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Problems with the Vitascope

raff rights business gammon

The vitascope entrepreneurs were plagued by a wide range of problems. At first, only a handful of people (Thomas Armat and his brothers, Edward Murphy, James White, and one or two others) knew how to set up and operate the machines; these experts raced from city to city trying to salvage dire situations. Eurio Hopkins’ terse telegram from Providence was typical: "Rush Murphy quick. In trouble. Also competent man permanent. Turned five hundred away. Unable to give performance. "There were no instructions to send out with the machines; in the best of circumstances, mechanically minded men like Tennessee rights owner W. R. Miller figured out how to assemble the parts and run the machines on their own. 37 Adjustments were often imperfect and sometimes resulted in unnecessary technical difficulties.

The electricity needed to power the vitascopes was one of the entrepreneur’s biggest headaches. The machines were designed to run on the direct current favored by Edison, but many locations were wired for alternating current instead. As Robert C. Allen has pointed out, the nation’s patchwork of conflicting currents and voltages meant that the projectors frequently had to be adapted to different conditions when moved to a new locale. In some instances, electricity had to be pulled off streetcar lines: when J. Hunter Armat confronted this situation in Baltimore, he declined to present the show, and it was several days before his more experienced brother Christopher arrived and solved the problem. With streetcars using five hundred volts, the vitascope was overloaded and frequently subjected the motion-picture operator to painful shocks. The electrical problem was so severe that theater manager Charles Ford decided not to renew his four-week contract and waited for a more amenable machine to come along. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, meanwhile, Andrew Holland wrote Raff & Gammon that “If I have to get a special motor for every town I go into I may as well drop this country altogether, except in towns large enough to support an electric railway system. In Ottawa the alternating system is 52 volts 1600 frequency; here it is 104 volts. I do not know the frequency, but I thought you had overcome the difficulty of differences in frequency by the adoption of cone pulleys.” The Halifax showing was a failure because of electrical problems, and Holland lost two hundred dollars out of pocket. 38

Solutions were diverse, often ingenious, but rarely satisfactory. In Los Angeles, R. S. Paine, Charles H. Balsley, and Edwin S. Porter relied on batteries to power their machine; after working imperfectly on opening night, the vitascope was soon performing up to standard. But such a solution was not generally practical, since the quantity of batteries needed to project the films would have been prohibitive for someone moving from town to town. Many locales simply did not have electricity. In North Dakota, for example, only four towns could supply electrical power of any kind. In Canada, Andrew Holland tried bicycle power in the hope that "I can make myself entirely independent of electric light and power, and consequently will be able to work the small towns through this country to advantage. " 39 This, however, did not give the same steady power and clean light as electricity.

Films were another major expense, costing as much as $12.50 for a new 50-foot (actually 42-foot) subject. To make matters worse, the Edison Company often failed to turn out film prints of acceptable quality. The first exhibitions relied on the semitranslucent strips intended for kinetoscopes. When the Blair Camera Company finally produced a clear-base celluloid film stock, it proved unsatisfactory as the emulsion peeled off the base. Exhibitors despaired at the poor quality of films: some prints lasted only a couple of nights. A. F. Rieser was reduced to sending back those that wore out in less than a week. Edmund McLoughlin complained that his films were very gray and discussed the problem with experts at Eastman Kodak of Rochester, New York, already the country’s leading manufacturer of photographic supplies. They suggested that Edison was not using the proper emulsion. McLoughlin also informed them that “the Eastman Co. are shipping very heavily to France. They made a positive and negative emulsion and claim better results than you get.” Finally, in mid September the Edison Manufacturing Company shifted its purchases of raw stock to Eastman. From that time on, the photographic manufacturer has been the principal American supplier of motion-picture raw stock. 40

Individual vitascope entrepreneurs faced still other problems. In more rural areas, the screen novelty was greeted with little enthusiasm or patronage. “After the thing becomes ancient history these Yankees may become interested. But it is a harder task to interest the Maine natives in something new, than it is to preach free silver coinage to Wall Street bankers,” declared C. O. Richardson in a letter to the Vitascope Company. W. R. Miller apparently had the same problem with Southerners, as his gross income with the vitascope generally fluctuated between five and thirty-four dollars a day. Far from major urban centers, people were often suspicious of urban popular amusements. In Skowhegan, Maine, Richardson reported, WMELON CONTEST was considered “nasty and vulgar because of the spitting and slobbering,” and he thus had to ask Raff & Gammon for a replacement. City, county, and state licenses often reflected this hostility. As the owner of the Tennessee rights complained, “The only city where a good business can be done is Memphis where the City license is $22.50 per day. State and county are extra so you see that is prohibitive.” 41 Eventually, many of the problems evoked by states rights owners were resolved: electrical difficulties were ameliorated if not completely eliminated; Eastman’s satisfactory film stock was adopted; and although vitascope exhibitors complained about the shortage of films, their choice of titles continued to grow.

Despite these improvements, states rights owners rarely recouped their investments. Most did little more than meet expenses, and Wainwright and Rock were the only ones ever to claim a profit. In early September a Holland brother wrote to Raff:

I am completely disheartened about the Vitascope business in consequence of the wretched films we have been receiving of late. If there is no improvement, it is simply out of the question altogether doing business under present conditions, and I do not wonder at the statements I hear from exhibitors in the United States that they are not making money to warrant paying large bonuses for territory (3 September 1896, MH-BA).

A month later, C. O. Richardson reported to the Vitascope Company:

The Vitascope business in Maine has been no picnic by any means. Without counting a dollar for services of myself, wife and daughter, who had done all the work, we have since June, profited enough above running expenses to just pay costs of film and rental. After four months work with state two thirds covered I am still out my original $1000 for state (4 October 1896, MH-BA).

The expense and difficulty of introducing a new technology became their burden, allowing others to prosper.

Raff & Gammon, Thomas Armat, and Thomas Edison were the people who chiefly profited from the vitascope. Although the novelty’s New York run at Koster & Bial’s ended in mid August 1896, Raff & Gammon reopened at Proctor’s two New York vaudeville houses in mid September and remained for almost two months. By the time this run was concluded, Raff & Gammon had made over $10,000 from their exhibition contracts in that city alone. 42 Sales of territory and business dealings with the states rights owners must have roughly tripled that amount. Armat probably accrued more than $10,000. The Edison Company’s film-related profits for the 1896 business year were almost $25,000, while the famed inventor received additional compensation from Raff & Gammon in an informal royalty arrangement. Their success was thus in stark contrast to the fate of states rights owners, who never regained the money from their purchase of territory. These local entrepreneurs faced many impediments to success, but only one that could not be overcome: the problem created by competing motion-picture enterprises.

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