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“We Ran Silent Movies For Years”: An Italian Immigrant Goes Into Show Business in the Early 20th century

by Fred Fedeli/Roy Rosenzweig

The advent of “talkies”in the early 20th century had an impact felt far from Hollywood. Immigrants made up a significant portion of the movie-going audience during the silent film era because the lack of (English) speech beckoned immigrants unable to comprehend the many facets of American life: a picture that didn’t talk was particularly appealing to people who didn’t speak or read English. In this oral history, recorded by Roy Rosenzweig in 1978, Italian immigrant Fred Fedeli recalled his experiences owning and operating a movie theater in an immigrant working-class neighborhood of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Listen to Audio:

Fred Fedeli: In five years time I accumulated enough money with a brother of mine to go in the picture business. I had a cousin and a brother, and we went in business together. With eighteen hundred dollars we leased a theater.

Roy Rosenzweig: This is the Bijou?

Fedeli: The theater was the old Bijou on Millbury Street. Why this was about in 1912. We were in the old Bijou by Eighth Street. We leased it.

Rosenzweig: Who did you lease it from?

Fedeli: We leased it from, ah, Lawyer Katz, in Worcester. He was the owner.

Rosenzweig: Had he built it? Built the theater?

Fedeli: No, no. That theater was built. Today it’s a five and ten cents store. The same building is still there. While we were there in about two years, 1912 . . . wait a minute, six years later, a man came along and he told us that he bought land across the street and he was gonna build a theater. Well, we didn’t kiss him! We said, “Good luck to you.” Well, instead of, of him wanting to run the theater (he was a Jewish boy), but he says “I’m a tailor,” he says. “I don’t know anything about theater business.” He says, “I want you people to run it!” Well then we got together and we took a lease for ten years on the old Rialto—that was the Rialto across the street from the Bijou. Well, before the ten years expired we bought the building.

Rosenzweig: How did you learn about being in the movie business?

Fedeli: Well, I had this cousin of mine that worked in the hotel business in Worcester and he went down to, ah, Wisconsin. He left Worcester, he went to Wisconsin. He used to run these one night stands. You know you take your movie machine and go into a town hall and then go to another one. He learned the business, he had the knowledge of the business. And with our money, we pooled it together and we went in the picture business. That was in the old Charlie Chaplin days. We made a lot of money. Oh, we ran silent movies for years.

We went into the talking movies later on, and I didn’t want to go into the talkies because my people—the Polish people, and the Lithuanian and Jewish people—they didn’t talk any more English than I did! They liked to form their own imagination. If there was a cowboy picture with shootin' one another, they uh, that’s it. But to understand the language... We had to go into the sound. There was no more silent pictures, so we had to go into them.

Source: Interviewed by Roy Rosenzweig, February 23, 1978, Shrewsbury, MA.