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The Eidoloscope: Its Revival and Demise

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In May 1896, before a single vitascope states rights owner had received a machine, the Lathams and their eidoloscope reemerged as a significant competitor. Gray Latham, attending one of the early Koster & Bial screenings, saw the vitascope’s inner workings and realized it depended on an intermittent mechanism. 2 Quickly adding intermittent mechanisms to their own projectors, the Lathams opened at Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall in Manhattan on 11 May. They also exhibited at the St. James Hotel near Herald Square, in a makeshift theater set up while the hotel was awaiting demolition. Later that summer, an eidoloscope was exhibited in a tent at Coney Island. Others appeared in theaters outside New York City. T. L. Diggens, who acquired eidoloscope rights to Michigan, opened at the Detroit Opera House on 28 May and stayed for four weeks. When the vitascope occupied the Opera House on 1 July, Diggens shifted to a summer park for another week and a half. In Boston, theatrical managers hoping to revive the fortunes of their operetta The Yankee Cruiser added the new attraction in mid June. The musical was abridged to make it more palatable, and the films were shown after the final curtain. Big crowds attended the eidoloscope’s first night, but patronage fell off rapidly and the show closed at week’s end. In early July, it moved to Providence and occupied the storefront left vacant by the vitascope. Yet another machine opened in Atlantic City in early July and competed with the vitascope. 3

Eidoloscope exhibitions were aided by recently filmed subjects. Two were made in Mexico by Gray Latham and Eugène Lauste. BULLFIGHT , shot in Mexico City on 26 March, was the customary headline attraction. Lasting more than ten minutes, it was sometimes billed as a “continuous picture”—one that could play for twenty minutes without having to repeat itself. The Lathams’ camera, however, did not pan or tilt on its tripod. As a result, the New York Dramatic Mirror reported, “The bull was out of sight a good deal of the time, but one could tell by the actions of the bullfighters that he was making things very hot for them. When he did come into view it was seen that he was a very fierce animal indeed.” Among the other recent films on the first program at the Olympia were D RILL OF THE ENGINEER CORPS , also made in Mexico; WHIRLPOOL RAPIDS , NIAGARA FALLS ; and FIFTH A VENUE , EASTER S UNDAY MORNING . During their five-week New York run, the Lathams shot a new picture, THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK , borrowing the title from a popular play. “It was taken on Frankfort Street and shows a lot of little urchins dancing to the music of a street organ,” according to the Dramatic Mirror. 4 All these recent selections were actuality subjects, scenes of daily life that were similar to those being taken by the Lumières but not dependent on them for inspiration.

While BULLFIGHT was sensationalistic enough to pack the theater when the eidoloscope first appeared, the Lathams were hurt by the poor quality of their projection. 5 One reviewer who disapproved of the film, however, found that this sometimes worked to its advantage:

The whole ended with the incident of a bull fight, set forth in uninterrupted sequence. Here again there were disappointments and imperfect focussing, but there were thrilling moments when the baiting and torture of the luckless animal came out with perfect clearness. The rushes of the bull at its persecutors were vivid in their truth of life, and nothing could be more deceptive than the clouds of dust that it pawed up in the arena as it darted madly on its foes. Fortunately, the scene in which it gores a wretched horse was confused in outline, and the final slaughter of the creature, its spirit cowed and its energies wearied by the cruelties to which it had been subjected, was similarly dim and uncertain ( Boston Herald, 23 June 1896, p. 9).

The Eidoloscope Company suffered still further from internal squabbling. When the Lathams discovered the secret of the “intermittent” (as it came to be known), Woodville, claiming he had invented such a device early in 1895, applied for a patent to cover it on 1 June 1896. 6 Over the next two months, Eidoloscope shareholders repeatedly demanded that the patent application become company property. Woodville refused and finally he and his sons were expelled from the corporation. They were no longer paid their stipulated salaries; Otway was removed from the board of directors and replaced as secretary. 7 The Eidoloscope Company brought suit against Woodville Latham in the Supreme Court of New York in an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the patent application; a countersuit was also brought though not prosecuted.

With the Lathams’ departure, production of new eidoloscope films ceased and exhibitions became less frequent. Finally, in the fall of 1896, the company was sold to Raff & Gammon. One eidoloscope was subsequently attached to a touring theatrical company that performed a dramatic version of Carmen , and the bullfight film was incorporated into the fourth act as a feature. Playing in Atlanta, on 23–24 November 1896, the scene “created a great deal of enthusiasm” and the entire performance was described as “a brilliant production.” On 11 December Carmen provided residents of Austin with one of their first opportunities to see projected motion pictures. 8

After leaving the Eidoloscope Company, the Lathams did not immediately retire from the motion-picture business. Woodville’s patent application, which gave them a chance of controlling important aspects of the industry, attracted E. & H. T. Anthony & Company as an investor. President Richard A. Anthony agreed to manufacture and sell a version of the eidoloscope, renamed the biopticon, which (like the Lumières’ cinématographe) was adapted to serve as both a camera and a projector. His company also provided funds to pursue the various patent-interference cases in which Woodville Latham was involved. After the biopticon proved defective and a costly failure, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company eventually gained control of Latham’s patents. 9 Occasional eidoloscope exhibitions continued until mid 1897, but the projector did not survive cinema’s novelty era. 10

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