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The Motion-Picture Operator

film fire september quickly

The motion-picture operator ( i.e., the projectionist) not only played a crucial creative role but was a highly skilled technician whose job was in many respects comparable to that of the motion-picture photographer. In fact, an experienced projectionist could easily become a cameraman: Charles Webster, James White, Edwin S. Porter, Arthur Hotaling, Oscar Depue, Billy Bitzer, and Albert Smith were among the many American projectionists who later became cinematographers. One of the most compelling passages in Billy Bitzer’s memoirs details the complex acrobatics and timing required to show a reel of film. He operated two “lanterns,” one for slides and one for film. The biograph projector held approximately ten films spliced together on a reel with leader between each subject. Before each scene, he showed a slide that announced the forthcoming picture, then engaged the motor and quickly brought the machine up to speed:

I gingerly started the large motor controller, my left hand reaching up to help guide the film. When I got up to speed, my right hand quickly clutched the rod that controlled the picture on the screen. The beater cam movement, which pulled the picture down into position, was uneven and could gain or lose into the aperture frame. The lever which operated a friction drive disk controlled this; when I put my foot down and pushed, the pedal would open the light gate.

I had hung a mirror in a wooden frame on the front drape, at an angle which enabled me to intermittently observe how the film was feeding. If it tried to creep toward the edge of the feeder pulley, I would give it a push back with my forehead or nose. I straightened it out enough to finish the first one-minute picture, all the while keeping my eyes pretty well glued to the screen, otherwise the picture would have started riding up and down ( Billy Bitzer , pp. 16-17).

At the end of the film, the machine was stopped, a new slide thrown on the screen, and the whole process repeated. Since the first motion-picture cameras did not pan on a tripod, and full sunlight provided the only lighting conditions under which a scene could be filmed (because of the limited sensitivity of the photographic emulsions), the process of making a single-shot film was, in certain respects, easier than showing it afterward.

An operator’s failures could be costly. Bitzer mentions the many times he momentarily quit or was fired after something went wrong with an exhibition. 33 One careless moment could blow up an entire machine and produce a raging fire. One of the first film fires occurred on 9 September 1896 at the Pearl Street Theater in Albany, New York. Hopkins’ Trans Oceanic Star Specialty Company was just commencing its fall tour with a cinematoscope as its leading attraction. The operator was inexperienced, and the curtain surrounding the machine caught fire during the screening:

Not with standing the efforts of the performers on the stage to quiet the audience, a panic ensued on the cry of fire, and many persons were injured in their endeavors to reach the street. The exits became blocked, men and women rushed for the windows, and from them dropped to the street below. Fortunately, no one was fatally hurt. The fire department responded quickly to the call, and speedily put the fire out. It is said the cinematoscope is ruined but the damage to the theatre is trifling ( Clipper , 19 September 1896, p. 456).

This was hardly the last such incident. On 14 June 1897 the Eden Musee was almost burned down by Eberhard Schneider’s “American cinematograph.” A few months later, on 5 September, an independently operated Lumière cinématographe caught fire at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. On 29 September at Association Hall in New Brunswick, New Jersey, an electroscope was being shown to a small afternoon audience when the film broke, touched the arc lamp, and burned. The auditorium walls were still decorated with dried grasses and netting from a recent bazaar, and the fire spread quickly, badly burning one member of the audience; had it been an evening performance with good attendance, many deaths would have resulted. When a magniscope burst into flames at the Grand Opera House in New Haven on 22 November 1897, one man broke his leg and a woman was knocked senseless as the crowd rushed to the doors. Nonetheless, while other film fires followed—almost twenty have been documented for the pre-nickelodeon era, and many more undoubtedly occurred—a serious disaster like the charity bazaar fire in France was fortuitously avoided. 34

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