Gore, Porn, and Opera: Cincinnati’s Original Penny Arcades

Penny arcades were cesspools of depravity. Who knew?
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Marcus Loew’s People’s Hippodrome, visible to the left of the fountain in this 1906 photograph, was profitable but Loew found motion pictures even more lucrative and converted his arcade into a theater.

Photograph of Fountain Square with People’s Hippodrome. Digitized by Library of Congress

 

It is all but impossible to find a real, authentic penny arcade these days.

Of course, it is darn near impossible to find anything for a penny. But what passes for a penny arcade these days is much tamer and limited to old-fashioned games and novelties. The classic penny arcades of yesteryear, including those in Cincinnati around 1905, boasted cutting-edge technology, and they were mostly NSFW, to boot.

Cartoon of two adults in a penny arcade.

From Cincinnati Post 17 September 1907. Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

At a time when a genuine Victrola cost the equivalent of $5,500 in today’s dollars, few households indulged in such extravagance, and those Cincinnatians who owned a private motion-picture projector could be counted on the fingers of one hand. A kid with a nickel, however, could sample all the latest (and naughtiest) films and songs by popping into the penny arcade. The Cincinnati Post [22 August 1907] itemized the entertainment available at one of the downtown emporiums:

“What does the boy get for his money? If he spends it judiciously he may peep into a moving picture machine bearing the spicy title of ‘Wifey Returns Too Soon,’ or ‘The Ballroom Murder.’”

That review itemizes the two types of moving pictures available at Cincinnati’s penny arcades – gory melodramas and soft pornography. The Cincinnati Post recorded two other movies featured in 1907: “Sapho Up To Date” about an artist and his barely-clad model avoiding her jealous boyfriend and “Execution of a Spy.” That last film presented exactly what the title said, the actual execution, by an American Army firing squad, of a suspected spy. It may have been the first snuff film.

Cartoons of two youngsters in a penny arcade

Cincinnati Post 22 August 1907. Images extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It appears that such fare caused not much trouble here in Cincinnati. Other towns found penny arcades to be nefarious snares for innocent youth. In Minneapolis, for example, a committee of citizens appealed for action, according to the Minneapolis Journal [30 August 1902]:

“Protest against the picture machines in the ‘penny arcades’ and the alleged ‘shows’ conducted in the rear was formally made this morning to Acting Mayor Jones by a delegation of well known citizens. Complaint is made that the pictures in the penny-in-the-slot machines, if not actually obscene, are often immoral and more or less depraving.”

In addition to the saucy peep-show boxes, penny arcades offered an array of listening stations where patrons auditioned the latest hit records. Enrico Caruso’s operatic stylings were hot stuff, but shared the listening section with such maudlin fare as “There’s Mother Always Waiting For You At Home, Sweet Home.”

Moving pictures and famous singers were big draws, but penny arcades also provided food and novelties in abundance. A penny bought a bag of roasted peanuts or a big gob of saltwater taffy, or maybe a stick of gum.

Cartoons of two youngsters in a penny arcade.

Cincinnati Post 22 August 1907. Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

For one red cent, as they used to say, you could get your fortune told by a mechanical clairvoyant, box a round with a punching bag that measured your left hook, or personalize a metal label for your bike. One arcade boasted a mechanical banjo that apparently performed using something like a player piano apparatus.

The Cincinnati Post [17 November 1907] analyzed the clientele and found that it wasn’t only wayward children who enjoyed plunking change into the machinery:

“The little boy or girl goes in with alacrity; the country visitor ambles in; the broker sneaks in; the average citizen gets in unconsciously. Sometimes an electric sign or fancy front steers you. Sometimes you are lured by a shoe shining stand at the entrance. And once in you leave the price of several postage stamps in the slots. You have then generally soaked in enough popular songs and scenes to last you until you again chance into a combination of idle moment and proximity to a penny arcade.”

Perhaps the most popular of Cincinnati’s penny arcades was located on the north side of Fountain Square when the esplanade still divided Fifth Street. Originally opened as the Mills Edisonia, it was later purchased by a New Yorker named Marcus Loew. Although the peep shows and gramophones brought in a constant stream of pennies, Loew heard about a new thing over in Covington and walked over the Suspension Bridge to check it out.

There, Loew found Isaac W. McMahan who, following a money-losing vaudeville tour, tried to recoup some of his losses by showing moving pictures in an upstairs parlor at his home. The projector, purchased to provide special effects while on tour, was hand-cranked and McMahan provided live narration. Covington loved it and McMahan sold out repeated showings of the same half-dozen films at five cents a ticket.

Loew recognized a good thing when he saw it and remodeled the upstairs of his Fountain Square penny arcade – now renamed the People’s Hippodrome – and began displaying moving pictures there. The nickels piled up and Loew opened more theaters. Eventually he owned moving picture palaces in cities all over the United States and bankrolled the company that would later become Metro-Goldwin-Mayer.

By the 1940s, radios, phonographs and movie theaters – not to mention police raids and censorship laws – had drained the audience from the old penny arcades. There were a few hangers-on, including Playland on Vine Street and Penny Arcade on Fifth. Playland mostly sold cheap novelties like sneezing powder and while offering “mechanical devices of all descriptions” and claiming to be “more fun than a circus.” Penny Arcade featured pinball machines and tried to convince law enforcement that it was all fun and games and not really gambling.

The action moved out to the region’s amusement parks. Coney Island featured a penny arcade, as did LeSourdsville Lake, but almost nothing cost a penny any more, and nothing raised a blush on the cheeks of an innocent child.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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