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Local Debuts of the Vitascope

june theater july weeks

While the New York debut created intense demand for “the latest Edison invention,” the ability to satisfy this desire was hampered by delays in the manufacturing of vitascope projectors. This was particularly frustrating for states rights owners, who had to watch enticing contracts disappear for lack of machines. The most lucrative commercial arrangements could be made during the regular theatrical season, which drew to a close in most parts of the country sometime during May. Allen F. Rieser, who had been promised a machine in mid March, was impatient and “d—mad” by the second week in May. “The [Summer] Parks that want to engage the Vitascope that I know of wire us if we cannot show them what we have and conclude our engagement they will drop us,” he wrote to Raff & Gammon. “Just now I got a telegram from Cleveland Ohio asking whether I could be there on the 16th with the machine. This is the biggest Park in that section of the country. I have to reject them which may be a matter of a couple of thousand dollars.” W. R. Miller likewise wrote that he could have extended his phonograph tour and made another five hundred dollars instead of vainly waiting in Tennessee for a promise to be kept. 30 It was not until mid May that the Edison Manufacturing Company completed the first group of projectors.

The vitascope opened in a dozen major cities and resorts, between mid May and mid June. Many others followed in subsequent weeks:

Boston (18 May)
Camden, N.J. [?] (21 May)
Hartford (21 May)
Atlantic City (23 May)
Philadelphia (25 May)
New Haven (28 May)
Providence (4 June)
Buffalo (8 June)
San Francisco (8 June)
Meriden, Ct. (8 June)
Nashville (13 June)
Baltimore (15 June)
Bridgeport, Ct. (15 June)
New London, Ct. (15 June)
St. Louis (15 June)
Portland, Me. (22 June)
Bergen Beach, N.Y. ( ca. 22 June)
Scranton (22 June)
New Orleans (28 June)
Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (29 June)
Cleveland (1 July)
Asbury Park (1 July)
Detroit (1 July)
Los Angeles (5 July)
Chicago (5 July)
Milwaukee (26 July)

Vitascope openings occurred throughout the continental United States in any locality large enough to boast an electrical system. The rapid pace of these debuts strained Raff & Gammon’s resources beyond the breaking point (Raff even suffered a nervous breakdown), but they were generally well received, and the resulting popularity, publicity, and broad diffusion established “Edison’s vitascope” as the first motion-picture projector in the minds of the American public.

The vitascope was presented in various types of entertainment venues, thus extending the eclectic nature of sites already used for motion-picture exhibitions by the Lathams. Vaudeville introduced amusement-goers to projected motion pictures in many major cities:

  • The vitascope ran at Benjamin F. Keith’s Boston vaudeville house for twelve weeks and at his Philadelphia theater for nine. In each locale, it remained the principal feature on the bill throughout the run.

The California states rights owners arranged with Gustave Walter to play his Orpheum houses in San Francisco (three weeks) and Los Angeles (two weeks).

  • The vitascope had its Chicago premiere at Hopkins’ South Side Theater, where it remained on the vaudeville bill for twenty consecutive weeks. “It is not only an interesting and instructive novelty for the regular patrons of the house,” manager J. D. Hopkins declared, “but is drawing scores and hundreds of people who never before attended this popular form of entertainment.” He went on to claim that the previous Sunday’s business "was the heaviest ever known in the ‘ten-twenty-thirty’ style of entertainment in this country. " 31

  • In Louisville, the vitascope was introduced on 20 September at a newly opened vaudeville house and helped to make it a success.

  • In Cleveland, where no vaudeville was presented during the summer, A. F. Rieser engaged a hall and presented the vitascope along with his own small vaudeville company. 32

Theaters offering other entertainment forms also showed the vitascope. In Connecticut, “Wizard Edison’s most marvelous Invention” joined with the touring hypnotist Santanelli. Starting in Hartford and moving next to New Havens Grand Opera House, Santanelli often received more attention than the vitascope. More commonly, films were shown in conjunction with plays, musicals, and even operas.

In St. Louis, vitascope moving pictures were exhibited immediately after the opera The Bohemian Girl. Spectators could either see the films from an outdoor garden or remain inside the theater.

  • In Milwaukee, the manager of the Academy of Music engaged Hixson and Wollam’s vitascope for an exclusive appearance at his theater, which featured a new play each week and a few specialties between acts. Receiving four hundred dollars a week, the vitascope entrepreneurs played two weeks in late July and early August, then returned for another two weeks in mid September and a single week in early November.
  • In Albany, New York, on 17 August, the vitascope debuted between the acts of a play presented by the Corse Payton Company.
  • At an opening in Atlanta, Georgia, on 16 November, the Florence Hamilton Company staged a different play each night, with moving pictures concluding each performance. Although Jenkins and Armat had failed to draw audiences of any size at the city’s Cotton States Exposition, their invention now became "the reigning fad. " 33

Storefronts were another frequently used outlet for vitascope entrepreneurs. Such premises had often been occupied by phonograph exhibitors and other showmen anxious to avoid the expense and brief runs associated with a regular theater. Once an appropriate space was rented, they could give exhibitions for weeks at a time and pocket all the income above expenses.

  • Residents of Providence, Rhode Island—including the mayor and the city’s leading citizens—flocked to a storefront show during the first part of June to see ten films for twenty-five cents. Screenings went on twelve hours a day (11 A.M. to 11 P.M. ) for four weeks, and according to the Providence Journal of 7 June, the "Standing Room Only " sign was often on display in both the afternoons and the evenings.

After playing for a month at a nearby summer park, Walter Wainwright and William Rock operated a storefront moving-picture show at 6 23 Canal Street in New Orleans. With a ten-cent admission fee, this profitable effort (one of the few) ran from 26 July through September.

  • After earlier turns in nearby summer parks, the New York Vitascope Company opened storefronts in Rochester on 4 September and in Buffalo later in the month. Although the Rochester venue at 6 4 South Street was “a very fine store in the best location in the city,” McLoughlin grossed only one hundred dollars during the first seven days—much less than expenses. Nonetheless, he remained there at least a month. In late December, he opened another storefront in Utica and stayed for five weeks. Fifteen films were presented at each showing for an admission fee of ten to fifteen cents. 34

Many of these storefronts were variations on phonograph and kinetoscope parlors.

  • In Nashville, Tennessee, the vitascope was featured in the main room, while nickel-in-the-slot phonographs were in the foyer. There, W. R. Miller tried various methods of ballyhooing his films. “I started giving a half hour show for 25¢ but it didn’t work, so I put the price [at] 10¢ and run one film and change every fifteen minutes in the evening. In that way many people spend 50¢ or more where they would not spend a quarter.”

The California vitascope exhibitors began to show their machine in the rear of T. L. Tally’s Los Angeles kinetoscope and phonograph storefront in late July.

  • In Asbury Park, Edison’s Electrical Casino had the vitascope in its small theater, and kinetoscopes and phonographs in the annex. 35

Summer parks and resorts provided popular locations for vitascope exhibitions during the warm weather. In most cases these venues were either small theaters that functioned like the urban storefronts or summer theaters adapted for vaudeville.

  • The vitascope was presented at three summer parks near Philadelphia, one of which, Willow Grove Park, featured the vitascope, an X-ray machine, kinetoscopes, and phonographs in its newly opened theater.
  • At the Casino, a summer vaudeville theater at Baltimore’s Arlington Electric Park (run by Ford’s Theater manager Charles E. Ford), there was only one projector in operation, and a film was shown after each vaudeville act. By the second week of the vitascope run, 3,500 people attended on a single day, with each paying twenty-five cents. Most were drawn by the screen novelty, and, the Baltimore Sun reported, the show became “a favorite point for cyclers out on an evening ride.”
  • In Atlantic City, which relied heavily on Philadelphia vacationers, Peter Kiefaber exhibited the vitascope at the Scenic Theater, at “the very centre of the ‘Board-walk’ and the only room fitted up in theatrical style, finely lit up by electricity and with drop seats.” Arthur Hotaling, who saw his first motion pictures there, felt that Kiefaber’s lack of showmanship was responsible for his poor box-office receipts. Hotaling, who had previously run a “living picture show” in which performers formed tableaux in imitation of well-known paintings, offered his expertise to the inexperienced showman and was soon managing the theater. Later he recalled:

As a showman one of my best assets was an ability to handle a brush, and the first thing I did was to plaster the front with banners. The two star films were Cissy Fitzgerald in her dance and the John C. Rice-May Irwin kiss, and I decorated the front with these in vivid color. Then I fixed up the entrance so that the curtain could be drawn back to display the screen. If we saw anyone in the crowd getting interested we would drop the curtain and he would have to pay his dime to see the rest. Generally, though, we would show part of the Fitzgerald picture and I would make a “spiel” about the kiss picture, which was from "The Widow Jones, " then a recent Broadway hit. Business picked up ( MPW, 15 July 1916, p. 380).

In August Kiefaber was running another vitascope in a second Atlantic City location, probably a storefront.

  • At Bergen Beach, a resort near Coney Island that was run by Percy Williams, the vitascope played in its own small theater and each day, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, delighted “hundreds by its almost perfect simulation of moving scenes in real life.” 36

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