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The White Rats Strike

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According to one contemporary observer, Robert Grau, film exhibition in vaudeville houses assumed special prominence and reached a quantitative peak with the White Rats vaudeville strike of 1901. While this claim has been alternately accepted and contested, historians have generally shied away from the extensive research necessary for even a preliminary assessment. 24 On 21 February, the White Rats of America, an organization of vaudeville performers, walked out of the theaters controlled by the Eastern members of the Association of Vaudeville Managers, which included Benjamin F. Keith, F. F. Proctor, P. B. Chase in Washington, and Hyde & Behman and Percy Williams in Brooklyn. For Grau, who was then a theatrical agent, “the situation proved not only an opportunity but a harvest,” reported the New York Dramatic Mirror on 2 March. “He met the difficulty thoroughly and didn’t sleep for seventy-two hours.” Scouring New York’s metropolitan area for acts to place in these short-handed houses, Grau experienced the crisis firsthand.

The strike appears to have had little impact on the number of machines used in Manhattan, Boston, and several other cities, since the houses that were struck already exhibited motion pictures on a regular basis. In these places, however, films often assumed a more important role insofar as they filled in for missing acts. 25 Not surprisingly, evidence for such activities is sketchy, since the newspapers generally played down the troubles of managers who advertised prominently in their pages.

The situation was quite different in Brooklyn, where not a single vaudeville house showed films on a permanent basis prior to the strike. Although Percy Williams had occasionally placed the vitagraph in his three theaters since January 1899, many weeks went by when films were not shown in any Brooklyn house. As the strike began, one Williams venue happened to be showing films (THE M C GOVERN-GANS FIGHT ), but it belonged to a touring vaudeville company. By the following week, however, the vitagraph was playing in all three of Williams’ locations, and the biograph became a last-minute addition at Hyde & Behman’s. Thus, as the strike went into its first full week, four Brooklyn vaudeville houses had added films.

Managers were clearly ready to use films to fight the strike and fill out their bills. Just as clearly, the motion-picture companies were pleased to accommodate them. It is worth noting, moreover, that those houses supporting the White Rats, such as Koster & Bial’s, did not have any motion pictures on their bills during the strike. Vaudevillians generally evinced negative attitudes toward motion pictures, seeing them as a money-saving device for management. Although Brooklyn was an extreme example, the Biograph Company reported that “there are more Biographs playing in the leading vaudeville theatres of the United States than have been in any week since moving pictures were invented.” 26 In Washington, P. B. Chase hired the biograph to fill out his strike-battered bill and kept it there for almost four months. Generally, the boom was short-lived. In Brooklyn, Hyde & Behman quickly dropped the biograph, and Williams soon retained the services of only one vitagraph, which he rotated among his theaters. Nonetheless, Vitagraph had won a new, permanent outlet and cemented relations with an important manager.

The impact of motion pictures on the White Rats strike, and vice versa, was thus real if modest. Films provided only one of several ways to flesh out bills depleted bystriking performers. In some cases, the pictures made a difference in the managers’ ability to operate their houses, but they were not in themselves decisive. Nevertheless, the exhibition services had proved that they were the managers’ allies, bringing the two groups closer together. Perhaps this saved some outlets for films during the “chaser period” that would follow. Grau therefore seems a credible chronicler of events, but with an important proviso: generalizing from his own experiences with the Brooklyn houses, where the situation was the most serious, he overstated the nationwide significance of this incident. 27

Steady outlets and relative prosperity required new organizational structures. The heads of successful 35-mm exhibition services became less involved in actually presenting the films and focused more on management. At Vitagraph, Blackton and Smith were responsible for keeping accounts as well as acquiring and making new films, while Rock booked theaters and handled commercial relations. Others were hired to serve as projectionists. (Nonetheless, all three partners continued to pursue outside interests: magic work for Smith, chalk acts for Blackton, and slot machines for Rock.) The activities of traveling exhibitor Lyman Howe also reflected this separation of planning and execution. Beginning with the 1899–1900 theatrical season, he stopped traveling with his company and instead established a base in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to devote himself to planning and administration. Freed from actual performances, Howe cultivated his contacts with New York producers, enriched his selection of films, and improved the quality of his exhibitions.

As they sought to change programs each week at their permanent venues (a goal not always attained), American exhibition services benefited from a growing diversity of films from foreign sources. Walter Wainwright, William Rock’s original partner in the Louisiana Vitascope enterprise, acted as Vitagraph’s special London agent, thus assuring an attractive supply of European subjects. In 1900 American Vitagraph had 246 non-Edison films in its collection, 117 of which were made in England and 66 in France. Méliès’s trick films in particular were reported to have “created no end of merriment” among American spectators and proved an invaluable antidote to a year of war topicals; by 1899 Lubin boasted two such trick films, both of which he called A TRIP TO THE MOON (one was undoubtedly LA LUNE À UNMÈTRE , otherwise known in English as THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM ). 28 The most popular and influential Méliès’s film was C INDERELLA , which first appeared in the United States during the 1899 Christmas holidays. Its use of dissolves when shifting from scene to scene was soon emulated by Blackton and Smith (CONGRESS OF NATIONS © 16 November 1900) and then others, but the unprecedented spectacle of CINDERELLA exceeded any American accomplishment for some time. Over the next few years the film was a featured attraction wherever it played, underscoring both the importance of international contacts and the popularity of more ambitious films. American production, weakened by Edison’s patent suits, was increasingly supplemented by overseas productions.

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