Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sepia Saturday #110 - Theatre - Charles C. Hildinger - Movie Pioneer, Trenton, NJ

This week's theme over at Sepia Saturday is "Theatre" and nothing screams theatre to me more than Charles C. Hildinger,  my husband's great-grand-uncle.  I've written numerous times about Charles who's known as the "Nickel King" or "Five Cent King" of Trenton, NJ one of the pioneers of moving picture theatres in Trenton at the beginning of the twentieth century.    He got this nickname because when he moved to Trenton around 1898 he didn't have a nickel to his name.  He grew up on a farm in Armstrong County, PA where he was born on 15 Dec 1876 to John A. and  Mary Jane (Cochran) Hildinger. Charles' father came to this country at the age of two years with his parents John and Margaret, and older sister Rosana by ship in 1833 from Württemberg, Germany and settled in Westmoreland County,  PA.  Charles was the youngest of seven children and when he was eleven years old his father, a Civil War veteran, died.

The story of Charles Hildinger was never passed down to my husband and his siblings and unfortuantely there are no known family pictures of him to share.  Everything I know about him I have discovered from hours of research.  I have over two hundred news clippings alone!

In 1898 after trying his hand at several professions in Pittsburgh, and McKeesport, PA, he went to Trenton with his partner and brother-in-law Clinton C. Cutler. They went to work for the circulation department of the Trenton Times and later jointly bought the circulation of Times.  While visiting Pittsburgh, perched on a curb Charles noticed people going in and out of a moving picture show and calculated the evening's take.  He went back to Trenton and created the "Bijou" at 23 North Warren Street which opened on 28 Jun 1906 to much fanfare.  The Bijou was described in a Trenton Times article as "a beautiful little white and gold palace of moving pictures.  The article also stated that "the opening was a great success and it was estimated between 1200 and 1500 persons witnessed the performances that night and half that number were turned away early in the evening."   He and Cutler created the Dream Amusement Company, but within a few years he became the sole owner and Cutler dedicated himself to the newspaper business.  

Within ten years he would own ten movie theatres in Trenton one of them being the "Nicolette" at 134 South Broad Street.  His string of movie houses would also include the "Princess" on North Clinton Avenue, the "Victory" on South Broad Street, the "Rialto" on Pennington Avenue, the "American on Princeton Avenue, the "Strand" on Hermitage Avenue and the "Garden" on North Broad Street.  He also had interests in the "Greenwood" and "City Square" theatres in which he was aided by financially interested associates.  He became associated with Milton Hirshfield and they acquired the "Stacy Theatre" on East State Street.  He was also invested in numerous other ventures in Trenton and elsewhere including amusement holdings at Belmar, Asbury Park as well as being a member of  a group that erected the Lincoln Theatre in Trenton.  Charley, as he was known, became a well-known and respected businessman in Trenton.  He was active in charity work and a member of a number of organizations, including the Trenton Lodge No 105, B.P.O. Elks, the Allied Motion Picture Theatre Association and the Trenton Republican Club just to name a few.  In 1922 he was named treasurer of the New Jersey Motion Picture Owners' Association.

Courtesy of Ken Roe, Cinema Treasures
My husband's great-grandfather, David R. C. Johnston, was the manager of several of Charley's theatres over a period of years.  He was the husband of Mary Elizabeth Hildinger, Charley's sister.  They came from Clearfield, PA around 1916 and David worked for Charley until he retired.   He was first a manager for the Park Theatre which later became the Rialto, and he was the first manager of the Strand Theatre which was on the corner of Hermitage and Edgewood.  Their only child, Luella Ruth Johnston Rogers, my husband's grandmother, was an accomplished musician and organist.  It seems the theatrical gene ran in the family.  David and Mary lived at 633 Edgewood  Drive  and rented rooms in their home to people who worked at the theatre.  The Strand closed in 1963 and was taken over by the Trenton Free Library.

Hildinger Theatres Ad in Trenton Evening Times Apr 1919

On 27 Oct 1915 Charles married Helen Beatrice Dunn, daughter of Harry and Margaret (Mooney) Dunn.  They had two children, John Clark and Claire Helen.  John Clark never married, Claire married late in life and neither had any grandchildren to pass the family theatre legacy on to.  Charley died of a heart attack on 2 Sep 1931 at the age of fifty-four and his wife took over the reins of his empire.  From all reports of what I've read, Charley was larger than life, much loved and respected.  I'm not sure what happened to all the memorabilia of this extraordinary and exciting life; it's a shame some of the memories were not passed down to other members of the family - I'm sure they would have enjoyed knowing Charley!

3 Sep 1931 Trenton Evening Times


  1. What a fascinating post. Your research has ensured that Charles' story will endure.

  2. What a great story. Your hours of research paid off and now we can all appreciate Charley’s entrepeunerial spirit.

  3. What a great story of The Five-Cent King. Too bad photos and memorabilia did not survive, but you have put together a wonderful record.

  4. The distribution of films is so important to the film maker, interesting to hear about these early pioneers of bringing moving pictures to everyone.

  5. A fine tribute. Life as a theater manager must have been challenging in the days before broadcast media. Lots of competition and hundreds of "artistes" to deal with every week.


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