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The Proliferation of Motion Picture Companies and an Assessment of the Novelty Year - The Phantoscope and Other Projectors

chicago company vitascope film

T he number of motion-picture companies increased rapidly during the 1896–1897 theatrical season. These enterprises no longer tried to develop their own selfcontained technological systems but adopted and adapted one already in existence: the 35-mm format with Edison perforations. While an astoundingly large number of firms made projectors that could handle Edison films, only a few actually began to produce their own films. The impetus behind this production of projectors and films came from the many independent exhibitors who began showing motion pictures during the summer of 1896 and whose numbers rapidly proliferated over the course of the new theatrical season. Buying films and machines from one or more manufacturers, they gave entertainments without having to worry about territorial restrictions, royalties, or licensing fees.

The Phantoscope and Other Projectors

The first machine (with an intermittent) sold outright on the American market was Jenkins’ phantoscope. On 14 May Edward D. Easton of the Columbia Phonograph Company and the American Graphophone Company came to an agreement with C. Francis Jenkins to manufacture and exploit the phantoscope (which Jenkins was then claiming as his own invention). Because the Columbia Phonograph Company had acquired some expertise in the motion-picture field by running peephole kinetoscopes in its phonograph parlors, this was a logical extension of its business operations. Moreover, Columbia found the competitive opportunity irresistible since Edison had recently tried to destroy its phonograph business. According to Easton, “The American Graphophone Company made a large investment in the business covered by the said agreement with Jenkins.” Jenkins conducted the company’s motion-picture business, receiving a 10 percent commission on sales and gross receipts from exhibitions. Soon Columbia was selling phantoscopes without territorial restrictions. Although 2Armat’s associates countered with a lawsuit, their request for a preliminary injunction was denied. Columbia’s activities, however, were seriously thwarted that December when Armat and his cousin, T. Cushing Daniel, paid Jenkins $2,500 for withdrawing his exclusive claim to the phantoscope patent and for contractually recognizing Armat’s earlier “sale” of the Armat-Jenkins projection patents to Daniel. 1

A “vidiscope,” probably a renamed phantoscope, was in Coney Island in late June, giving the vitascope serious competition. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, a barker stood at the front entrance promoting “the genuine and only vidiscope” as “the renowned and successful invention that has captured New York city and attracts more attention than the gold and silver question in politics.” For their part, the Long Island vitascope owners sued the exhibitors in Kings County Supreme Court claiming that “the vidoscope [ sic ] exhibition is not genuine and that great damage will come to them if the show goes on.” They were fortunate to win a temporary injunction. 2

In Chicago, vaudeville manager John D. Hopkins faced a difficult situation. Shortly after he added the vitascope to his bill (paying Kiefaber $350 a week for exclusive Chicago rights), a nearby phonograph parlor began to advertise the phantoscope as a vitascope and, even worse, to show it without charging admission. The firm responsible, the Chicago Talking Machine Company, was eventually enjoined from using the name, but exhibitions were allowed to continue. On 11 August, Hopkins’ “exclusive” faced further competition when a phantoscope appeared at Chicago’s Great Northern Roof Garden. Yet as the Chicago Tribune reported, “The apparatus did not work well, and the time apportioned to it was chiefly devoted to cheap kaleidoscopic pictures. It will not be seen again.” Hopkins was the first to admit that the episode was not indicative of the phantoscope’s true worth: “I had a great deal to do with the failure of the machine,” he boasted in a letter to the Vitascope Company, explaining that “one of our electricians was engaged to run it—so you understand the rest.” Hopkins sabotaged the phantoscope’s Chicago screening, but he was striking a more complicated deal than Raff & Gammon at first realized. At his recently opened St. Louis vaudeville house, Hopkins added the “wonderful phantoscope” to his bill, then supplied the exhibitor there with films purchased from the Vitascope Company for his Chicago house. When Raff & Gammon discovered the ruse, they planned to cut off his supply. By then, however, it was becoming clear that Edison films could be acquired from other sources, notably Maguire & Baucus, and so Raff & Gammon reluctantly accepted the arrangement. 3

Once projected moving pictures were proven feasible and commercially successful, foreign and American mechanics set to work constructing machines to project Edison-gauge film. The technology was not complicated and many succeeded, with the result that by September, a substantial number of projectors were available to amusement entrepreneurs. A. Curtis Bond, press agent for the Bijou Theater in New York City, acquired the American rights to the kineopticon constructed in England by Birt Acres. After its London premiere on 21 March 1896, the kineopticon ran at Tony Pastor’s Theater from 24 August until 17 October. Its selection of mostly British views included P RINCE OF W ALES’S F AMOUS H ORSE and P ERSIMMONS W INNING THE D ERBY , both shot by Acres. By early September, Bond was offering to sell machines and states rights. That month the zooscope, made in Maiden, Massachusetts, was being sold outright for eight hundred dollars. The magniscope was also advertised by Chicago-based Oscar B. and George Kleine, sellers of magic-lantern and stereopticon goods. 4

The magniscope was built by Edward Hill Amet, whose Amet Talking Machine Company in Waukegan, Illinois, was then turning out high-quality phonographs. George K. Spoor, the local Waukegan theater manager whose principal living came from a newsstand at the Northwestern Railroad station in Chicago, helped finance the development of the projector. “Sold outright, without restrictions and at a reasonable price,” the seventy-pound magniscope was portable and designed for work with touring companies. Many itinerant showmen, particularly in the Midwest, eagerly purchased the screen machine and toured the smaller cities and towns. It also found employment in major urban vaudeville houses. Beginning on 9 November 1896, J. D. Hopkins presented the Amet magniscope at his Duquesne Theater in Pittsburgh; a week later, it replaced the vitascope at his Chicago house. Although these runs were fairly brief, other high-profile Chicago theaters engaged the magniseope in subsequent months. 5

With his projector selling well, Amet moved into film production sometime during March 1897, building his own camera and setting up laboratory facilities in Waukegan. Subjects included a street scene outside the offices of the Chicago Tribune, which devoted a lengthy article to the new enterprise. Amet’s way of developing a 60-foot film was described as follows:

Two men take the exposed film into the dark room and begin operations…. Starting at one end, the film is rapidly fed into the long trough, being run back and forth until it is all placed in layers in the developer. Then, starting again with the same end as at first, it is drawn out of the developing solution at the same rate as it entered, and is run into a jar of water to wash. By that time the proper amount of development is obtained and the film next goes into the fixing solution, emerging from that to be soaked in the washing tanks in the drying room.

In the drying room are loops and strings of film sufficient to decorate a theater. The room is fifty feet high, with the ceiling made so that the films may be hung easily from it. Here after the long negatives are washed, they are festooned about until thoroughly dry and ready for printing ( Chicago Tribune, 4 April 1897, p. 37).

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