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1890–1895 Movies and the Kinetoscope PAUL C. SPEHR The period between 1890 and 1895 was a rich one in terms of scientific, cultural, and social developments, but it was also a period of growing unrest. Karl Benz constructed the first automobile on four wheels and Henry Ford built his first gasoline-powered engine. Women’s suffrage was adopted in Colorado. Coxey’s army marched from Ohio to Washington to protest widespread unemployment. Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company struck and Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union declared a sympathy strike. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays; Guglielmo Marconi invented radio telegraphy. For the first time people heard Mahler’s Second and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphonies, Verdi’s Falstaff, Sibelius’s “Finlandia ,” Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. At the theater, they saw George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man and Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. By their (gas, kerosene, and increasingly electric) lamplight they read Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. A partial list of prominent persons who died and were born during these years symbolizes this era of change. Among those who died: Vincent van Gogh, Guy de Maupassant, and Louis Pasteur. Among those born were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Fritz Lang, Mary Pickford, Josef von Sternberg, Jean Renoir, John Ford (Sean Aloysius O’Feeney), and Buster Keaton (Joseph Francis Keaton). But something even more than new was on the horizon, something that would enchant and mystify viewers for ages to come. ■■■■■■■■■■ The Kinetoscope The opening was scheduled for Monday, the sixteenth of April, but the films and ten Kinetoscope machines arrived on Friday and the members of the Kinetoscope syndicate had them set up and ready by noon on Saturday. When Al Tate, who was Edison’s personal secretary, saw a large crowd gathered outside, he turned to Tom Lombard of the Chicago Central Phonograph Company and suggested that they open early and let 22 the crowd pay for the celebratory supper planned for that evening at Delmonico ’s. So the doors were opened. Tate sold tickets, Lombard monitored the crowd, and Tate’s brother Bert kept the machines running. They hoped to close at six, but the press of the crowd kept them busy until one A.M. Tate said that it would have taken a squad of police to clear the hall if they had tried to close earlier. They had sold almost 500 tickets at twenty-five cents each and the take was more than enough to pay for supper. Unfortunately, they did not record the name of the first person to buy a ticket, but the opening of the Holland Brothers Kinetoscope parlor on 14 April 1894 was a promising beginning for the American motion picture industry. Tate and company happily regaled themselves with boiled lobster—but at an allnight restaurant. Delmonico’s was closed. What the crowd saw were not movies in the sense that most of us understand them today, that is, images moving on a screen in an experience shared with others gathered in a darkened space. Instead, the patrons at the Holland Brothers parlor paid their quarters to view five different films, each exhibited in one of five large wooden boxes. One by one they bent over and looked at the movie through a slot in the top. Each film lasted from twenty to thirty seconds, and after watching the first they could move to the second and so on. If a patron was pleased and could afford it, another twenty- five cents made it possible to see the films on the remaining five machines. They saw a mixture of subjects: Eugene Sandow, the European strongman, with his quizzical face and bulging muscles; the innocent-looking contortionist Bertholdi (Beatrice Mary Claxton); a Highland dance; a trapeze artist; a wrestling match; a cockfight; and two staged scenes: a blacksmith and assistants at work and men gathered in a barbershop. The films bore Thomas Edison’s name, the machines were designed and built by him, and a bust of Edison was prominently displayed in the center of the parlor. The Kinetoscope had had a long gestation. Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” had promised in October 1888 to make a device to “do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.” Attempts to record microscopic images on a cylinder proved futile and in 1889...


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