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Americans And Motion Pictures

The great democratic art form got off to a very rocky start. People simply didn’t want to crowd into a dark room to look at a flickering light, and it took nearly twenty years for Americans and motion pictures to embrace each other. On July 5, 1896, the Los Angeles Times greeted the imminent arrival of Thomas Alva Edison’s moving-picture projector with enormous enthusiasm: “The vitascope is coming to town. It is safe to predict that when it is set up at the Orpheum and set a-going, it will cause a sensation as the city has not known for many a long day.”

Thousands of city residents had already viewed moving pictures by peering into the eyeholes of peep-show machines on display in saloons, railroad terminals, and amusement parlors, but these images were no bigger than a postcard. Never before had anyone seen moving pictures projected big as life on a screen.

The commercial possibilities of such an exhibition seemed boundless, and inventors, electricians, and showmen on two continents had been hard at work on a “screen machine” for several years. That the one about to make its debut at the Orpheum vaudeville theater had not actually been invented by Edison was kept secret by its promoters. The Edison name was much too valuable to compromise by suggesting that there might be others who were the Wizard’s equal in imagination and technical skill.

The projector that bore Edison’s name had, in fact, been invented by Thomas Arm‚t, a Washington, D.C., bookkeeper, and his partner, C. Francis Jenkins, a government stenographer. After months of tinkering, separately and together, the two men had in the summer of 1895 put together a workable projector, named it the Phantoscope, and arranged to exhibit it at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in September of the same year.

The partners borrowed money from relatives to erect an outdoor tent theater on the fairgrounds, arranged for a series of newspaper articles on their wondrous invention, and printed complimentary tickets. When the expected crowds failed to materialize, in large part because fairgoers were not willing to pay a quarter for an amusement they knew nothing about, Arm‚t and Jenkins hired a barker who invited visitors to enter free and pay at the exit only if they were satisfied. The offer worked, but the customers it attracted entered the theater with only the vaguest idea of what they were going to see. Never having viewed projected moving pictures before, they did not know that the theater had to be darkened. “The moment the lights were turned off for the beginning of the show a panic ensued,” wrote the film historian Terry Ramsaye some thirty years later. “The visitors had a notion that expositions were dangerous places where pickpockets might be expected on every side. This was, the movie audience thought, just a new dodge for trapping the unwary in the dark.”

Jenkins and Armat never did figure out how to introduce their moving pictures to prospective audiences. They ended up losing the fifteen hundred dollars they had borrowed, and the rights to their projector were eventually sold to the company that licensed and distributed Edison’s peep-show machines.

The Los Angeles debut of the Phantoscope, renamed Edison’s Vitascope, went off without a hitch. The Orpheum Theater was filled with vaudeville patrons who, though not accustomed to sitting in the dark, had no reason to fear that they would be assaulted by those seated next to them. The Los Angeles Times carried a complete description of the exhibition for those who had been unfortunate or unadventurous enough not to buy tickets in advance or to secure standing room at the last minute:

“The theatre was darkened until it was as black as midnight. Suddenly a strange whirling sound was heard. Upon a huge white sheet flashed forth the figure of Anna Belle Sun, [a dancer whose real name was Annabelle Whitford] whirling through the mazes of the serpentine dance. She swayed and nodded and tripped it lightly, the filmy draperies rising and falling and floating this way and that, all reproduced with startling reality, and the whole without a break except that now and then one could see swift electric sparks. … Then, without warning, darkness and the roar of applause that shook the theater; and knew no pause till the next picture was flashed on the screen. This was long, lanky Uncle Sam who was defending Venezuela from fat little John Bull, and forcing the bully to his knees. Next came a representation of Herald Square in New York with streetcars and vans moving up and down, then Cissy Fitzgerald’s dance and last of all a representation of the way May Irwin and John C. Rice kiss. [The May Irwin Kiss, perhaps the most popular of the early films, was a fifteen-second close-up of the embrace in the closing scene of the musical comedy The Widow Jones.] Their smiles and glances and expressive gestures and the final joyous, overpowering, luscious osculation was repeated again and again, while the audience fairly shrieked and howled approval. The vitascope is a wonder, a marvel, an outstanding example of human ingenuity and it had an instantaneous success on this, its first exhibition in Los Angeles.”

It was through lengthy newspaper descriptions like this one that prospective customers first learned about the magic of moving pictures. Note how the article begins with mention of the darkened theater and refers to the darkness again in mid-paragraph. Note too the reference to “swift electric sparks.” Neither audiences nor critics understood how the projectors worked, nor were they convinced that the electricity used to project the pictures was harmless.

After two weeks of sold-out performances, the projector and its operators left the Orpheum for a tour of nearby vaudeville houses. But it turned out that theaters outside Los Angeles could not provide the electrical power needed to run the projector, so the machine was hauled back to Los Angeles and installed in the back of Thomas Tally’s amusement parlor.

In the front of his store, Tally had set up automatic phonograph and peepshow machines that provided customers, for a nickel a play, with a few minutes of scratchy recorded sound or a few seconds of flickering moving images. Tally now partitioned off the back of his parlor for a “vitascope” room. To acquaint the public with what he billed as the “Wizard’s latest wonder,” he took out ads in the Los Angeles newspapers: “Tonight at Tally’s Phonograph Parlor, 311 South Spring St, for the first time in Los Angeles, the great Corbett and Courtney prize fight will be reproduced upon a great screen through the medium of this great and marvelous invention. The men will be seen on the stage, life size, and every movement made by them in this great fight will be reproduced as seen in actual life.”

Tally’s back room was arguably the nation’s first moving-picture theater. But although the technology for projecting moving images was in place, people turned out to be reluctant to enter a dark room to see pictures projected on a sheet. Unable to lure customers into his “theater,” Tally did the next best thing. He punched holes in the partition separating the larger storefront from the vitascope room and, according to Terry Ramsaye, invited customers to “peer in at the screen while standing in the comfortable security of the well lighted phonograph parlor. … Three peep holes were at chair level for seated spectators, and four somewhat higher for standees —standing room only after three admissions, total capacity seven. The price per peep hole was fifteen cents.”

As Tally and other storefront proprietors quickly discovered, it was not going to be easy to assemble an audience for moving pictures. Projectors were difficult to run and impossible to repair; the electrical current or batteries they ran on seldom worked properly; and the films were expensive, of poor quality, and few. But most important, customers balked at entering darkened rooms to see a few minutes of moving pictures. In April 1902 Tally tried again to open an “Electric Theater” but was forced to convert it to vaudeville after six months.

It was the same story everywhere. As a disgusted Oswego, New York, operator reported, at first the vitascope drew “crowded houses on account of its novelty. Now everybody has seen it, and, to use the vernacular of the ‘foyer,’ it does not ‘draw flies.’”

Although projected films failed to attract customers to storefront theaters during their first decade of life, they were nonetheless being introduced to millions of vaudeville fans. “Dumb” acts—animals, puppets, pantomimists, magic-lantern slides, and tableaux vivants—had traditionally opened and closed the show because, being silent, they would not be disturbed by late arrivals or early departures. The movies were, the managers now discovered, the perfect dumb acts: they were popular, cheaper than most live performers, didn’t talk back or complain about the accommodations, and could be replaced weekly.

Most of the early projectors held only fifty feet, or sixteen seconds, of film, which if looped and repeated five or six times could be stretched out to almost two minutes. Seven or eight films, displayed one after another in this fashion, lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, the perfect length for a vaudeville “turn.”

The first moving pictures, shot in Edison’s Black Maria studio in New Jersey, had been of vaudeville, musical theater, and circus acts. But audiences turned out to prefer pictures that moved across the frame: waves crashing onto a beach, trains barreling down their tracks, soldiers parading, horses racing. At the vitascope’s debut performance at Koster & Bial’s vaudeville theater in New York City, the crowd cheered loudest on seeing Rough Sea at Dover, the one picture shot outside the studio. Still, in the vaudeville halls the “living pictures” constituted one act among many.

Only in the middle of the first decade of the 1900s, after enormous improvements in the quality of the projectors and the production and distribution of films, was a new generation in show business ready to try again to lure eus- tomers into a moving-picture theater. What made the moment right was the fact that after 1903 the manufacturers—as the film producers referred to themselves—grew concerned that their customers were weary of the same old “actualities” and began to make pictures that told stories.

Although it was not possible to tell much of a story in a few silent minutes, audiences were captivated by the new films. As demand increased, the manufacturers developed assembly-line production methods, distributors streamlined the process of getting the films to exhibitors, and businessmen opened storefront theaters to exhibit the increasingly sophisticated product.

The first freestanding moving-picture theater was probably the work of Harry Davis, Pittsburgh’s most prosperous showman. In April of 1904 Davis opened an amusement arcade near his Grand Opera House. When a fire burned it down, he rented a larger storefront, but instead of outfitting it as an arcade, he filled the room with chairs, gaily decorated the exterior, and, attaching the high-toned Greek word for theater to the lowly five-cent coin, advertised the opening of a “nickelodeon.” It was an instant success.

Although Davis was certainly the first exhibitor to use the name nickelodeon, similar experiments were taking place in other parts of the country. Marcus Loew on a visit to his Cincinnati arcade in 1905 learned from his manager that a rival across the river in Covington, Kentucky, had come up with a marvelous new “idea in entertainment. … I went over with my general manager—it was on Sunday … and I never got such a thrill in my life. The show was given in an old-fashioned brownstone house, and the proprietor had the hallways partitioned off with dry goods cases. He used to go to the window and sell the tickets to the children, then he went to the door and took the tickets, and after he did that he locked the door and went up and operated the machine.… I said to my companion, ‘This is the most remarkable thing I have ever seen.’ The place was packed to suffocation.” Loew returned to Cincinnati and opened his own screen show the following Sunday. “The first day we played I believe there were seven or eight people short of five thousand and we did not advertise at all. The people simply poured into the arcade. That showed me the great possibilities of this new form of entertainment.” Back in New York City, Loew rented space for similar pictureshow theaters alongside each of his arcades.

Across the country arcade owners shut off the backs of their storefronts or rented additional space for picture shows, while vaudeville managers, traveling exhibitors, and show businessmen left their jobs to set up their own nickel picture shows.

There was a great deal of money to be made in the fledgling business, but nickelodeon owners had to work hard to introduce their product. They could not afford to advertise heavily in the papers, but they could and did design their storefront facades to call attention to their shows—with oversized entrances, attraction boards, posters, and as many light bulbs as they had room for. To draw the attention of passersby, they set up phonographs on the street outside and hired live barkers: “It is only five cents! See the moving-picture show, see the wonders of Port Said tonight, and a shrieking comedy from real life, all for five cents. Step in this way and learn to laugh!”

The din became such that local shopkeepers complained it was interfering with business. In Paterson, New Jersey, the Board of Aldermen outlawed “phonographic barkers” after complaints from storekeepers, among them M. L. Rogowski, who claimed that the “rasping music, ground out for hours at a time, annoyed his milliners until they became nervous.”

With the aural accompaniment of the barkers, the visual displays of glittering light bulbs, and word of mouth, city residents began to throng the new theaters. Contemporary commentators used terms like madness, frenzy, fever, and craze to describe the rapidity with which nickel theaters went up after about 1905. By November of 1907, a little more than two years after the opening of the first one, there were already, according to Joseph Medill Patterson of The Saturday Evening Post, “between four and five thousand [nickel shows] running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money … as one press-agent said enthusiastically, ‘this line is a Klondike.’”

It is, from our vantage point in the 1990s—suffused as we are by television, radio, CD players, and VCRs— difficult to recapture the excitement caused by the appearance of these first nickel theaters. For the bulk of the city’s population, until now shut out of its theaters and commercial amusements, the sudden emergence of not one but five or ten nickel shows within walking distance must have been nothing short of extraordinary.

Imagine for a moment what it must have meant to be able to attend a show for a nickel in your neighborhood. City folk who had never been to the theater or, indeed, to any commercial amusement (even the upper balcony at a vaudeville hall cost a quarter) could now, on their way home from work or shopping or on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon, enter the darkened auditorium, take a seat, and witness the latest technological wonders, all for five cents.

One understands the passion of the early commentators as they described in the purplest of prose what the moving-picture theater meant to the city’s working people. Mary Heaton Vorse concluded a 1911 article in The Outlook by referring to the picture-show audiences she had observed on Bleecker Street and the Bowery in New York City, “You see what it means to them; it means Opportunity—a chance to glimpse the beautiful and strange things in the world that you haven’t in your life; the gratification of the higher side of your nature; opportunity which, except for the big moving picture book, would be forever closed to you.”



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