Theatrical impressario who opened the world’s first movie theater
Harry Davis was one of the country’s most successful theatrical managers from the 1890s to 1920s. He and his partner John Harris opened the world first movie theatres in Pittsburgh coining the name Nickelodeon. Davis built and managed several large venues in Pittsburgh including the Million Dollar Grand that became the Warner Theatre. He controlled all of the leading theaters in Pittsburgh, except for the Nixon, until 1927. A master showman he produced and booked vaudeville shows, musicals, and plays. Davis formed several nationally recognized acting companies that worked at the dozen theatres that he managed. During his lifetime, when 25,000 to 30,000 people attended the downtown theatres daily, Pittsburgh was one of the most important theatre centers in the country.
Born in Black Friar’s row in London in 1861 Harry Davis came to Pittsburgh as a boy in 1870. His father, a millwright, came to Pittsburgh to help create the first tin-plate mill in America. Davis grew up in the Strip District and attended the O’Hara public school until the age of 11 when he took a job in a florist shop. He worked as a traveling carnival barker before he became a promoter in Pittsburgh. In the 1880s his first profitable enterprise was promoting sporting events called “walking matches” at the old Grand Central rink on Penn Avenue. Using his $900 in profits he leased the O’Brien Dime Museum on Firth Avenue renaming it the Eden Musee. The Musee offered a freak show museum and a “Theatorium” where lecturers and musicians performed. Earning $20,000 a year in ticket sales, Davis continued to invest in Pittsburgh entertainment.
He became manager of the Casino in Schenely Park in 1891. It was a former Victorian era ice skating rink where Davis produced comic operas with his own company of actors; The Casino Opera Company. The Schenley Park Casino was Pittsburgh’s first multi-purpose arena. As it had the first artificial ice rink in North America it was the envy of the sports and entertainment world during the early 1890's. It stood at the entrance to Schenley Park in Oakland where the University of Pittsburgh’s Frick Fine Arts Building currently sits. It burned to the ground in 1896.
Davis also took over the lease of the Fifth Avenue Lyceum, the original Pittsburgh Opera House. He remodeled the venue and formed his own stock acting company: The Harry Davis Musical and Travesty Company. In 1896 Davis made the public showing of a film in Pittsburgh when began showing lumiere movie shorts between live acts at the at the Avenue Theatre. In 1899 he leased the larger Pittsburgh Opera house and moved his stock company there. He started a second acting company at the Family Avenue Theatre also in 1899.
In June of 1905 Davis and his partner John Harris opened the first stand alone movie theatre in Pittsburgh. It was the first theatre in the county dedicated to showing movies. Davis’s brother-in-law partner came up with the ideas of showing all of the one reel movies that they had in storage at the Avenue Theatre. Davis provided an entry storefront that he owned on Smithfield Street. The theatre was set up with 96 chairs and a screen. Admission was 5 cents. They gave it the name “Nickelodeon” as a combination of the nickel admission and the Greek term for theater “odeon”. For 5 center movie goers watch 15 minute of short movies accompanied by live piano music. The shows ran continuously from 8 am to midnight. On opening day 500 people attended. On the second day 1,500 attended with lines stretching around the block. The silent movies were a hit with the non-English speaking Pittsburgh immigrants. With a year there were hundreds of small nickelodeon theatres around the country. The Nickelodeon on Smithfield stayed open for five years before it was replaced by the larger movie palaces.
Tragedy struck late in 1905 when two of Davis’s theaters burned down: the Avenue Theatre and the Pittsburgh Opera House. On the site of the Pittsburgh Opera House Davis built a new theatre on Fifth Avenue. Called the Grand Theatre it was the largest in Pittsburgh with 3,000 seats. He signed a deal with Benjamin Keith’s Vaudeville Management to book national acts to Grand Theater. With several venues under management Davis printed his own daily gazette called “The Harry Davis News” to publicize his events. In the 1910s David operated a Hippodrome Circus at Forbes Field and opened the Schenley Theatre in Oakland in 1914. He constructed the Davis Theatre on Smithfield Street and William Penn Place in 1915 where Mellon Square now stands. In 1918 he built the Million Dollar Grand Theatre on Fifth Avenue. The Grand theatre was gutted in the 1980s to create the cheesy Warner Center food court that quickly went bankrupt.
After Harris Davis suffered a depilating stroke in 1927, the all of the Davis theaters were sold to the Stanley Company of America who in turn sold them to Warner Brothers. Harry died 12 years later at age 78 in 1940.
"Mr Harry Davis has given Greater Pittsburg an example of what one man can accomplish in the upliftment of amusements. The names of the performers who appear in any bill of vaudeville at the Grand tell their own story of excellence, of novelty, of variety, of newness and originality. The Grand represents the highest type of defined vaudeville." -The Pittsburgh Press August 28, 1910