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35-mm Moving Pictures Become a Permanent Vaudeville Attraction

dewey vitagraph york theater

The bleak situation endured by 35-mm exhibitors changed dramatically during the course of 1899 as vaudeville theaters established permanent relations with exhibition services. Lubin’s cineograph was first: returning to Bradenburgh’s museum in Philadelphia on 30 January, it henceforth remained on the bill whenever the amusement center was open (it closed during the summer). American Vitagraph was next: the vitagraph opened at Tony Pastor’s Theater in New York City on 19 June and provided what the New York Clipper called “an entertaining part of the programme.” 17 With their own production capabilities, the Vitagraph partners offered an effective, timely service that rivaled the biograph at Keith’s. Continued enthusiasm gave it a permanent place on Pastor’s vaudeville bill for the next nine years.

Pastor’s decision to hire Vitagraph for an indefinite run paid rich dividends when Admiral Dewey arrived in New York City on 26 September to celebrate his victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. As a theatrical journal subsequently reported: “The American Vitagraph has been excelling in enterprise during the past week. Several views were taken at the Olympia [the Admiral’s flagship] and projected here the evening of the same day, and the Dewey land parade was seen on Saturday evening, five hours after the views were taken. The vitagraph is a popular fixture here and continually gains in favor.” 18 Vitagraph cameramen then followed Dewey to Washington and filmed his reception there on 3 October. The views were shown the following day at Pastor’s matinee. Following a rough chronological order, Vitagraph’s programs offered a narrative account of “Dewey’s Doings”:

  • A panoramic view of the Olympia
  • Receiving of Mayor Van Wyck and the reception committee by Admiral Dewey
  • Departure of Mayor Van Wyck and the committee
  • Arrival of Dewey at the city hall
  • Presentation of the loving cup to Dewey by Mayor Van Wyck at the city hall
  • Start of the Dewey parade from Grant’s Tomb, led by Sousa’s band
  • The West Point Cadets
  • Dewey reviewing the parade at the Dewey Arch
  • Parade from the White House, Washington, led by Dewey and President McKinley
  • Presentation of the sword to Dewey by Secretary Long and President McKinley 19

Proctor’s theaters did not show films of the Dewey celebration, although the Twenty-third Street house celebrated the admiral’s arrival by exhibiting a cycloramic oil painting of the Manila bombardment. Stereopticon slides of Dewey’s reception were also projected, but moving pictures shown at other houses received much more favorable comment in the press. Proctor’s was outdone again the following week on the occasion of the America’s Cup yacht races. While Vitagraph received applause for showing pictures of the events at Pastor’s and Koster & Bial’s Music Hall only a few hours after their occurrence, Proctor’s opted for a cumbersome and ultimately less interesting presentation: the positions of the boats on the race course were reported to the theater by Marconi’s wireless and their progress charted on an immense map between acts. 20 Since the races occurred during the day such a map was useless during the evening, when most patrons attended the theater—and on off-racing days as well.

When manager J. Austin Fynes and owner F. F. Proctor saw the error of their ways, they quickly formalized a relationship with William Paley, famed for his films of the Spanish-American War. His kalatechnoscope opened on 9 October at Proctor’s Twenty-third Street Theater and two weeks later at the Pleasure Palace, where Paley soon had an office and lab facilities that enabled him to put films on the screen with maximum speed. Paley filmed a vessel that caught fire in Long Island Sound off Rye, New York, on 14 October and then showed the results, THE BURNING OF THENUTMEG STATE ,” that same evening. He filmed AUTOMOBILE PARADE and DICK CROCKER LEAVING TAMMANY HALL in November and quickly put them on the screen. 21 In the trade papers, Fynes declared:

The secret of Moving Pictures consists in the TIMELINESS. Without that feature such an Exhibition must inevitably fail. I regard the Kalatechnoscope as incontestibly the most perfect and most thoroughly Up-to-date Machine in existence. It has proved its superior qualities in these Houses and I have booked it for an indefinite run ( Clipper, 4 November 1899, p. 756).

The kalatechnoscope was soon at Proctor’s house in Albany, New York, as well, and once the vaudeville impresario took over the Fifth Avenue Theater in May 1900 and the 125th Street Theater in August, Paley had his service in five Proctor houses on a full-time basis. The opening of Proctor’s Montreal theater in March 1901 provided Paley with a sixth permanent outlet. Although Paley exhibited in other venues, these contracts were of brief duration; Proctor was to remain his key customer in the years ahead.

The general popularity of moving pictures at this time is underscored by Paleyrelated evidence. A photograph of Proctor’s Twenty-third Street Theater in 1900 shows that over the marquee there was a sign in bright lights announcing “Moving Pictures.” The kalatechnoscope was also given a prominent role in Charles Frohman’s theatrical production of Hearts Are Trumps, which opened at New York’s Garden Theater on 21 February 1900. According to Cecil Raleigh’s script, a music-hall girl lures a lecherous, evil earl to a studio and has him surreptitiously filmed as they do a dance. Later, after the nobleman’s perfidious nature is revealed, he is humiliated—and the music hall is saved from bankruptcy—when the films are shown to delighted crowds. 22 For the play’s story to be believable, film exhibitions had to be seen as having drawing power, particularly when they could offer a popular subject.

Another exhibition service that established a permanent outlet in New York City was the newly formed Kinetograph Company. This enterprise had two silent partners: James White, head of Edison’s kinetograph department, and John Schermerhorn, assistant general manager of the Edison Manufacturing Company and also William Gilmore’s brother-in-law. The third, public partner was Percival Waters, a small, New York-based jobber of Edison films and former Vitascope Company employee. Since the Edison Company—unlike its principal licensees and rivals—did not have its own exhibition service, this newly formed partnership partially filled the void. Although Waters ran the enterprise, White and Schermerhorn sent business to him, extended him several thousand dollars worth of credit, and made films that would help their joint enterprise. 23 In November 1899, Waters’ kinetograph service opened at Huber’s Fourteenth Street Museum, where it remained for many years.

By the end of 1900, eight New York theaters—seven of them vaudeville houses—were showing moving pictures on a permanent basis. These managers had come to conceive of films quite differently from other vaudeville turns. They were permanent fixtures, not acts booked for a few weeks or months at a time. (Not coincidentally the widespread diffusion of the reframing device at this time, improved exhibitions and made a permanent service more attractive.) Vaudeville managers had come to provide film companies with steady commercial outlets that enabled them to retain the necessary staff and resources to cover important news events and provide a reliable service.

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