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Marketing and Exploiting the Kinetoscope

company edison kinetoscopes machines

On 1 April 1894, as the kinetoscope business was finally getting under way, Edison hired William E. Gilmore to replace Alfred O. Tate as his business chief. Gilmore became vice-president and general manager of the Edison Manufacturing Company, which handled Edison’s motion-picture business over the next eighteen years. (It also manufactured such items as batteries, dental equipment, and later, x-ray machines.) Edison relied on three outside groups to market his kinetoscope and films, the first and most prominent of which was a consortium of entrepreneurs that became known as the Kinetoscope Company. It included Alfred O. Tate, phonograph executives Thomas Lombard and Erastus Benson, Norman C. Raff, Frank R. Gammon, and Andrew Holland. 43 Through Tate, they had a long-standing order for the first twenty-five kinetoscopes. These were finally finished in the spring of 1894. Shipped to the Holland brothers on 6 April, the first ten machines were installed at 1155 Broadway in New York City. 44 A different film subject was placed in each kinetoscope; these were printed on a translucent film base that provided an excellent surface for the film to catch and soften the light. Manufactured by the Blair Camera Company, this frosted stock was the standard film for all kinetoscopes.

With the opening of the Holland brothers’ kinetoscope parlor on Saturday, 14 April 1894, the history of commercial motion pictures began. At twenty-five cents a ticket to see one row of five machines, or two tickets to see all ten, they had netted about $120 by evening, and this before any advertising had appeared. A second kinetoscope parlor followed in Chicago on 17 or 18 May, when the Hollands installed another ten machines at a Masonic temple. The remaining five had a San Francisco premiere on 1 June at Peter Bacigalupi’s phonograph parlor.

In its 1 April 1895 statement, the Kinetoscope Company estimated the cost of running a first-class kinetoscope parlor at about five hundred dollars a month:

Gross receipts through 1 April 1895 were $16,171.56 for its New York parlor and less than half that amount, $7,409.84, for the one in Chicago. Other exhibitions run by the group were of a more temporary nature. One in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and another in Washington, D.C., for example, were located in phonograph parlors owned by the Columbia Phonograph Company, which was also responsible for their operation. Atlantic City receipts fluctuated between $73.75 and $193 a day in July 1894; the Kinetoscope Company kept 55 percent, while Columbia assumed many expenses. 45

Edison initially sold kinetoscopes and films to a variety of customers for $250 a machine. Purchasers included Thomas L. Tally (whose family owned a phonograph parlor in Los Angeles although he was then based in Waco, Texas) and Walter Isaacs, both of whom would later play significant roles in the film industry. Kinetoscopes were often placed in summer amusement parks, such as Eagle Rock in Orange, where the novelty had its New Jersey commercial debut on 8 July 1894. It soon became apparent, however, that unrestrained, disorganized exhibition threatened to harm effective marketing, and in mid-August the Kinetoscope Company, headed by Norman Raff and Frank Gammon, was granted exclusive rights for selling regular kinetoscopes within the United States and Canada. They agreed to purchase approximately ten machines a week from Edison for $200 apiece: they then sold these for between $325 and $350 each. The Raff and Gammon partnership sold kinetoscopes only with territorial restrictions—a method similar to that previously employed by the North American Phonograph Company. 46

The Edison Manufacturing Company gradually built relations with a second group headed by Franck Z. Maguire and Joseph D. Baucus, who made their first purchases in mid July and subsequently opened a kinetoscope parlor in Brooklyn. That September they acquired the exclusive rights to sell and exhibit the kinetoscope overseas—so long as they worked the territory to Edison’s satisfaction. They were expected to dispose of thirteen machines per week for six months and eight machines a week thereafter. Incorporating the Continental Commerce Company for overseas activities, the partners operated from an office at 44 Pine Street, New York City. Their European activities commenced 17 October 1894 with the opening of a kinetoscope parlor in London that took in between seventeen and eighteen pounds a day. By early November, they had kinetoscopes operating at four other locations in the city. As Maguire wrote to Edison at the time, the invention was being treated “in the most friendly and enthusiastic way” by the British press, and arrangements were quickly made for openings in other European cities. 47

A third group, eventually called the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, was started by Otway Latham, who managed the Tilden Company, a pharmaceutical business with offices in New York City. On 16 May 1894 he deposited $1,000 toward the purchase of ten kinetoscopes, each costing $245. 48 He soon enlisted the aid of his brother, Gray; his father, Woodville; and an old college friend and fellow Tilden Company employee, Enoch J. Rector. They wanted to show films of prize fights—an idea Edison had mentioned in the press but one that had not been realized because of the kinetoscope’s limited capacity for film. It may have been Otway Latham who proposed a solution: to expand the kinetoscope’s capacity so that it could show 150 feet of film and slow down the rate of taking exposures to 30 frames per second. Running time was thus increased to slightly more than a minute, allowing each machine to show an abbreviated boxing round.

The first subject for the Latham-Rector enterprise was a six-round boxing match between Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing. The fighters, after waiting all week for a clear day, traveled to the Black Maria on Friday, 15 June. Dickson and Heise filmed the event, which received immediate front-page publicity in the New York papers. Leonard, a popular pugilist, received $150, while his rival got $50. According to the New York World,

The rounds were to last one minute only. That was necessary as the kinetograph could not be arranged to work more than one minute at a time. There were to be six rounds and between each round the men were to rest seven minutes while the men in charge of the kinetograph prepared it to receive new impressions ( New York World, 16 June 1894, p. 1).

The papers did not report the fight’s outcome, the World explained, because “Mr. Edison and the six wise men were too excited to remember just what happened, and the accounts of the two fighters vary.” The uncertainty was clearly designed to encourage boxing afficionados to pay sixty cents to see the fight—ten cents a round—and learn the results “first-hand.”

In July, Otway Latham and Enoch Rector officially changed their May order from ten regular to twelve large-capacity (150-foot) kinetoscopes. In early August, Latham paid the Edison Manufacturing Company $700, enough for the first six machines. Another $450 payment in mid August may have been for the films, which would have enabled them to open their parlor at 83 Nassau Street and exhibit THE LEONARD-CUSHING FIGHT . Meanwhile, Latham and Rector found a major new source of financing in their employer, Samuel Tilden, Jr., who was heir to a large fortune left to him by his uncle, a former governor of New York. In mid August, Otway Latham placed an order for seventy-two special kinetoscopes at $300 a machine, not including films and batteries. The next set of six was to be delivered in early September, and the third, two weeks later. 49

New financing allowed the group to produce a more ambitious subject of international interest. They arranged a fight between heavyweight champion James Corbett, then appearing in the Broadway play Gentleman Jack, and New Jersey pugilist Peter Courtney. The champion was purportedly guaranteed $5,000 if he could knock out Courtney in the sixth round. The fighter also signed a royalty agreement that proved even more profitable: he was to receive $150 per week (later reduced to $50) for each set of films on exhibition in the kinetoscopes. The bout came off on 7 September as planned. Corbett delivered a knockout blow in the sixth round and newspapers reported the event in great detail. Prize fighting, however, was forbidden in New Jersey, as in the rest of the country. Perhaps because this kinetoscope fight involved the heavyweight champion, a knockout, and extensive publicity, Judge David A. Depue in Newark started a grand-jury investigation. Edison was subpoenaed but denied any involvement or knowledge of the event—even though his presence was reported in the press. The matter was eventually dropped, and CORBETT AND COURTNEY BEFORE THE KINETOGRAPH (better known as THE CORBETT-COURTNEY FIGHT ) achieved wide popularity. 50

The Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company opened its second parlor at 587 Broadway in New York City. On 14 September Rector inspected the finished machines at the West Orange laboratory, prior to their expected delivery that afternoon, and by 23 September, the enlarged kinetoscopes were in operation. The parlor soon had to shut down, however, since, as Latham explained in a letter to Gilmore, the films were “breaking as fast as we put them on.” This mechanical problem was quickly solved, however, and the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company went on to open parlors in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, after which the machines went on tour. Arrangements were also made with Maguire & Baucus for exhibitions overseas. Despite these initial successes, Otway Latham displayed few organizational skills and his conflicting instructions soon strained relations with the Edison firm, with the result that he was removed as manager. The exhibitions nevertheless proved popular and profitable—at least for Corbett. By August 1896 he had received $13,307. Even after projection caught on, the films remained in use, and Samuel J. Tilden, Jr., was forced to keep paying Corbett: the final sum exceeded $20,000. 51

The Edison Manufacturing Company enjoyed great prosperity in the year following the introduction of the peephole kinetoscope. From 1 April 1894 through 28 February 1895, motion picture sales totaled:

Profits came to $85,337.83. The three groups were responsible for approximately 80 percent of these sales. By the end of February 1895 Maguire & Baucus had purchases totaling $71,810.44; Otway Latham and the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, $14,270.45, and the Raff & Gammon and Kinetoscope Company people, $57,536.66. This last group’s gross profit on sales through 15 March wasFor the following business year (28 February 1895-1 March 1896), however, total sales for Edison’s film-related business fell to $49,896.03 and profits to $4,140.94;while kinetoscope sales remained substantial into the spring of 1895, they slumped precipitously that summer and never recovered. 52

With the approaching winter of 1894-1895, production activities declined but included FIRE RESCUE SCENE , a spectacle with smoke effects that showed firemen saving a family from its burning home, and CHINESE LAUNDRY SCENE , a shortened vaudeville routine in which a “Chinaman” eludes an Irish cop through an impressive display of acrobatics. The latter film, featuring the two Italian performers Robetta and Doreto, was an early attempt at ethnic comedy. Filmmaking picked up briefly in early spring with scenes taken from plays (QUARTETTE from Trilby ), musical revues (JAMES GRUNDY from The South Before the War ), and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus (DANCE OF REJOICING with Samoan Islanders, PRINCESS ALI ). Once sales declined, however, filmmaking was again curtailed. To encourage new activity, the wholesale price for kinetoscopes was cut in May to $127.50, with machines retailing for not more than $250. In fact, this did little to spur business. Another flurry of film production occurred in late August and September as Raff & Gammon employee Alfred Clark was assigned responsibility for making new subjects. Several were historical, including JOAN OF ARC and THE EXECUTION OF MARY , QUEEN OF SCOTS , which Heise shot outdoors near the West Orange laboratory. THE EXECUTION OF MARY , QUEEN OF SCOTS used “stop-motion substitution” to show the decapitation of Mary (played by Robert

Thomae, secretary and treasurer of the Kinetoscope Company): just before the beheading took place, the camera stopped, Thomae was replaced by a dummy, and the filming resumed. When the two takes were spliced together, the interruption was not evident to the spectator and appeared as one continuous shot. This stop-motion substitution, along with the depiction of historical subject matter, were significant innovations; even so, Clark’s film subjects commanded only modest sales, and very few additional pictures were made in the following months. 53

Edison and his associates tried to revive their motion-picture business in April 1895 with the introduction of the long-promised kinetophone, combining kinetoscope and phonograph. The spectator looked through a peephole viewer and listened simultaneously to a recording through earphones. Subjects were usually dances or musical numbers, which required only loose synchronization. Pictures were rarely if ever made especially for the kinetophone. The only surviving exception, usually identified as DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM , was never shown commercially. Taken in the Black Maria, it shows Dickson playing the violin as two men dance. Kinetophones began to be sold for as much as four hundred dollars, but the demand was small and only forty-five had been made by early 1900. 54

Edison’s motion-picture business faced multiple difficulties by summer 1895. Maguire & Baucus encountered serious competition in England, where Robert W. Paul was making duplicate kinetoscopes and his own original films, and these activities were safe from legal action because of Edison’s failure to patent his motion-picture inventions overseas. While the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company continued its operations, its attempts to take films of another championship fight were repeatedly frustrated. Raff & Gammon’s orders declined not only because the novelty of kinetoscope motion pictures was fading but because, as Raff wrote to Dickson in January 1896, “other parties got out machines and sold them at low figures.” 55 The principal domestic imitation was made by Charles E. Chinnock, a former Edison associate. On the market by early 1895, these Chinnock kinetoscopes were placed in the Eden Musee and other amusement centers. Raff & Gammon were eventually forced to sell machines for one hundred dollars apiece (seventy dollars wholesale), which greatly reduced their profit margin. Volume also dropped, and late in the business year there were months when they did not sell a single machine.

The declining kinetoscope business was reflected in personnel changes. W. K. L. Dickson, increasingly disenchanted with his situation at the Edison laboratory, left the inventor’s employ in April 1895, and Alfred Clark returned to the phonograph business late in the year. James White and Charles Webster, who had worked for the Holland brothers and then exhibited their own kinetoscopes, sold their machines. White also reembraced the recording industry, while Webster took Clark’s place at Raff & Gammon. 56 With Raff & Gammon ready to sell or even liquidate the Kinetoscope Company, Edison’s motion-picture novelty might have suffered the fate of the tin-foil phonograph—had it not been rescued by projection.

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