4The Phantoscope Is Commercialized as the Vitascope
Marketing the Vitascope
The "States Rights" Owners
The New York Debut
Production for the Vitascope
Local Debuts of the Vitascope
Problems with the Vitascope
The vitascope effectively launched projected motion pictures as a screen novelty in the United States. In late April 1896 the vitascope was showing films in only one American theater, Koster & Bial's Music Hall in New York City, but the sub-sequent pace of diffusion was remarkable. By May 1897, only one year later, several hundred projectors were in use across the country. Honolulu had its first picture show in early February 1897, while Phoenix, in Arizona Territory, followed that May.1 In the Northeast and Midwest, villages of a few thousand inhabitants had been visited by showmen with motion pictures not once but two or three times. The vast majority of Americans had the opportunity to see motion pictures on a screen, and many took it. Their responses were not unlike those that greeted the magic lantern in the 1650s or the stereopticon in the 1860s—astonishment at the lifelike quality of the images. It was during this brief thirteen- or fourteen-month period that most of the future owners of film-production companies associated with the Motion Picture Patents Company entered the field. A new industry was established and staffed. New practices were introduced and old ones reasserted. It was a period of ferment and rapid change. By its close, a framework for the development of subsequent motion-picture practice had come into being.
Controversy surrounds the history of "Edison's vitascope." For some historians, notably Terry Ramsaye, it is a history of heroic accomplishment that allowed American cinema to achieve meaningful expression. For others, such as Gordon Hendricks and Robert C. Allen, it is a history of greed, dishonesty, and ineptitude.2 Both views have some validity. Despite its fresh name, the machine was a phantoscope that had been slightly refined by Thomas Armat. Although Edison, Armat, and others reaped ample financial rewards from the machine during its brief commercial life, a group of small-time and often naive investors lost substantial amounts of cash. The only thing these hopeful entrepreneurs made for themselves was a place in film history, insofar as they introduced Americans to projected motion pictures, almost always in the face of severe technical difficulties. Moralizing tales of heroism and villainy have their appeal, but they can easily obscure other issues vital to our understanding of the cinema's beginnings.
The Phantoscope Is Commercialized as the Vitascope
The commercial exploitation of the Jenkins-Armat phantoscope required effective organization, financing, and promotion, which Raff & Gammon were capable of providing. Reaching a contractual agreement was the first step. More than a month of negotiations followed Armat's December screening for Frank Gammon before a final understanding was reached. Armat hoped to manage the business with Raff & Gammon, but the partners refused. "We cannot agree to divide the responsibility and policy of the business with you," they insisted. "As it is our money alone which is to be at stake, and the entire risk is ours, and as we have had long experience in business of a similar nature, we think it right and proper that the management of the business should remain in our hands." Differences over the division of income also had to be negotiated. While Armat bowed to the demands of the kinetoscope dealers, he wanted to retain the exclusive exhibition rights for Washington, D.C., and Atlantic City. Raff & Gammon were agreeable but asked in return, "the right to establish and exhibit in New York for our own exclusive benefit," thus deftly acquiring the rights to the smallest but most lucrative piece of territory in the United States.3
The final contract gave Raff & Gammon "the sole and exclusive right to manufacture rent or lease or otherwise handle (as may be agreed upon in this contract or by future agreement) in any and all countries of the world the aforesaid machine or device called the 'Phantoscope.' " Armat received 25 percent of the monies gained by selling exhibition rights and 50 percent of the gross receipts (minus the cost of manufacture) for other areas of the business up to $7,500—above which he was to assume half the general expenses of running the business. Such income would come from the rental of machines, the sale of films, and other miscellaneous services, since the owners of states rights would be obliged to deal exclusively with Raff & Gammon. Projecting machines, moreover, were to be leased—not sold—and were to remain Armat's property.4
Once Raff & Gammon reached an agreement with Armat, they did not immediately send him the contract. Rather, they nervously approached Thomas Edison and his chief business executive, William Gilmore, whose reactions to the adoption of a non-Edison screen machine were considered unpredictable. Less than a year before, the Lathams had exhibited their machine to the press and encountered Edison's wrath. A somewhat similar reaction to this new machine seemed possible if not probable. In the interim, however, Edison's motion-picture business had fallen off and commercial rivals had multiplied. While Armat's machine posed yet another threat, it could also help to revive Edison's kinetograph enterprise. For these reasons, the "Wizard" was predisposed to bring the phantoscope into his circle. Meeting with Gilmore and Edison on 15 January 1896, Raff & Gammon obtained an agreement by which the Edison Manufacturing Company was to supply the necessary films and manufacture the projectors. Delighted to have Edison's cooperation, Raff & Gammon informed Armat of their successful arrangements. "We feel like congratulating ourselves over the results of our efforts in this direction and we now have no further doubts as to getting the business promptly into operation and upon a successful and profitable basis, as soon as you furnish us with the machines called for in the contract." These new activities did not continue the old Kinetoscope Company, which Raff & Gammon would liquidate when the appropriate opportunity arose, but formed a new enterprise.5
Soon after signing the contract, Raff & Gammon learned of Jenkins' independent activities. The precise moment is uncertain, but by early February all parties recognized that their machine required its own trade name. Raff & Gammon suggested "vitascope"—from the Latin vita, "life," and the Greek scope, "to see." Armat countered with "zoescope," which he argued, "means the same as 'Vitascope,' but it has the advantage of having both roots derived from the Greek." "Zoescope" was rejected, however. "While we have no special preference for the name 'Vitascope' yet we do not like the name 'Zoescope' as it is too much like 'Zoetrope,' which was brought out by a German here some years since, and was a total failure," explained Raff & Gammon. "We do not like to have the new machine called by a name or similar to that borne by a machine which was a failure." Once the name was settled, Raff & Gammon raised a more delicate question, that of marketing and profit maximization. Potential investors as well as potential audiences were waiting for the screen machine that Edison had promised them many times before. Commercial exhibitions of projected motion pictures by non-Edison showmen had already been given but without notable success. Armat, of course, had some personal experience in this regard. Raff & Gammon, therefore, wanted to attach Edison's name to the machine. Armat and Edison agreed. Henceforth, the machine was known as "Edison's vitascope."6
The vitascope group confronted several technical issues during the winter months. Armat was anxious to improve the quality of the projected image by using a clear-base film stock, like that already being used by the Lathams, rather than the frosted or translucent surface best for kinetoscopes. The Blair Company, however, had difficulties providing a serviceable product of this kind, and it was many months before the Edison Company turned out films suited for projection. Raff & Gammon also wanted to switch to a larger-gauge film. As they explained to Armat, "The object in making it wider is not to show scenery, but simply to enable us to make a picture of proper width to exhibit on a theatrical stage. As you yourself heard while here, the criticism made by all the theatrical people is that the picture is too narrow in its width." This change would have been quite easy because the Edison Company had already constructed two kinetographs that used a two-inch format. In the end it was Armat who wisely pushed the idea aside: "Notwithstanding the fact that I think it is a very simple matter to use the wide films, difficulties may arise that it will take experiments to overcome, and experiments take time, and time is a most important factor, so I would certainly rush the machines just as they stand, and they can be modified afterward if desired, for the wide films, with very little expense." Armat spent much of the winter making minor alterations on the vitascope and constructing a new model for the Edison laboratory. Raff & Gammon found it to be "a great improvement over any we have yet seen."7
Marketing the Vitascope
The commercial exploitation of the vitascope was affected by the imminent appearance of rival machines. If not for that impinging reality, Raff & Gammon would have orchestrated a more gradual and effective marketing approach. By early March, C. Francis Jenkins had emerged as a disruptive force that could scare away investors. Although he seemed to have held few exhibitions after the Franklin Institute screening, Jenkins frequently boasted that his phantoscope's capabilities were equal or superior to those of the vitascope. When rumors reached the vitascope group that Jenkins had rented a storefront for exhibitions and was making additional machines, Raff & Gammon were deeply concerned. By mid March, they were on the verge of a commercial coup: down payments had been made on territory that would yield more than sixteen thousand dollars when the purchases were completed. Total sales of states rights were expected to exceed twenty-five thousand dollars. Once all the territory had been sold and the money paid in, the enterprise could survive such disruption. "But while we are in the midst of the work of disposing of territory, we must be free from these annoying conditions and dangers which threaten to completely counteract our efforts, and not only prevent future sales, but even upset the sales we have made already," they wrote to Armat. Concluding that "incalculable injury and immense loss to us may be occasioned in a day," they insisted that Armat bring Jenkins' activities to a halt even if it meant "making Jenkins a good, stiff payment, rather than take chances of his going further." Instead Armat instituted a replevin suit and took possession of Jenkins' machine. Temporarily thwarted, Jenkins and his business associates nonetheless publicized their plans to market a projector in the near future.8
Although the Lumière cinématographe had been exhibited in Paris since late December 1895 and had opened in London on 20 February, definitive reports of projected motion pictures in Europe only reached Raff & Gammon in mid March. While initially unsure of their rivals' capabilities, Raff & Gammon soon learned that the cinématographe was "creating a sensation" in London. On 25 March several New York theatrical managers received cables offering them the opportunity to book the Lumière machine. In an effort to delay its entrance into the American market, Raff & Gammon arranged for one of these managers (presumably Albert Bial of Koster & Bial's Music Hall) to reply that he already had the Edison machine.9 The likelihood of foreign and domestic competition undoubtedly discouraged some knowledgeable amusement managers from investing in the vitascope.
Faff & Gammon marketed the vitascope by selling exclusive exhibition rights for specific territories, as they had just done with the kinetoscope and the North American Phonograph Company had done with the phonograph. This approach not only provided the group with a windfall profit but bound a large number of investors to their undertaking. In seeking to recoup their money, "states rights" owners would pursue their activities with zeal, often reselling the rights to cities and counties to others, who would, in turn, lease additional machines and maintain the business on a large scale. As Raff & Gammon explained to Armat in convincing terms, "The maintenance of this territorial plan is of vital consequence to our business."10
The "States Rights" Owners
Raff& Gammon began to market the vitascope by looking for purchasers of exhibition rights among their established customers. In early February they offered to sell the California rights to Peter Bacigalupi, owner of a San Francisco phonograph and kinetoscope parlor, but he declined. Interested customers included Thomas L. Tally, who wanted to feature the vitascope in his Los Angeles kinetoscope parlor, and Lyman H. Howe, who hoped to purchase the rights to Pennsylvania and incorporate moving pictures into his phonograph concerts.11 For both the price proved too high.
Among those who did actually become vitascope rights owners, many entered the field because of a previous interest in the phonograph and/or kinetoscope:12
- Robert Fischer, a locksmith with a bicycle repair shop in Great Falls, Montana, owned a kinetoscope and two nickel-in-the slot phonographs. He and J. B. Maurer, who ran a general store with his brother, purchased the rights to parts of Colorado (including Denver) and the state of Washington.
- W. R. Miller, a traveling phonograph exhibitor from Stratford, Connecticut, was exhibiting the phonograph throughout the South when he purchased the rights to Tennessee for a thousand dollars in cash and additional deferred payments.
- The Holland Brothers, who were then marketing the phonograph and kinetoscope from their base in Ottawa, Canada, waited patiently through the first months of enthusiasm. They received permission to exhibit the vitascope in Canada gratis and were promised a generous commission if they sold the territorial rights.
- Allen F. Rieser, the first to purchase territory, was also involved with phonograph exhibition. Rieser was president of the American Publishing Association, which supplied public schools with library books and helped libraries raise the necessary money for their purchases by giving phonograph concerts. He acquired the rights to Pennsylvania, except for Philadelphia and Allegheny County (including Pittsburgh) for $1,500 at the beginning of March and eventually went on to purchase the Ohio rights for another $5,000. A number of his friends and acquaintances also became involved.
Amusement and theatrical entrepreneurs formed another large group of states rights owners:
- Thomas J. Ryan, an amusement entrepreneur with phonograph interests, purchased the rights to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
- C. O. Richardson, who purchased the rights to Maine, had worked for the previous twenty years in theatrical circles.
- Walter J. Wainwright, a tightrope walker and carnival showman, and William T. Rock, who had once been in the circus but was then extricating himself from ownership of an unsuccessful electrical company, waited for the first flurry of enthusiasm to pass and then purchased the Louisiana rights for $1,500.
- William A. McConnell, business manager for Koster & Bial's, acquired the rights to Connecticut for $3,000.
- Eurio Hopkins, Jr., also had some background in the entertainment field. He was part of the consortium of White, Barry & Hopkins, which owned the rights to Rhode Island and Texas. One of his backers, Abraham White, was a financial speculator with offices in downtown Manhattan.
At the same time, investors also included many small businessmen and professionals with little experience in the amusement field:
- Peter W. Kiefaber, a Philadelphia dealer in butter, eggs, and poultry, purchased the rights first to New Jersey (including Atlantic City) and then to Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland. He was encouraged by A. F. Rieser, who had also been in the wholesale produce business.
- Four merchants from Connellsville, Pennsylvania—J. R. Balsley, builder and lumber-mill owner; Richard S. Paine, shoe-store owner; F. E. Markell, owner of several drug stores, and Cyrus Echard, who was active in the coal trade—formed a consortium and purchased the rights to Indiana for $4,000. Balsley and Paine went on to buy the rights to California for $3,500.13
- M. M. Hixson, a doctor in the small town of Dupont, Ohio, bought the rights to Wisconsin with J. J. Wollam, a mechanical expert.
- In Ottawa, Ohio, bank president W. F. Reed and Frank G. Kahle were induced to purchase the rights to Iowa.
- The express agent in St. John, North Dakota, John C. Ryderman, bought the rights to his home state.
- A merchant, Edmund McLoughlin, sold or closed his business in downtown Manhattan to purchase exhibition rights to most of New York State with Arthur Frothingham.
- George J. Llewellyn, the protonotary for Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and James M. Norris, chief clerk at the county courthouse, purchased the rights to Michigan. Llewellyn, a Wilkes-Barre law student who had recently sold his hardware business, came from the same town as Lyman H. Howe and was the same age; it appears that the protonotary witnessed the showman's excitement over the vitascope and took the plunge on his own. Such a web of intersecting relationships was typical among states rights owners.
A final group, closely related to those exploiting the phonograph and kinetoscope, consisted of individuals with backgrounds in electricity. They tended to see themselves as simply working with another Edison-inspired invention. W. G. Brown, for example, owner of the Brown Electric & Machine Company, bought the rights to Arkansas (he also had previously been involved in the kinetoscope business).14 In several other instances, people with electrical experience supplied the enthusiasm if not the cash. Edwin S. Porter, a twenty-five-year-old telegraph operator and electrician with the U.S. Navy, became aware of the vitascope while working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and informed his hometown friends of the vitascope "opportunity"; after they bought the rights to California and Indiana, he worked for them as an operator. Robert Fischer, co-owner of the rights to Colorado and Washington state, did "Electrical Work of all kinds," according to his stationery. The latter partner of Hixson & Wollam was likewise an electrical expert. (Exhibition rights to states such as New Hampshire, Kansas, and Nebraska were also sold, though information about their purchase is scanty.)
Raff & Gammon were eager to sell vitascope rights overseas—a logical desire given the Continental Commerce Company's previous accomplishments. Juggler Paul Cinquevalli was ready to purchase the English and French rights for $25,000 each, until he returned to London and saw the Lumière cinématographe and other machines in operation. Still hoping to open up European markets, Raff & Gammon sent Charles Webster and a vitascope to London on 22 April, the day before the projector's New York premiere. On his arrival, Webster saw the Lumière cinématographe in action and was deeply impressed. Writing to his employers, he detailed the various Lumière views while stating that "other machines are sold for $200.00 and that quite a number have been sold in France." Webster toured with the vitascope in various parts of Europe but never realized the large profits that Raff & Gammon had initially anticipated. To fill Webster's position during his trip, Raff & Gammon hired James White, who quickly became a key figure in the new enterprise. When the Vitascope Company was officially incorporated in May, he was given one share of stock and placed on the board of directors.15
The New York Debut
Raff & Gammon choreographed an abbreviated but effective promotional campaign to launch the vitascope. From the outset, they had decided to have the premiere in New York City, the nation's entertainment and media capital. "Judging from our experience with the Kinetoscope, we are pretty well satisfied that we can do much better and make more money for both parties by exhibiting the machine at the start exclusively in New York City," they wrote to Armat, explaining that the "reports through the news-papers go out through the country, and we shall do a lot of advertising in the shape of news-paper articles which will excite the curiosity of parties interested in such things."16
Edison's name and involvement guaranteed extensive media attention. The degree of his cooperation, however, remained uncertain until the popular hero had actually attended a private screening on 27 March. Not only did the machine receive his complete approval, but the "Wizard of Menlo Park" stood ready to play the role of inventor assigned to him. Participating in a press screening at his laboratory on 3 April, he stole the show; if Armat was present, he stayed discreetly in the background. As the New York Journal reported the next day:
For the first time since Edison had been working on his new invention, the vitascope, persons other than his trusted employes and assistants were allowed last night to see the workings of the wonderful machine. For two hours dancing girls and groups of figures, all of life size, seemed to exist as realities on the big white screen which had been built at one end of the experimenting rooms.
Representatives of the New York World and other dailies also attended. As predicted, their reports soon appeared in newspapers nationwide.
On 23 March Raff & Gammon approached Albert Bial and asked him to book the vitascope at his Koster & Bial's Music Hall on Thirty-fourth Street and Broadway for a fee of $800 a week.17 These negotiations were concluded in early April, and when the entertainment opened on 23 April, according to the New York Dramatic Mirror, it "was a success in every way and the large audience testified its approval of the novelty by the heartiest kind of applause."18 The debut helped to sell additional territory; soon only exhibition rights for the South remained unpurchased.
Although Koster & Bial's program promised as many as twelve views, only six scenes were shown on opening night according to New York newspaper accounts:
The first view showed two dancers holding between and in front of them an umbrella and dancing the while. The position of the umbrella was constantly changed, and every change was smooth and even, and the steps of the dancing could be perfectly followed. [Umbrella Dance]
Then came the waves, showing a scene at Dover pier after a stiff blow. This was by far the best view shown, and had to be repeated many times. As in the umbrella dance, there was absolutely no hitch. One could look far out to sea and pick out a particular wave swelling and undulating and growing bigger and bigger until it struck the end of the pier. Its edge then would be fringed with foam, and finally, in a cloud of spray, the wave would dash upon the beach. One could imagine the people running away (New York Mail and Express, 24 April 1896, p. 12).
This was followed by a burlesque boxing bout, in which the contestants were a very tall, thin man and a very short, stout one. The little fellow was knocked down several times, and the movements of the boxers were well represented. A scene from "A Milk White Flag" was next shown, in which soldiers and a military band perform some complex evolutions. A group representing Uncle Sam, John Bull, Venezuela and the Monroe doctrine got a good welcome from the patriotic. The last picture was a serpentine dancer. The color effects were used in this, and it was one of the most effective of the series (New York Daily News, 24 April 1896).
The Music Hall band accompanied the images with appropriate music. Two of the films were in color, using a hand-tinting process similar to that for stereopticon
slides. This was almost certainly done by the wife of Edmund Kuhn, an Edison employee in Orange, New Jersey.19
Reviewers considered the projection of Edison's peephole figures in stereopticon fashion as a screen novelty. The New York Mail and Express explained to its readers, "In the vitascope the figures of the kinetoscope are projected, enlarged to life-size, upon a screen in much the same manner as ordinary, everyday stereopticon images." The exhibition methods that typified later vitascope screenings were already in use at the premiere. As with the kinetoscope, each film was spliced end-to-end to form a continuous band so that a brief twenty-second scene could be shown over and over again. Jump cuts regularly appeared at the splice. With the dancers and the waves rolling onto the beach, this jump was not disruptive; with most other subjects, however, the splice created what the Mail and Express called "a few hitches in the changes."20 Although one exhibitor reported showing each endless band of film only three times before turning off his machine, a subject was usually repeated at least half a dozen times. As was to be the case at some other important showings, Koster & Bial's used two vitascopes, so that while one film was being shown on one machine, the subject on the other could be taken off and replaced by a new one (a process that took approximately two minutes).
By projecting one-shot films in an endless band, the vitascope emphasized movement and lifelike images at the expense of narrative. As Raff & Gammon claimed in their prospectus, "When the machine is started by the operator, the bare canvas before the audience instantly becomes a stage, upon which living beings move about, and go through their respective acts, movements, gestures and changing expressions, surrounded by appropriate settings and accessories—the very counterpart of the stage, the field, the city, the country—yes, more, for these reproductions are in some respects more satisfactory, pleasing and interesting than the originals." The spectators were thus assumed to make a conscious comparison between the projected image and the everyday world as they knew and experienced it directly. It was the unprecedented congruence between the two that was being celebrated. Projected images were conceived as a novelty in which lifelike movement in conjunction with a life-size photographic image provided a sense of heightened realism and intensified interest in the quotidian. This new level of realism dramatically expanded the screen's importance as a source of commercial amusement.
Production for the Vitascope
The Koster & Bial screening in April emphasized a problem that had concerned Raff & Gammon for some time: the need for fresh subjects. Few new negatives had been made because of the declining kinetoscope business, and Raff & Gammon were forced to rely heavily on films of dancing girls and excerpts of plays that had long been available for peephole viewing. The dearth of new films was filled to some extent by importations from abroad. The hit film on opening night at Koster & Bial's was Rough Sea at Dover, produced in England by Robert Paul. Two other foreign films were listed in the opening-night program but not shown; one, Kaiser Wilhelm Reviewing His Troops, was undoubtedly The German Emperor Reviewing His Troops, taken by Birt Acres in the summer of 1895. The other, Venice Showing Gondolas, was a Lumière film that had been acquired surreptitiously overseas by Albert Bial. Even though the latter was not presented on opening night, duplicate copies were shown in the vitascope at least a month before the Lumière cinématographe had its United States debut.21
Although the Black Maria had fallen into disrepair and had a poor reputation in the theatrical community, the New York World arranged for two prominent actors, May Irwin and John C. Rice, to visit the West Orange studio in mid April, on the eve of the Music Hall premiere. There, they went before the Edison camera to reenact the climax of the musical comedy The Widow Jones, when the widow and Billie Bikes kiss. William Heise rehearsed the actors several times to get the prelude and the osculatory high point on film, then shot it only once. The results were a success, and The May Irwin Kiss became the most popular Edison film of the year. Under the headline "The Anatomy of a Kiss," the Sunday World of 26 April 1896 devoted almost a full page of text and illustration to the production.
For many reasons, however, the Black Maria was no longer adequate to meet Raff & Gammon's needs. Its distance from New York's theater district was a barrier to regular, inexpensive production. Moreover, as Rough Sea at Dover dramatically demonstrated, scenes of everyday life were often greeted with much greater enthusiasm than excerpts of plays and vaudeville acts. Anticipating foreign and domestic competition, the Edison Company constructed a portable camera that Heise used to take local pictures around New York City starting on 11 May.22 The results included Herald Square, showing streetcars moving along and the elevated train visible at the extreme left, and Central Park, with children and elderly people around the fountain.23 Elevated Railway, 23rd Street, New York, a view of a train pulling into the station, wrote the Boston Herald, was "so realistic as to give those in front seats a genuine start."24 A head-on collision of two trains was filmed in Canton, Ohio, on 30 May. Views of Niagara Falls were shot in late May or early June. Inspired by the Lumière view of the Venice canals filmed from a gondola, Heise photographed at least one scene of the Falls from a moving train (NIAGARA FALLS GORGE).25 These films were photographically flawed, however, and most did not have the spectacular effect on audiences that had been intended. As production continued throughout the summer, subjects shot closer to home were usually realized more successfully.
Edison subjects were generally made under Raff & Gammon's auspices, with James White as producer. Some were taken at the makeshift rooftop studio above the Vitascope Company's new office at 43 West Twenty-eighth Street. The steady supply of films enabled the vitascope to stay in major urban theaters almost indefinitely. After a two-month run at the same Boston theater, the Boston Herald reported:
If there be any let-up in the interest taken in the vitascope, there are no signs of it in the only place where it is being exhibited in Boston, for the applause that follows every display of a picture at each performance is as hearty and admiring as when Edison's wonderful invention first came to the city. This is accounted for, of course, by the promptness with which the management has secured new views…. Each new lot seems more admirable than those which preceded them (or at least it appears so), and the applause of last week was equally distributed between the Suburban handicap horse race, shooting the chutes, the surf scene and the "Widow Jones" kiss, the latter having retained its popularity since the outset—just like the laugh creating comedy it is taken from (5 July 1896, p. 11).
Raff & Gammon and the Edison Company were uniquely able to deliver scenes of American life. Among the subjects reported in the newspapers in late June and July were The Suburban Handicap; Ferry Boat Leaving Dock, New York; Shoot ing the Chutes; Parade of Bicyclists at Brooklyn, New York; Parade of New York City Crossing Sweepers; Passaic [Paterson] Falls, New Jersey; several views taken at Atlantic City; return of the Fisherman; The Bad Boy And The Gardener; Street Sprinkling and Trolley Cars; and two scenes illustrating the movements and drill of a battery of artillery.26
New Edison films in August included The Haymakers at Work and Arrival of Li Hung Chang. Continuing their friendly association with the New York World, Raff & Gammon also arranged for Edison cameras to film The N.Y. "World" Sick Baby Fund, "showing children of the poor people enjoying themselves in swings and on hobby-horses."27 Undoubtedly this was seen as useful publicity for the newspaper's charity, which helped poor infants and children survive the summer heat. In late July or early August a young World cartoonist, J. Stuart Blackton, also performed for the Edison camera, almost certainly at Raff & Gammon's rooftop studio. Three 150-foot films were made:
No. 1 represents him as drawing a large picture of Mr. Thomas A. Edison.
No.2 showing the artist drawing pictures of McKinley and President Cleveland.
No. 3 is a humorous selection, showing the artist drawing a life-size picture of a female figure, in which the expressions of the countenance are rapidly changed (Phonoscope, November 1896, p. 16).
The first of these films, Edison Drawn by "World" Artist, became a hit. One publicist concluded his remarks on a vitascope exhibition by observing that "the most curious and interesting of the new views was that showing the rapid sketching of Wizard Edison's portrait by a well-known cartoonist."28 As a result, Blackton became somewhat of a celebrity and found new opportunities to appear on the vaudeville stage.29 This success whetted his interest in motion pictures as well and subsequently encouraged him and his partner, Albert E. Smith, to enter the field as exhibitors.
Local Debuts of the Vitascope
While the New York debut created intense demand for "the latest Edison invention," the ability to satisfy this desire was hampered by delays in the manufacturing of vitascope projectors. This was particularly frustrating for states rights owners, who had to watch enticing contracts disappear for lack of machines. The most lucrative commercial arrangements could be made during the regular theatrical season, which drew to a close in most parts of the country sometime during May. Allen F. Rieser, who had been promised a machine in mid March, was impatient and "d—mad" by the second week in May. "The [Summer] Parks that want to engage the Vitascope that I know of wire us if we cannot show them what we have and conclude our engagement they will drop us," he wrote to Raff & Gammon. "Just now I got a telegram from Cleveland Ohio asking whether I could be there on the 16th with the machine. This is the biggest Park in that section of the country. I have to reject them which may be a matter of a couple of thousand dollars." W. R. Miller likewise wrote that he could have extended his phonograph tour and made another five hundred dollars instead of vainly waiting in Tennessee for a promise to be kept.30 It was not until mid May that the Edison Manufacturing Company completed the first group of projectors.
The vitascope opened in a dozen major cities and resorts, between mid May and mid June. Many others followed in subsequent weeks:
Boston (18 May)
Camden, N.J. [?] (21 May)
Hartford (21 May)
Atlantic City (23 May)
Philadelphia (25 May)
New Haven (28 May)
Providence (4 June)
Buffalo (8 June)
San Francisco (8 June)
Meriden, Ct. (8 June)
Nashville (13 June)
Baltimore (15 June)
Bridgeport, Ct. (15 June)
New London, Ct. (15 June)
St. Louis (15 June)
Portland, Me. (22 June)
Bergen Beach, N.Y. (ca. 22 June)
Scranton (22 June)
New Orleans (28 June)
Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (29 June)
Cleveland (1 July)
Asbury Park (1 July)
Detroit (1 July)
Los Angeles (5 July)
Chicago (5 July)
Milwaukee (26 July)
Vitascope openings occurred throughout the continental United States in any locality large enough to boast an electrical system. The rapid pace of these debuts strained Raff & Gammon's resources beyond the breaking point (Raff even suffered a nervous breakdown), but they were generally well received, and the resulting popularity, publicity, and broad diffusion established "Edison's vitascope" as the first motion-picture projector in the minds of the American public.
The vitascope was presented in various types of entertainment venues, thus extending the eclectic nature of sites already used for motion-picture exhibitions by the Lathams. Vaudeville introduced amusement-goers to projected motion pictures in many major cities:
- The vitascope ran at Benjamin F. Keith's Boston vaudeville house for twelve weeks and at his Philadelphia theater for nine. In each locale, it remained the principal feature on the bill throughout the run.
- The California states rights owners arranged with Gustave Walter to play his Orpheum houses in San Francisco (three weeks) and Los Angeles (two weeks).
- The vitascope had its Chicago premiere at Hopkins' South Side Theater, where it remained on the vaudeville bill for twenty consecutive weeks. "It is not only an interesting and instructive novelty for the regular patrons of the house," manager J. D. Hopkins declared, "but is drawing scores and hundreds of people who never before attended this popular form of entertainment." He went on to claim that the previous Sunday's business "was the heaviest ever known in the 'ten-twenty-thirty' style of entertainment in this country. "31
- In Louisville, the vitascope was introduced on 20 September at a newly opened vaudeville house and helped to make it a success.
- In Cleveland, where no vaudeville was presented during the summer, A. F. Rieser engaged a hall and presented the vitascope along with his own small vaudeville company.32
Theaters offering other entertainment forms also showed the vitascope. In Connecticut, "Wizard Edison's most marvelous Invention" joined with the touring hypnotist Santanelli. Starting in Hartford and moving next to New Havens Grand Opera House, Santanelli often received more attention than the vitascope. More commonly, films were shown in conjunction with plays, musicals, and even operas.
- In St. Louis, vitascope moving pictures were exhibited immediately after the opera The Bohemian Girl. Spectators could either see the films from an outdoor garden or remain inside the theater.
- In Milwaukee, the manager of the Academy of Music engaged Hixson and Wollam's vitascope for an exclusive appearance at his theater, which featured a new play each week and a few specialties between acts. Receiving four hundred dollars a week, the vitascope entrepreneurs played two weeks in late July and early August, then returned for another two weeks in mid September and a single week in early November.
- In Albany, New York, on 17 August, the vitascope debuted between the acts of a play presented by the Corse Payton Company.
- At an opening in Atlanta, Georgia, on 16 November, the Florence Hamilton Company staged a different play each night, with moving pictures concluding each performance. Although Jenkins and Armat had failed to draw audiences of any size at the city's Cotton States Exposition, their invention now became "the reigning fad. "33
Storefronts were another frequently used outlet for vitascope entrepreneurs. Such premises had often been occupied by phonograph exhibitors and other showmen anxious to avoid the expense and brief runs associated with a regular theater. Once an appropriate space was rented, they could give exhibitions for weeks at a time and pocket all the income above expenses.
- Residents of Providence, Rhode Island—including the mayor and the city's leading citizens—flocked to a storefront show during the first part of June to see ten films for twenty-five cents. Screenings went on twelve hours a day (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) for four weeks, and according to the Providence Journal of 7 June, the "Standing Room Only " sign was often on display in both the afternoons and the evenings.
- After playing for a month at a nearby summer park, Walter Wainwright and William Rock operated a storefront moving-picture show at 623 Canal Street in New Orleans. With a ten-cent admission fee, this profitable effort (one of the few) ran from 26 July through September.
- After earlier turns in nearby summer parks, the New York Vitascope Company opened storefronts in Rochester on 4 September and in Buffalo later in the month. Although the Rochester venue at 64 South Street was "a very fine store in the best location in the city," McLoughlin grossed only one hundred dollars during the first seven days—much less than expenses. Nonetheless, he remained there at least a month. In late December, he opened another storefront in Utica and stayed for five weeks. Fifteen films were presented at each showing for an admission fee of ten to fifteen cents.34
Many of these storefronts were variations on phonograph and kinetoscope parlors.
- In Nashville, Tennessee, the vitascope was featured in the main room, while nickel-in-the-slot phonographs were in the foyer. There, W. R. Miller tried various methods of ballyhooing his films. "I started giving a half hour show for 25¢ but it didn't work, so I put the price [at] 10¢ and run one film and change every fifteen minutes in the evening. In that way many people spend 50¢ or more where they would not spend a quarter."
- The California vitascope exhibitors began to show their machine in the rear of T. L. Tally's Los Angeles kinetoscope and phonograph storefront in late July.
- In Asbury Park, Edison's Electrical Casino had the vitascope in its small theater, and kinetoscopes and phonographs in the annex.35
Summer parks and resorts provided popular locations for vitascope exhibitions during the warm weather. In most cases these venues were either small theaters that functioned like the urban storefronts or summer theaters adapted for vaudeville.
- The vitascope was presented at three summer parks near Philadelphia, one of which, Willow Grove Park, featured the vitascope, an X-ray machine, kinetoscopes, and phonographs in its newly opened theater.
- At the Casino, a summer vaudeville theater at Baltimore's Arlington Electric Park (run by Ford's Theater manager Charles E. Ford), there was only one projector in operation, and a film was shown after each vaudeville act. By the second week of the vitascope run, 3,500 people attended on a single day, with each paying twenty-five cents. Most were drawn by the screen novelty, and, the Baltimore Sun reported, the show became "a favorite point for cyclers out on an evening ride."
- In Atlantic City, which relied heavily on Philadelphia vacationers, Peter Kiefaber exhibited the vitascope at the Scenic Theater, at "the very centre of the 'Board-walk' and the only room fitted up in theatrical style, finely lit up by electricity and with drop seats." Arthur Hotaling, who saw his first motion pictures there, felt that Kiefaber's lack of showmanship was responsible for his poor box-office receipts. Hotaling, who had previously run a "living picture show" in which performers formed tableaux in imitation of well-known paintings, offered his expertise to the inexperienced showman and was soon managing the theater. Later he recalled:
As a showman one of my best assets was an ability to handle a brush, and the first thing I did was to plaster the front with banners. The two star films were Cissy Fitzgerald in her dance and the John C. Rice-May Irwin kiss, and I decorated the front with these in vivid color. Then I fixed up the entrance so that the curtain could be drawn back to display the screen. If we saw anyone in the crowd getting interested we would drop the curtain and he would have to pay his dime to see the rest. Generally, though, we would show part of the Fitzgerald picture and I would make a "spiel" about the kiss picture, which was from "The Widow Jones, " then a recent Broadway hit. Business picked up (MPW, 15 July 1916, p. 380).
In August Kiefaber was running another vitascope in a second Atlantic City location, probably a storefront.
- At Bergen Beach, a resort near Coney Island that was run by Percy Williams, the vitascope played in its own small theater and each day, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, delighted "hundreds by its almost perfect simulation of moving scenes in real life."36
Problems with the Vitascope
The vitascope entrepreneurs were plagued by a wide range of problems. At first, only a handful of people (Thomas Armat and his brothers, Edward Murphy, James White, and one or two others) knew how to set up and operate the machines; these experts raced from city to city trying to salvage dire situations. Eurio Hopkins' terse telegram from Providence was typical: "Rush Murphy quick. In trouble. Also competent man permanent. Turned five hundred away. Unable to give performance. "There were no instructions to send out with the machines; in the best of circumstances, mechanically minded men like Tennessee rights owner W. R. Miller figured out how to assemble the parts and run the machines on their own.37 Adjustments were often imperfect and sometimes resulted in unnecessary technical difficulties.
The electricity needed to power the vitascopes was one of the entrepreneur's biggest headaches. The machines were designed to run on the direct current favored by Edison, but many locations were wired for alternating current instead. As Robert C. Allen has pointed out, the nation's patchwork of conflicting currents and voltages meant that the projectors frequently had to be adapted to different conditions when moved to a new locale. In some instances, electricity had to be pulled off streetcar lines: when J. Hunter Armat confronted this situation in Baltimore, he declined to present the show, and it was several days before his more experienced brother Christopher arrived and solved the problem. With streetcars using five hundred volts, the vitascope was overloaded and frequently subjected the motion-picture operator to painful shocks. The electrical problem was so severe that theater manager Charles Ford decided not to renew his four-week contract and waited for a more amenable machine to come along. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, meanwhile, Andrew Holland wrote Raff & Gammon that "If I have to get a special motor for every town I go into I may as well drop this country altogether, except in towns large enough to support an electric railway system. In Ottawa the alternating system is 52 volts 1600 frequency; here it is 104 volts. I do not know the frequency, but I thought you had overcome the difficulty of differences in frequency by the adoption of cone pulleys." The Halifax showing was a failure because of electrical problems, and Holland lost two hundred dollars out of pocket.38
Solutions were diverse, often ingenious, but rarely satisfactory. In Los Angeles, R. S. Paine, Charles H. Balsley, and Edwin S. Porter relied on batteries to power their machine; after working imperfectly on opening night, the vitascope was soon performing up to standard. But such a solution was not generally practical, since the quantity of batteries needed to project the films would have been prohibitive for someone moving from town to town. Many locales simply did not have electricity. In North Dakota, for example, only four towns could supply electrical power of any kind. In Canada, Andrew Holland tried bicycle power in the hope that "I can make myself entirely independent of electric light and power, and consequently will be able to work the small towns through this country to advantage. "39 This, however, did not give the same steady power and clean light as electricity.
Films were another major expense, costing as much as $12.50 for a new 50-foot (actually 42-foot) subject. To make matters worse, the Edison Company often failed to turn out film prints of acceptable quality. The first exhibitions relied on the semitranslucent strips intended for kinetoscopes. When the Blair Camera Company finally produced a clear-base celluloid film stock, it proved unsatisfactory as the emulsion peeled off the base. Exhibitors despaired at the poor quality of films: some prints lasted only a couple of nights. A. F. Rieser was reduced to sending back those that wore out in less than a week. Edmund McLoughlin complained that his films were very gray and discussed the problem with experts at Eastman Kodak of Rochester, New York, already the country's leading manufacturer of photographic supplies. They suggested that Edison was not using the proper emulsion. McLoughlin also informed them that "the Eastman Co. are shipping very heavily to France. They made a positive and negative emulsion and claim better results than you get." Finally, in mid September the Edison Manufacturing Company shifted its purchases of raw stock to Eastman. From that time on, the photographic manufacturer has been the principal American supplier of motion-picture raw stock.40
Individual vitascope entrepreneurs faced still other problems. In more rural areas, the screen novelty was greeted with little enthusiasm or patronage. "After the thing becomes ancient history these Yankees may become interested. But it is a harder task to interest the Maine natives in something new, than it is to preach free silver coinage to Wall Street bankers," declared C. O. Richardson in a letter to the Vitascope Company. W. R. Miller apparently had the same problem with Southerners, as his gross income with the vitascope generally fluctuated between five and thirty-four dollars a day. Far from major urban centers, people were often suspicious of urban popular amusements. In Skowhegan, Maine, Richardson reported, Wmelon Contest was considered "nasty and vulgar because of the spitting and slobbering," and he thus had to ask Raff & Gammon for a replacement. City, county, and state licenses often reflected this hostility. As the owner of the Tennessee rights complained, "The only city where a good business can be done is Memphis where the City license is $22.50 per day. State and county are extra so you see that is prohibitive."41 Eventually, many of the problems evoked by states rights owners were resolved: electrical difficulties were ameliorated if not completely eliminated; Eastman's satisfactory film stock was adopted; and although vitascope exhibitors complained about the shortage of films, their choice of titles continued to grow.
Despite these improvements, states rights owners rarely recouped their investments. Most did little more than meet expenses, and Wainwright and Rock were the only ones ever to claim a profit. In early September a Holland brother wrote to Raff:
I am completely disheartened about the Vitascope business in consequence of the wretched films we have been receiving of late. If there is no improvement, it is simply out of the question altogether doing business under present conditions, and I do not wonder at the statements I hear from exhibitors in the United States that they are not making money to warrant paying large bonuses for territory (3 September 1896, MH-BA).
A month later, C. O. Richardson reported to the Vitascope Company:
The Vitascope business in Maine has been no picnic by any means. Without counting a dollar for services of myself, wife and daughter, who had done all the work, we have since June, profited enough above running expenses to just pay costs of film and rental. After four months work with state two thirds covered I am still out my original $1000 for state (4 October 1896, MH-BA).
The expense and difficulty of introducing a new technology became their burden, allowing others to prosper.
Raff & Gammon, Thomas Armat, and Thomas Edison were the people who chiefly profited from the vitascope. Although the novelty's New York run at Koster & Bial's ended in mid August 1896, Raff & Gammon reopened at Proctor's two New York
vaudeville houses in mid September and remained for almost two months. By the time this run was concluded, Raff & Gammon had made over $10,000 from their exhibition contracts in that city alone.42 Sales of territory and business dealings with the states rights owners must have roughly tripled that amount. Armat probably accrued more than $10,000. The Edison Company's film-related profits for the 1896
business year were almost $25,000, while the famed inventor received additional compensation from Raff & Gammon in an informal royalty arrangement. Their success was thus in stark contrast to the fate of states rights owners, who never regained the money from their purchase of territory. These local entrepreneurs faced many impediments to success, but only one that could not be overcome: the problem created by competing motion-picture enterprises.