- Historic Sites
Learning To Go To The Movies
The great democratic art form got off to a very rocky start. People simply didn’t want to crowd into a dark room to look at a flickering light, and it took nearly twenty years for Americans and motion pictures to embrace each other.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
It was through lengthy newspaper descriptions like this one that prospective customers first learned about the magic of moving pictures. Note how the article begins with mention of the darkened theater and refers to the darkness again in mid-paragraph. Note too the reference to “swift electric sparks.” Neither audiences nor critics understood how the projectors worked, nor were they convinced that the electricity used to project the pictures was harmless.
After two weeks of sold-out performances, the projector and its operators left the Orpheum for a tour of nearby vaudeville houses. But it turned out that theaters outside Los Angeles could not provide the electrical power needed to run the projector, so the machine was hauled back to Los Angeles and installed in the back of Thomas Tally’s amusement parlor.
In the front of his store, Tally had set up automatic phonograph and peepshow machines that provided customers, for a nickel a play, with a few minutes of scratchy recorded sound or a few seconds of flickering moving images. Tally now partitioned off the back of his parlor for a “vitascope” room. To acquaint the public with what he billed as the “Wizard’s latest wonder,” he took out ads in the Los Angeles newspapers: “Tonight at Tally’s Phonograph Parlor, 311 South Spring St, for the first time in Los Angeles, the great Corbett and Courtney prize fight will be reproduced upon a great screen through the medium of this great and marvelous invention. The men will be seen on the stage, life size, and every movement made by them in this great fight will be reproduced as seen in actual life.”
Tally’s back room was arguably the nation’s first moving-picture theater. But although the technology for projecting moving images was in place, people turned out to be reluctant to enter a dark room to see pictures projected on a sheet. Unable to lure customers into his “theater,” Tally did the next best thing. He punched holes in the partition separating the larger storefront from the vitascope room and, according to Terry Ramsaye, invited customers to “peer in at the screen while standing in the comfortable security of the well lighted phonograph parlor. … Three peep holes were at chair level for seated spectators, and four somewhat higher for standees —standing room only after three admissions, total capacity seven. The price per peep hole was fifteen cents.”
As Tally and other storefront proprietors quickly discovered, it was not going to be easy to assemble an audience for moving pictures. Projectors were difficult to run and impossible to repair; the electrical current or batteries they ran on seldom worked properly; and the films were expensive, of poor quality, and few. But most important, customers balked at entering darkened rooms to see a few minutes of moving pictures. In April 1902 Tally tried again to open an “Electric Theater” but was forced to convert it to vaudeville after six months.
It was the same story everywhere. As a disgusted Oswego, New York, operator reported, at first the vitascope drew “crowded houses on account of its novelty. Now everybody has seen it, and, to use the vernacular of the ‘foyer,’ it does not ‘draw flies.’”
Although projected films failed to attract customers to storefront theaters during their first decade of life, they were nonetheless being introduced to millions of vaudeville fans. “Dumb” acts—animals, puppets, pantomimists, magic-lantern slides, and tableaux vivants —had traditionally opened and closed the show because, being silent, they would not be disturbed by late arrivals or early departures. The movies were, the managers now discovered, the perfect dumb acts: they were popular, cheaper than most live performers, didn’t talk back or complain about the accommodations, and could be replaced weekly.
Harry Davis, a Pittsburgh showman, attached the tony Greek word for theater to the lowly five-cent coin.
Most of the early projectors held only fifty feet, or sixteen seconds, of film, which if looped and repeated five or six times could be stretched out to almost two minutes. Seven or eight films, displayed one after another in this fashion, lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, the perfect length for a vaudeville “turn.”
The first moving pictures, shot in Edison’s Black Maria studio in New Jersey, had been of vaudeville, musical theater, and circus acts. But audiences turned out to prefer pictures that moved across the frame: waves crashing onto a beach, trains barreling down their tracks, soldiers parading, horses racing. At the vitascope’s debut performance at Koster & Bial’s vaudeville theater in New York City, the crowd cheered loudest on seeing Rough Sea at Dover , the one picture shot outside the studio. Still, in the vaudeville halls the “living pictures” constituted one act among many.