"Going to the Show": Spatial and Temporal History of Moviegoing in North Carolina

  1. 1. Natasha/Natalia Smith

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  2. 2. Elise Moore

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  3. 3. Kevin Eckhardt

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  4. 4. Robert C. Allen

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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A scholarly digital publication “Going to the Show”
grew out of Prof. Robert C. Allen’s use of UNC Library
archival materials in teaching and writing about the
history of film exhibition and moviegoing. It is a result
of close collaboration between Prof. Allen, James Logan
Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies,
History, and Communication Studies at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Documenting the
American South (DocSouth)—a digital library laboratory
that creates, develops, and maintains online digital
collections regarding the history of the American South
drawn primarily from the outstanding archival holdings
of the UNC library. “Going to the Show” documents and
illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing
in North Carolina between the introduction of projected
motion pictures (1896) and the end of the silent film era
(1930). It is a historiographic experiment on several
levels, in which collaborators endeavor to use digital
technologies in a variety of innovative ways to collect,
organize, and display data and materials that illuminate
the historical experience of cinema.
As theatrical moviegoing becomes a thing more remembered
than experienced, Allen argues that one of the
most striking features of the experience of cinema for a
hundred years was its sociality. For a century following
the demonstration of Edison’s Vitascope projector at
Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York on April 23,
1896, the experience of cinema in America and, indeed,
around the world, involved a distinctive (though highly
variable) social practice: groups of people converging
upon particular places to experience together something
understood to be cinema. The project team selected and
published online numerous city directories, local newspapers
ads and clippings, several hundred picture postcards
and photographs that assisted with telling the story
in a fuller or more holistic manner (see Figure 1.) However, recent work in cultural geography has helped
us to look at the history of cinema as the history of the
experience of cinema and to look at cinema as a set of
practices occurring in space (see Doreen Massey). Like
space, the experience of cinema is relational, heterogeneous,
and open-ended. In that, collaborators turned to
another valuable resource of information–Sanborn Fire
Insurance Maps. Between 1867 and 1977 the Sanborn
Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced largescale
(usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial
and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities
in North America to assist fire insurance companies
in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented
each built structure in those districts, its use, dimensions,
height, building material, and other relevant features
(fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example).
Looking through thousands of map pages over the years,
thinking about how they represent the experience of moviegoing and about how the maps might be represented
in “Going to the Show,” Allen started rethinking not
only the sociality but also the spatiality of the experience
of cinema more generally. For most white people living
in towns or cities of any size in N.C. and those living
in the countryside around these towns and cities in the
first three decades of cinema history, going to the movies
was a part of the experience of the spaces of downtown
social, cultural, commercial and consumer life. Understanding
what went on inside the theater requires understanding
what went outside.
What the Sanborn maps enable us to see—in ways that
other representations of the social experience of moviegoing
do not—is that the space of the experience of cinema
in towns and cities across North Carolina, and possibly
in many other places as well, was not bounded by
the places in which movies were shown. The maps show
clearly that the emergence of movie culture in North
Carolina is inextricably linked to the rise and development
of urban central business districts (see Figure 2.)
We will represent the Sanborn maps in “Going to the
Show” in a way that they were never intended to be: with
individual map pages digitally stitched together so that
they form a composite overview of a town’s central business
district. In 45 communities, moviegoing is mapped
onto Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1896-1922), showing
how moviegoing became an important part of the experience
of everyday life in the growing cities and towns
of early 20th century North Carolina. These map pages
have been digitally “stitched” together and geo-referenced
to display the entire “downtown” of representative
communities across the state. The evolution of successive
map sets produced from 1896 to 1922 illustrates
how these towns and cities grew and changed at a time
of rapid urbanization and industrialization. Displaying
the maps in Google Earth vividly illustrates a century of
continuity and change.
The decision process for which tools to use in order to
bring this picture to life, has been a balance between
experimental technology and usability. “Going to the
Show” is using kml layers upon Google Maps and
Google Earth to place the Sanborn maps within context.
Google’s open-source map API is used for zooming and
hotspot addition. There is also a MySQL (soon to be
PostGRES) database to manage the metadata about the
contextual items which have been collected in order to
paint the entire picture of moviegoing. As a result, users
can search for movie exhibition sites, locations, managers,
and racial policy across the first thirty-five years
of moviegoing in more than 200 N.C. communities.
Adobe PhotoShop is used for stitching together digital
Sanborn Map images and basic manipulation of documentary
content images, as necessary (sharpening, resizing,
and more). The software Global Mapper is used for
geo-referencing Sanborn maps. It converts, edits, prints,
tracks GPS, and allows utilization of GIS functionality
in datasets. References
Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes, and Robert C. Allen,
eds., Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social
Experience of Cinema (Exeter: Univ. of Exeter Press,
Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005)
Anne Kelly Knowles, Placing History: How Maps,
Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical
Scholarship (California: ESRI Press, 2008)
Suzy Beemer, Richard Marciano, Todd Presner, Seeing
Urban Spaces Anew at the University of California
(CTWatch Quarterly, May 2007, vol. 3, number 2, http://

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None