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4 Cinema, a Screen Novelty: 1895-1897
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The Connellsville Entrepreneurs Acquire States Rights

As production on the vitascopes moved forward at the Edison works during March and April 1896, Raft & Gammon were busy promoting the machine and selling territories to entrepreneurs. Edwin Porter, then approaching the end of his naval enlistment and pursuing his interest in electricity, came in contact with this latest of Edison novelties. Perhaps seeing a demonstration in their office, he informed his friend Charles H. Balsley of this new invention and the commercial opportunities it seemed to offer. On March 30th, Raft & Gammon received two pieces of correspondence from Balsley asking about territory in Pennsylvania. The following day they responded, explaining that Pennsylvania had been sold and offering other territories.[52] Balsley's father, J. R. Balsley, and several other Connellsville merchants then decided to purchase the rights to the neighboring state of Ohio. A telegram on April 4th, however, informed the potential investors that Raft & Gammon had agreed to hold Ohio for "an interested party," Allen F. Rieser, who ultimately bought the rights.[53] Members of the consortium then traveled to New York and purchased the rights to Indiana for $4,000— an acquisition soon announced in the Connellsville newspaper[54] (see document no. 2).



The exclusive rights for the state of Indiana for the new Edison marvel, the Vitascope, have been secured by J. R. Balsley, R. S. Paine, F. E. Markell and Cyrus Echard of Connellsville.

The vitascope is an improved kinetoscope by which moving life size figures of men, women and animals are thrown on a screen by means of bright lights and powerful lenses. A feature of the new machine which astonished the gentlemen named who recently witnessed a private exhibition in New York, for it is not ready for public view, was the almost entire absence of vibration in the pictures as they appear on the screens. The machine is said to be the wonder of the age. A vast money making field is opened up by it, as exhibitions can be given in theatres and halls, reproducing scenes and views with all the realism of life.

The four Connellsville men struck while the iron was hot, and secured the exclusive territory of Indiana. No one can exhibit the machine in Indiana without first securing the right from the gentlemen who control that state. They will probably sell the rights by counties and cities and will doubtlessly realize handsomely on their investment. The vitascopes will not be sold, but remain the exclusive property of their maker, Raft and Gammon of New York, who will lease the machines for a nominal sum

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monthly. This will enable purchasers of states rights to control their states absolutely. Messrs. Balsley, Paine, Markell and Echard have not disposed of any territory yet, but will place it on the market in a short time. There are great possibilities for the vitascope. The rights to Allegheny county, Pennsylvania were sold to Harry Davis by the syndicate for only $1,000 less than they paid [for] the rights for the whole state. There's money in it.

SOURCE : Connellsville Courier , April 17, 1896.

These four Connellsville men were, like many other Vitascope investors, small-time businessmen ready to risk hard-earned capital on the latest invention of America's folk hero Thomas Edison. J. R. Balsley had left the lumber business and retired to part-time inventing. In February 1896 he was selling a thread cutter and holder, "an ingenious little invention that everyone using spool thread will be glad to have."[55] Although Richard S. Paine, shoe store owner, had nearly gone bankrupt in the late 1870s and 1880s, he was prospering in the mid 1890s and owned stock in the local electric company.[56] He was ready to take another chance on the man who predicted the world would soon be run on electricity. F. E. Markell, a pharmacist with several drug stores, was prospering and six years later would become the first president of the Citizens National Bank.[57]

Appropriately, but coincidentally, a stereopticon lecture was given in Connellsville a few days after the group purchased their vitascope rights. As they were about to become entertainers, the local entrepreneurs surely attended. The program, called "The Secret of Success," illustrated the life and work of Thomas A. Edison and ended "in a grand concert by Edison's latest, loudest and best, the Auditorium Phonograph."[58] Certainly these small businessmen dreamed of succeeding on Edison's coattails.

Enthusiastic about their purchase, Paine and J. R. Balsley were ready to risk still more capital. Interest centered on several territories, particularly California, a state for which Raft & Gammon received many inquiries, including one from Thomas L. Tally, who operated a kinetoscope parlor in Los Angeles.[59] Having purchased Indiana, Balsley obtained a brief option on California. A telegram sent April 11th told him: "Price twenty-five hundred. Can hold till Monday no longer."[60] If Balsley was unwilling to invest additional capital, Paine seemed ready to buy the California rights alone. "We will be glad to let you have California if we can do so," Raff & Gammon wrote Paine on April 18th. "There are several parties after it and we have rather obliged ourselves to Mr. Balsley although we shall ask him to decide the matter today." A handwritten note at the bottom informed Paine that "Mr. B has taken Cala." and offered him other states as alternative investments,[61] but Paine was satisfied and the Connellsville entrepreneurs stopped there.


Balsley sent the down payment of $833.34 for California to Raft & Gammon on April 20th. It was acknowledged on the eve of the vitascope's premiere at Koster & Bial's:

You will find the receipt is in a little different form from the one given you on Indiana but we think you will agree with us that it is more specific and better for you. Since giving you a receipt on Indiana, we have adopted this regular form for all future sales of state rights as we want all receipts to be as uniform as possible.

We are promised fifteen machines on the 7th of May, and of that number we have put you down for one for Indiana. If we possibly can, we will save another for your use in California, but we cannot promise positively. However, we are confident that we can deliver you one or more machines before the first of June and possibly considerably before that date.

We note your remarks as to securing the Vitascope view of Coke Works, and we will probably make our arrangements to secure the same at the proper time. We thank you for your kind offer, and shall be glad to take advantage of it when the time comes.

The Edison Works have secured their first lot of what we call "clear stock" for films and we are counting on producing splendid results by use of the same. In fact, the outlook is very bright and we think the machine is going to create a sensation at our exhibit tomorrow night at Koster & Bial's.
Very truly yours,
Raft & Gammon

We enclose letters referring to California rights. Please return letters to us.[62]

As Raft had written to Edison's general manager, William Gilmore, the new contract made it clear that Raft & Gammon could not be held responsible for rival machines. It was this increased burden of risk that the Connellsville group found unsettling—particularly once amusement notices announced the imminent arrival of competing machines. Four days before the vitascope's debut, ads for Proctor's vaudeville organization reassured its patrons: "Coming very Soon to Proctor's Pleasure Palace—the Photo-Electric Sensation that all London is now flocking to see—The Kintographe."[63] Writing Raft & Gammon on April 25th, Paine worried about rival organizations and quoted a negative review of the vitascope's performance. Raft, with the Koster & Bial's premiere just behind them, countered with a reassuring and self-assured letter that offered to refund their money and sell the territory to another interested party. He dismissed potential competitors, insisting that "Information which we have received satisfies us, beyond doubt, that we not only have a superior machine but that we have such tremendous advantages over any similar machine that is now in existence or could be constructed hereafter, that there is but little [to] fear in way of competition." As Raft later added, "There never was a good, big-paying thing which has not been imitated."[64] Another letter of assurance was sent to J. R. Balsley two days later.[65] The Connellsville group wavered but decided to stay in.


The vitascopes being manufactured at the Edison works were not ready as quickly or in the quantity that Raft & Gammon had hoped for and led others to expect. On May 9th the completion of the first three or four machines was still a week away. Owning the rights to Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland, P. W. Kiefaber was given two of these for an exhibition at Keith's in Boston. He insisted, with considerable justice, that two machines were necessary for a good show: certainly two were being used at Koster & Bial's.[66] The Boston premiere came on May 18th. On that same day, Paine and Charles Balsley also left Connellsville for New York to pick up their equipment and to learn how to operate the machine.[67] Within a week, other openings had occurred in Hartford, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City. The Connellsville consortium were forced to delay their debut, for they took their first projector to San Francisco, the cultural capital of the West, rather than to Indiana as originally planned. Gustave Walter had agreed to show the vitascope at his vaudeville theaters in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Porter remained behind in the New York area, waiting for his enlistment to run out.

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