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The New York Debut

vitascope machine band shown

Raff & Gammon choreographed an abbreviated but effective promotional campaign to launch the vitascope. From the outset, they had decided to have the premiere in New York City, the nation’s entertainment and media capital. “Judging from our experience with the Kinetoscope, we are pretty well satisfied that we can do much better and make more money for both parties by exhibiting the machine at the start exclusively in New York City,” they wrote to Armat, explaining that the “reports through the news-papers go out through the country, and we shall do a lot of advertising in the shape of news-paper articles which will excite the curiosity of parties interested in such things.” 16

Edison’s name and involvement guaranteed extensive media attention. The degree of his cooperation, however, remained uncertain until the popular hero had actually attended a private screening on 27 March. Not only did the machine receive his complete approval, but the “Wizard of Menlo Park” stood ready to play the role of inventor assigned to him. Participating in a press screening at his laboratory on 3 April, he stole the show; if Armat was present, he stayed discreetly in the background. As the New York Journal reported the next day:

For the first time since Edison had been working on his new invention, the vitascope, persons other than his trusted employes and assistants were allowed last night to see the workings of the wonderful machine. For two hours dancing girls and groups of figures, all of life size, seemed to exist as realities on the big white screen which had been built at one end of the experimenting rooms.

Representatives of the New York World and other dailies also attended. As predicted, their reports soon appeared in newspapers nationwide.

On 23 March Raff & Gammon approached Albert Bial and asked him to book the vitascope at his Koster & Bial’s Music Hall on Thirty-fourth Street and Broadway for a fee of $800 a week. 17 These negotiations were concluded in early April, and when the entertainment opened on 23 April, according to the New York Dramatic Mirror, it “was a success in every way and the large audience testified its approval of the novelty by the heartiest kind of applause.” 18 The debut helped to sell additional territory; soon only exhibition rights for the South remained unpurchased.

Although Koster & Bial’s program promised as many as twelve views, only six scenes were shown on opening night according to New York newspaper accounts:

The first view showed two dancers holding between and in front of them an umbrella and dancing the while. The position of the umbrella was constantly changed, and every change was smooth and even, and the steps of the dancing could be perfectly followed. [UMBRELLA DANCE ]

Then came the waves, showing a scene at Dover pier after a stiff blow. This was by far the best view shown, and had to be repeated many times. As in the umbrella dance, there was absolutely no hitch. One could look far out to sea and pick out a particular wave swelling and undulating and growing bigger and bigger until it struck the end of the pier. Its edge then would be fringed with foam, and finally, in a cloud of spray, the wave would dash upon the beach. One could imagine the people running away ( New York Mail and Express, 24 April 1896, p. 12).

This was followed by a burlesque boxing bout, in which the contestants were a very tall, thin man and a very short, stout one. The little fellow was knocked down several times, and the movements of the boxers were well represented. A scene from “A Milk White Flag” was next shown, in which soldiers and a military band perform some complex evolutions. A group representing Uncle Sam, John Bull, Venezuela and the Monroe doctrine got a good welcome from the patriotic. The last picture was a serpentine dancer. The color effects were used in this, and it was one of the most effective of the series (New York Daily News, 24 April 1896).

The Music Hall band accompanied the images with appropriate music. Two of the films were in color, using a hand-tinting process similar to that for stereopticon slides. This was almost certainly done by the wife of Edmund Kuhn, an Edison employee in Orange, New Jersey. 19

Reviewers considered the projection of Edison’s peephole figures in stereopticon fashion as a screen novelty. The New York Mail and Express explained to its readers, “In the vitascope the figures of the kinetoscope are projected, enlarged to life-size, upon a screen in much the same manner as ordinary, everyday stereopticon images.” The exhibition methods that typified later vitascope screenings were already in use at the premiere. As with the kinetoscope, each film was spliced end-to-end to form a continuous band so that a brief twenty-second scene could be shown over and over again. Jump cuts regularly appeared at the splice. With the dancers and the waves rolling onto the beach, this jump was not disruptive; with most other subjects, however, the splice created what the Mail and Express called “a few hitches in the changes.” 20 Although one exhibitor reported showing each endless band of film only three times before turning off his machine, a subject was usually repeated at least half a dozen times. As was to be the case at some other important showings, Koster & Bial’s used two vitascopes, so that while one film was being shown on one machine, the subject on the other could be taken off and replaced by a new one (a process that took approximately two minutes).

By projecting one-shot films in an endless band, the vitascope emphasized movement and lifelike images at the expense of narrative. As Raff & Gammon claimed in their prospectus, “When the machine is started by the operator, the bare canvas before the audience instantly becomes a stage, upon which living beings move about, and go through their respective acts, movements, gestures and changing expressions, surrounded by appropriate settings and accessories—the very counterpart of the stage, the field, the city, the country—yes, more, for these reproductions are in some respects more satisfactory, pleasing and interesting than the originals.” The spectators were thus assumed to make a conscious comparison between the projected image and the everyday world as they knew and experienced it directly. It was the unprecedented congruence between the two that was being celebrated. Projected images were conceived as a novelty in which lifelike movement in conjunction with a life-size photographic image provided a sense of heightened realism and intensified interest in the quotidian. This new level of realism dramatically expanded the screen’s importance as a source of commercial amusement.

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