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The Industry Outside New York

chicago fire selig company

The 35-mm motion-picture industry functioned on two different levels in the late 1890s. Film sales were commonly international in scope even as exhibitions were executed by regionally based companies. New York was clearly the industry’s heart, but Chicago and Philadelphia were active centers too. In Philadelphia, Lubin prospered as his cineograph service became a permanent attraction at Bradenburgh’s Museum and toured with traveling vaudeville and burlesque companies like Sam Devere’s Own Company. Other exhibition outlets included a small, portable theater that opened in October 1899, on the esplanade of Philadelphia’s National Export Exposition and remained for a month. 31 Lubin even began to penetrate the New York market early in 1899, when the cineograph played at Huber’s Museum. Yet the threat (and reality) of legal action against theaters employing his service prevented Lubin from establishing a strong presence in New York.

The scale of Lubin’s film production may well have rivaled Edison’s during this period. Although the Philadelphia producer relied heavily on fight-film reenactments, he made many comedies and actualities (even if they were less prominently advertised). His photographers shot many newsworthy subjects in the Philadelphia area, including the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) parade on 4 September 1899 and the Republican National Convention in mid June of the following year. A fire in Hoboken, New Jersey, involving three ocean liners and the loss of three hundred lives was filmed on 30 June 1900. Lubin, like Biograph and Edison, sent a cameraman to film the Galveston disaster with sweeping panoramas. For TAKING OUT THE DEAD AND WOUNDED and SCENES OF THE WRECKAGE FROM THE WATER FRONT , the photographer introduced large signs that clearly named the ruined businesses


THE TRAMP’S DREAM is a remarkable three-shot subject made late in 1899. 32 The opening shot, showing a tramp asleep on the grass, is followed by that of the dream—the tramp graciously received in a parlor by members of well-to-do society. He charms an attractive young lady and enjoys a delicious lunch. The final shot returns to the sleeping tramp as he wakes up and disappointedly realizes that the preceding scene was only a dream. The film’s title assisted the spectator in understanding the relationship between shots. This and other films suggest that Lubin’s filmmaking activities were much more vital in this period than has been generally recognized.

The situation in Chicago was different from that on the East Coast. For one thing, vaudeville managers had not developed comparable relationships with exhibitors. Kohl, Castle, and Middleton, who controlled many of the major vaudeville houses in Chicago, almost never placed films on their programs. From early 1899 to mid 1901, the average number of advertised exhibitions in Chicago had declined 30 percent from the novelty era, averaging less than two sites per week. Nor was the concept of cinema as a visual newspaper so fully developed, in part because Chicago was not comparable to New York as a news center. 33 The Dewey celebration in New York City, for example, occurred in September 1899, while its Chicago equivalent was not held until 1 May 1900, by which time commemorating Dewey’s victory had become a somewhat tiresome ritual. Boat races and visits by foreign dignitaries occurred earlier or more frequently on the East Coast than in the Midwest. Finally, the rivalry between Chicago and New York was particularly strong in the areas of culture and entertainment, and not surprisingly, East Coast exhibitors—with their emphasis on East Coast news—were avoided by Midwestern managers.

William Selig and George Spoor emerged as the principal Chicago-based exhibitors in the period after the Spanish-American War. Like their East Coast counterparts, they abandoned the generic term “wargraph” in late 1898 or early 1899 and took distinctive names for their services. Selig’s service was known as the polyscope, Spoor’s as the kinodrome. Spoor’s kinodrome appeared at two Kohl & Castle’s theaters for a week each in September and October 1899. From February to May 1900, it enjoyed almost steady employment at one of four Chicago houses as it showed Méliès’s CINDERELLA .

Most kinodrome screenings occurred outside the city, in the Midwest and the Mississippi Valley. The service briefly appeared on vaudeville programs in New Orleans and St. Louis during February and March 1899, and that October it became a permanent vaudeville attraction at St. Louis’ Columbia Theater. Except for the 1901–1902 theatrical season, it remained there into the nickelodeon era, corresponding to the long-term contracts enjoyed by East Coast exhibition services. Spoor’s kinodrome appeared at Kansas City’s Orpheum Theater in the fall of 1899; a year later the Orpheum hired it as a permanent attraction. In time the Orpheum circuit would become one of Spoor’s key customers. After the 1899–1900 season, the kinodrome was supplanted by the polyscope at many theaters. The precise reasons remain unclear, but Edward Amet ceased his filmmaking activities at about this time, leaving Spoor at a disadvantage because he had no production capability. 34

William Selig’s Polyscope Company, with its own production capacity, dominated 35-mm exhibition in Chicago and much of the Midwest during the 1900–1901 season and the first part of the 1901–1902 season. Selig’s largest customer was J. D. Hopkins, who employed the polyscope at his Chicago vaudeville house in August 1900 and kept it there until late January 1901. Hopkins also hired it for his Grand Opera House in Memphis, Tennessee, where it ran from September through January. To maintain interest toward the end of the run, local views were filmed of Main Street, the riverfront, and the Memphis Bridge. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal , they made the polyscope “one of the very popular features of this season’s attractions.” As was often the case, a film of the local fire department drew the most comment. 35 The cameraman then moved on to Louisville, Kentucky, where he filmed LOUISVILLE FIRE DEPARTMENT , L& N’s NEW FLORIDA TRAIN , and FOURTH AVENUE , LOUISVILLE in January. The polyscope had opened at that city’s Temple Theater in mid December, when the local manager supplemented his plays with vaudeville acts provided through J. D. Hopkins; it remained through the end of March. Selig was also active in Milwaukee and the Great Lakes region.

By November 1900, Selig’s operations were sufficiently large for him to incorporate the Selig Polyscope Company. His visibility was also such that he attracted Edison’s attention and on 5 December 1900 was sued for patent infringement. Selig, who had no intention of being intimidated, acquired the services of the law firm of Banning & Banning. His recent incorporation facilitated this process, and Ephraim and Thomas A. Banning agreed to defend the new corporation until 1 January 1903, in exchange for stock estimated at $12,500. Of a total of 500 shares of stock, they at one point held 100 shares to Selig’s 373. The lawyers not only succeeded in deflecting Edison’s suits but assumed an influential role in the company. 36

The size and scope of Selig’s film business is suggested by information relevant to its incorporation. The business, based at 43 Peck Court in Chicago, was generously valued at $50,000, with net profits averaging $350 to $400 a month. Equipment worth $5945 included three regular cameras and six projectors as well as perforators, developing drums, lenses, rheostats, and four hundred lantern-slide negatives. Over a hundred film negatives were valued at $33,065. Two of Selig’s trusted employees were John J. Byrnes, who was vice president of the new corporation until the spring of 1901, when he was replaced by William Rattray, and Thomas Nash, who helped evaluate Selig’s business in late 1900 and finally replaced Rattray as vice president early in 1903. 37 Even at this early date, Nash was probably responsible for the production of many Selig films.

Financial information for December 1900 through June 1901 outlines the economics of Selig’s activities:


During the following quarter, Selig claimed an actual net gain of $2,032.72, including $1285 for an increase in materials and $600 for purchase of stock. The cash gain for the quarter, however, was given as only $147.70. 38 As with Lubin, virtually all his assets were tied up in the business.

Although Selig’s productions from this period have not survived, catalog descriptions and a list of negatives available at the time of incorporation are illuminating. His most important subject was LIFE OF A FIREMAN , a 450-foot film that was valued at $2500. Designed “to illustrate the entire workings of a model fire department,” it consisted of at least three shots:

This picture, in its complete form, shows the firemen sitting in front of a fire house, when suddenly an alarm is sounded. You see the rush and break for the inside of the fire house, to get to their respective places on the apparatus before going to the fire. The next picture shows them leaving the engine house; the mad dash out of doors, and the most realistic fire run ever shown on canvas. Twenty-eight pieces of fire fighting machines madly rushing and plunging down a thoroughfare on the way to the fire (Selig Polyscope Company, 1903 Complete Catalogue of Films and Moving Pictures, p. 11).

Once again, an American producer assumed editorial control to make a more ambitious production with a simple narrative. It was in fact one of the first multi-shot films on this popular subject, antedating James Williamson’s FIRE ! by many months. As was the case with other producers, however, Selig’s assumption of editorial responsibility was limited. Other fire subjects on his list (CHICAGO FIRE RUN , FIRE ENGINES AT WORK , and THE FIRE RUN ) were apparently only a single shot. In these instances, exhibitors remained free to construct their own narratives, by combining individual films, if they so wished. With all these pictures, the image of the heroic firefighter offered an alternative to the often bitter class conflicts of American life: daring workingmen risk their lives to save innocent children, the property of the wealthy, and society as a whole. With the Chicago fire still a living memory for some, such films must have inspired strong emotions.

Selig also valued his “Stockyards set, complete” at $2500. This was apparently the STOCK YARDS SERIES he made for the large meat-packing corporation Armour & Company. This group of approximately sixty individual films, the 1903 catalog indicates, was “made with a POLYSCOPE CAMERA with the aid of powerful electric lights.” Copyrighted by Armour & Company on 3 June 1901, these were sold both in sets and individually. One such set, entitled “Cattle Department,” included ENTRANCE TO UNION STOCK YARDS , ARRIVAL OF TRAIN OF CATTLE , BRIDGE OF SIGHS , STUNNING CATTLE , DUMPING AND LIFTING CATTLE , STICKING CATTLE , KOSHERING CATTLE , DRESSING BEEF , and CUTTING BEEF . Selig’s extensive production capabilities were confirmed by his filming of THE GANS-M C GOVERN FIGHT on 13 December 1900, for which the ring was lit by six hundred arc lamps. But once again, filmmakers had bad luck, and Terry McGovern knocked out Joe Gans after two minutes of the second round. 39

Selig, like other prominent 35-mm exhibitors at this time, supplied his customers with images of local interest. Several news films were taken of well-publicized ceremonies in Chicago: PRESIDENT M C KINLEY LAYING CORNER STONE , shot on 9 October 1899; DEWEY PARADE , taken on 1 May 1900; and SCENES AND INCIDENTS IN THE G.A.R. ENCAMPMENT , taken in the last week of August 1900. Other scenes taken in the Midwestern city included PANORAMIC VIEW OF STATE STREET , CHICAGO POLICE PARADE , and WINTER SPORTS ON THE LAKE . COOK COUNTY DEMOCRACY PARADE , BRYAN AT HOME (shot in Lincoln, Nebraska), and ROOSEVELT IN MINNEAPOLIS (taken 17 July 1900) captured politicians and political events that were pertinent to the 1900 election. FLORAL PARADE and FOOLS PARADE , taken at the Milwaukee Carnival, were essentially local views.

Selig, who had been a magician and manager of a minstrel show, made films that revealed his theatrical background. SHOOTING CRAPS , WHO SAID WATERMELON ?, PRIZEFIGHT IN COONTOWN , and A NIGHT IN BLACKVILLE are examples of the minstrel humor that Selig adapted to film. The last-named shows a “coon” dance in full swing; all the boys have their best babies; the old fiddler and orchestra are shown seated upon a raised platform; the dance is on. Six coons are shown. A bad coon starts a fight. Razor drawn, girls faint, coon with razor starts to do some fearful execution, when little coon lets fly with a large 45 gun; finale, coon seen jumping through window; big bass viola broken and dance ends in general row. The picture is simply great; one continued round of laughter ( 1903 Complete Catalogue, p. 4).

These burlesque comedies portrayed African Americans as childlike beings—unsocialized, opportunistic, and easily frightened—and ultimately, as comic counterparts to the white world: SOMETHING GOOD —NEGRO KISS was simply labeled “Burlesque on the John Rice and May Irwin Kiss.” 40 Selig magic films were frankly unexceptional. In HERMANN LOOKED LIKE ME , a magician dressed to look like the Great Hermann makes a litter of rabbits disappear. Rather than work extensively in this genre, Selig acquired a large supply of Méliès subjects. In these and many other instances, he made duplicate negatives and sold prints to independent exhibitors.

Though weak in production, Chicago was already a major supplier of motion-picture goods. Indeed, the role that Chicago assumed in the film industry was not unlike the one it played in the general economic life of the United States: the major distribution center in the Midwest. Thus the Kleine Optical Company, after being threatened with an Edison lawsuit for patent infringement, became a selling agent for Edison films and projectors in June 1899. Sears, Roebuck & Company did a substantial mail-order business in motion-picture equipment and prints. The manager of this department, Å. E. E. Wade, had close ties with William Selig and sold many of his films. 41 John Hardin managed a similar department for the Montgomery Ward Company. In addition, several companies catered exclusively to the “optical trade”—magic-lantern and moving-picture exhibitors (often semiprofessionals). All featured the optigraph projector, manufactured by the Chicago-based Enterprise Optical Company and depending on two improvements patented by Frank McMillan and Alvah C. Roebuck. 42 These firms also sold Selig films to exhibitors, and many of them were sued by Edison: Sears, Roebuck in April 1900, the Stereopticon and Film Exchange managed by William B. Moore in February 1901, the Chicago Projecting Company and Enterprise Optical Company that September. Unlike many of their New York counterparts, all resisted the suits—the latter two, in fact, used Selig’s law firm, Banning & Banning, for their defense. 43

To appreciate the importance of the 1898–1899 period for the formation of the early motion-picture industry, one has only to recall that the movie moguls of the studio era would be drawn from those exhibitors and distributors who best exploited the opportunities of the nickelodeon era. Then consider an earlier parallel: those motion-picture entrepreneurs who located permanent venues in vaudeville between 1898 and 1900 would generally go on to own the major production companies of the next ten years. These theaters, which usually wanted new pictures each week, encouraged production and fostered a certain level of filmmaking expertise. Through their weekly exhibition fees, they provided producers with the crucial financial capital that allowed them to expand. Perhaps only the Edison Manufacturing Company (where the affiliated Kinetograph Company played the same role) could have survived without this support. For William Selig, George Spoor, Sigmund Lubin, William Paley, American Vitagraph, and even Biograph, such resources were critical. Despite the diversity of exhibition outlets that existed at the turn of the century, vaudeville clearly had a unique impact on the film industry. In effect, a handful of vaudeville managers, by hiring exhibition firms on a long-term basis, chose the emerging generation of industry leaders. 44 They ended the turmoil of the mid 1890s, when film companies appeared, achieved prominence, and then disappeared, all within extremely short periods. Uncertain and difficult times were still ahead for all these producer-exhibitors, particularly as the Edison-initiated litigation progressed. But the figures whose activities dominate the remainder of this volume had already come to the fore.

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