that did not work, the manager was called.

Executive staff members handled inebriated customers. To launch the movie house’s tactics, the usher played a leading role in the ploy. “If you will come with me,” the usher was to ask the drunkard, “there is a friend of yours in the lobby who wishes to speak with you.” Once in the lobby, the person became the respon­sibility of the manager or an individual designated by the management. Back on duty, tending to his aisle, the usher was trained to keep a constant watch for male patrons moving from place to place and seating themselves with children or unescorted females. Such persons might prove to be morons or degenerates, who would need to be dealt with by theater management.

There were many proce­dures an usher needed to learn, including finding lost articles, tending to an injured person, directing crowd con­trol and the “greeting and trailing” of patrons to their seats, a major responsibility which demanded careful at­tention to strategy. The outside usher would wait until patrons approached his aisle and greet them. He, in turn, directed his guests to pass down the aisle so that the inside usher could trail them with his flashlight to their seats. After the movie­goers had been seated, the usher walked briskly back up the aisle, scanning for vacant seats. The Enright Theatre’s ushers still recall that no mercy was shown to the individual caught with an empty seat during peak hours.

This rush to the movies in Pittsburgh and throughout the nation prevailed throughout the 1920s; in fact, more than one hundred million persons went weekly in 1929 alone. Given the impact of the Great Depression. the weekly audi­ence plummeted to fifty mil­lion by 1932. It was not until four years later that the motion picture industry had what might be considered a satisfac­tory year as attendance rose to eighty-five million patrons each week. What is surprising is that this nadir in film history was not accompanied by a significant decrease in the number of ushers at theaters in Pennsylvania or across the country.

“Bright-eyed, slick­-appearing and alert youths” continued to be in demand, and, as during the Twenties, staffs of downtown houses continued to be properly uni­formed. At theaters such as Philadelphia’s Mastbaum, the usher’s garb, emphasizing commitment to service, con­sisted of a “steward’s jacket” and trousers with a wide stripe down the outside seam. In the pockets of one or the other, the usher was expected to carry a clean handkerchief, twenty­-five cents in change, a pencil and small notebook. (The change was for patrons using the coin telephones, and the notebook was to keep track of lost articles. The hankie was to stem a nose bleed.)

The responsibilities of the Mastbaum usher were in keep­ing with pronouncements by Frank H. Ricketson, Jr., who argued in The Management of Motion Picture Theatres in 1938 that every movie patron was, inevitably, the usher’s “per­sonal guest.” Ricketson de­tailed responsibilities, reiterating those in force dur­ing the previous decade. Of course, nothing enumerated could change the fact that ushers remained among the lowest paid employees at both downtown theaters and nabes. Allen Goodkin, who trained at the Mastbaum and later worked at the Aldine Theater in Philadelphia, knew well the tribulations of the job.

Goodkin was paid fifteen dollars for a forty hour week in 1932, a salary that was later reduced to ten dollars a week, or twenty-five cents an hour. In those grim days of retrench­ment, Goodkin remembered, “You took the cut or were unemployed. I took the cut.” Personnel records for Stanley­-Warner, the Mastbaum’s par­ent company, suggest much the same sorry story through­out the region. Ushers were paid twenty-five cents an hour – or less – during the Great Depression. Ushers working part-time seldom made more than five dollars a week: full time ushers earned between ten dollars and fifteen dollars weekly. Head ushers, or chiefs of sen:.ice, were paid slightly higher. but in no case did their salaries exceed nineteen dol­lars a week.

To the majority of ushers, their position was little more than a job. To others, such as Allen Goodkin, it held an obvious allure and fascination. Goodkin particularly recalls that ushering brought him into contact with all types: the rich and the poor, the famous and the infamous, the ordinary and the extraordinary Good­kin also relished the chance to see – without charge – as many of the movies playing in center city as his free time permitted. Elsewhere, ushers told of private midnight screenings of coming attrac­tions open only to service staffs.

Despite what many may think, the enchanted world of the movie palace did not come to an end during the World War II era. In fact, the period was among the best of times for the Hollywood studios, as cash receipts poured into Tin­sel Town from theaters across the country. Audiences were eager to see nearly everything advertised on theater mar­quees. Although the years between 1939 and 1945 antici­pated prosperity, they could not match 1946, a banner year in which America’s theaters sold more than four hundred million tickets, accounting for a box office take of nearly 1.75 billion dollars. Within one year, though, the box office receipts declined by twenty percent, a dreaded omen that the film industry – production and exhibition – was about to enter a prolonged period of peril.

Hollywood’s studios and Pennsylvania’s theaters real­ized that Americans were kicking the movie-going habit, even before television began to encroach on the market. The­ater owners and managers could not help but be aware that between 1946 and 1948, paid admissions were off by 16.9 percent nationwide. Their response included a renewed emphasis on the usher or, rather, upon the ideal of serv­ice that he had so long em­bodied. A telling barometer of the new day was the content of service bulletins issued by deluxe houses. One of these movie palaces specifically advised the usher that each and every patron “should be treated with the utmost cour­tesy and deference.” Further­more, a smile and a friendly greeting for all was the obliga­tion of every usher.

Not only did the theaters emphasize the treatment of patrons in the 1940s, but the usher’s personal appearance remained a matter for close scrutiny, especially in the Commonwealth’s more presti­gious theaters. Irvin Glazer, president emeritus of the The­atre Historical Society, discov­ered this when interviewing for an usher’s job at the Mast­baum Theatre. The Mast­baum’s manager turned down the sixteen-year-old. Glazer recalls his rejection. “At five feet, eleven inches, I wasn’t tall enough. He wanted a six-foot minimum.” Glazer applied at the Boyd, another center-city theater, where he was hired by the chief of service, fitted into a beautiful, black dinner jacket and assigned a locker. Only then was he introduced to the manager. “I was tall enough, slim enough and handsome enough. Only, on my way out of the dressing room, I put on my glasses and was sum­moned back. I was fired before I had started – no glasses.”

Despite the local manager’s emphasis on the appearance and mannerisms of his usher­ing staff, sometimes bordering on the maniacal, he was un­able to give the time and atten­tion to the training of his palace guard that the Enright Theater’s manager had thought essential in the four months before its gala open­ing. Training was minimal for James Henwood, who was employed at the sixteen hun­dred seat Sixty-Ninth Street Theatre in Upper Darby. Hen­wood was trained by an expe­rienced co-worker, who coached him in the basics of the “greeting and trailing” operation and then assigned him to a “dead” aisle. Thereafter, Henwood was largely on his own.

As a sign of times to come, James Henwood did a good deal more than escort patrons to their seats. Together with seven members of the theater’s ushering staff, he periodically checked the exit doors, filled the candy machines and as­sisted the electrician when it came time to change the mar­quee. Not only was Henwood faced with new responsibilities only vaguely connected to serving the patron, but he frequently found himself the only employee on the floor. This meant that he dealt with difficult situations – upside down images on the screen, hysterics and heart attacks – that formerly had been han­dled by a member of the exec­utive staff. And he did so, in 1948, for forty-seven and a half cents an hour.

Increasingly, older concep­tions of service were forced to bow to the realities of a given decade, and never more so than in the 1950s, when movie-going became no more than an occasional event in the lives of a once loyal audience. Consequently, theaters began to close, and by 1953 only 32.4 percent of those remaining open were making some money – only as the result of the sale of popcorn, candy and beverages. The rest were sim­ply losing money.

Blaming their misfortunes on the monster called televi­sion, Hollywood fought back, luring the public to what it could not find at home on the small screen: the three-dimensional film, the wide screen and stereophonic sound. But size and spectacle offered only a momentary reprieve. By 1956, motion picture attendance had dropped to barely half the 1946 statistic. Theaters across the country began closing their doors. Even the large houses that managed to weather the decade could only do so by closing off the upper balcony, the mezzanine, the lower lounge and rest rooms. A once proud corps of ushers dwin­dled to a corporal’s guard, for with an acre of seats available at almost any hour, there seemed little point in continu­ing the greeting and trailing operation that had flourished in happier days.

From time to time, adver­tisements for ushers did ap­pear in local papers, but complicating the employment situation were the increasingly long runs of films at down­town houses throughout the 1950s. The twelve hundred seat Goldman Theatre in Phil­adelphia, for example, ran “help wanted” advertisements the week before a new show was to start. The eight or ten ushers employed worked from 6:30 to 10:30 PM. and were paid for thirty to forty hours over a six-day period. How­ever, if business was poor, an usher might work no more than ten hours over two nights and find himself unemployed Even if a new film fared mod­estly in the beginning, the ushering staff was very likely to be eliminated after a run of from three to eight weeks, forcing the hiring of another crew with the debut of the most recent film. It was a state of affairs all but guaranteeing that the usher’s training was to be minimal and that there was to be very little in it about personal attention to the pa­tron.

The situation changed little in the 1960s. Ushers continued to look the part as surviving photographs suggest, but unfortunately, the images cannot convey the fact that only a few were on duty at any one time in movie houses such as Erie’s Warner Theatre. Dur­ing the week ending May 2, 1966, eight ushers tended to the twenty-five hundred seat theater. But this figure is in itself misleading – the eight combined worked no more than one hundred and ten hours in a week that the theater was open a total of eighty­-four hours. This situation suggests that, at peak hours, the customer probably found no more than a single usher on duty on the main floor and possibly another in the bal­cony – that is, if it was open. Perhaps a lone usher would be forced to serve the entire house, as the old order and cherished ideals of service slowly but steadily began to fade away.

Fewer and fewer patrons required the attention of movie palace ushers as the years went by. In 1970, a scant fif­teen million Americans went to the movies weekly, while nearly forty-four million had attended regularly just a dec­ade before. Because movie­going was ceasing to be the national pastime, the gilded palaces which had honed the ushers’ skills were closing their doors. Some, like the Warner Theatre in Erie, were given new life as performing arts centers; others, like the Enright in Pittsburgh or the Mastbaum and Goldman in Philadelphia, were razed in the name of progress and profit.

Inexplicably, movie-going resurfaced in the 1980s as a popular form of entertain­ment. The box office showed great prosperity with the take in 1988 totaling 4.4 billion dollars. Of that sum, five hun­dred and ninety-five million dollars went to the operators of multi-screen houses in malls and shopping centers across Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. Embodying the shape of moviegoing for the 1990s, these theaters represent “a bland, unobtrusive environ­ment from which all hints of idiosyncratic ornamentation have been removed.” They are nothing less than a modern version of the nickelodeons with which this saga began. And like their forebears, they, too, employ individuals called ushers, but they are a far cry from the hosts of the “keep­ ’em-happy” days of movie­going’s golden era.

Today’s ushers – and usherettes – seem as faceless and bland as the houses they serve, so much so that patrons often find it difficult to distin­guish them as theater employ­ees. And this because their “uniform” is apt to be no more distinctive than a blue blazer and dark slacks. If anything, they are attired like business­men, which, incidentally, portrays the attitude of today’s cinema corporations; that is, the new ruling class of these fiefdoms see themselves as businessmen dedicated to the business of business. It is not surprising to find that the ushers are trained on the job and, in a week’s time, learn a great deal about cleaning and policing the house, but noth­ing about the etiquette of the greeting and trailing operation that had been the heart and soul of an usher’s duties for many, many years. Rather, today’s ushers change light bulbs on marquees, clean windows, empty ash trays, take out garbage and police rest rooms.

Recently, Matthew Davis discovered his new role in his more than four years as an usher in an Erie theater. He only lasted that long because he mastered such diverse duties as dispensing popcorn, selling tickets, repairing seats and doors, in addition to serv­icing air conditioning units, ice machines and electrical fix­tures. “Seldom,” he recalls, “have I had an opportunity to seat patrons. Most of an ush­er’s work is maintenance and policing the theatres …. ” What had been a high calling, a sacred trust, has become. as Davis sadly realized, just an­other low-paying, service industry job.

Today’s state of affairs sad­dens those who recall the glorious era of movie palace glamour. But the waves of new and younger audiences do not remember – nor do they care for – the punctilious treat­ment their parents and grand­parents took as their due Even movie house magnate Marcus Loew’s boast about selling tickets to theaters – not to the movies they screened – is no longer valid nor honored. For today’s operators place the emphasis on the film itself – not on the house that screens it; this, in turn, reduces the service staff’s responsibilities to menial tasks, many of which are not associated with the patron. And while the management may applaud a status quo that permanently retires all but a squad of the brave, true and acne-free, there are Pennsylvanians who remember and treasure a time when the sight of ushers greet­ing and trailing patrons to their seats was a potent invita­tion to the grand world of make believe – no less persua­sive than the film itself.

Perhaps Matthew Davis said it all and said it best. “There was a time,” he wist­fully remembered, “when patrons respected them and girls dreamed of dating them. Yes, an usher was once some­one a little boy could dream of being.”


For Further Reading

Balaban, Carrie. Continuous Performance. New York: Put­nam, 1942.

Balio, Tino, ed. The American Film Industry. Madison: Uni­versity of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Brett, Roger. Temples of Illu­sion. Providence: Brett, 1976.

Connelly, Eugene Lemoyne. “The First Motion Picture The­atre.” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. March 23, 1940, 1-12.

Hall, Ben M. The Golden Age of the Movie Palace. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1961.

Marsh, John L. Where Dreams Came True: Erie’s Warner The­atre. Erie: Erie Civic Center-­Warner The­atre, 1982

Sheridan, Phil. More About Those Wonderful Downtown Theatres. Columbus, Ohio: Sheridan. 1984.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.


John L. Marsh, a professor of English at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, received his doctor­ate from the University of Pennsylvania. A dedicated writer, he has co-authored texts on English and American literature, compiled bibliographies and produced man­uscripts on such diverse topics as Opera House America and the architecture of country churches. His interest in the history of northwestern Pennsylvania has prompted him to publish numerous articles, many of which are devoted to the great days of the theatrical road companies. His most recent contribution to this magazine, “A One Night Stand to Remember – Or to Forget,” re­counting the terrifying trials of a troupe of actors caught in Johns­town during the catastrophic Flood of 1889, appeared in the spring 1989 edition.