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4 Cinema, a Screen Novelty: 1895-1897
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Rival Novelties: the San Francisco Opening of the Vitascope

As Balsley and Paine were about to arrive in San Francisco, William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner devoted a full-page article to the Lathams' eidoloscope with its "Instantaneous Photographs of a Bull Fight." The article, profusely illustrated with line drawings based on film frames, informed readers that the bullfight "was arranged by Mr. Gray Latham for the purpose of taking Eidoloscope pictures now being thrown on the screen" in New York.[68] No equivalent coverage was devoted to the Connellsville entrepreneurs either before or during the vitascope's San Francisco debut. Its effect was to partially undermine perceptions of the vitascope as the original screen machine. Twelve days before the eidoloscope article, the Examiner had run a story on the vita-scope, but it focused on the predictions of Charles Frohman, one of the theater's leading impresarios, who sent road companies to San Francisco from his New York base. The vitascope, he believed, was "destined to substitute for stock scenery actual representations of scenes with all the human agents necessary, sitting, standing, moving about, chatting, in short, fulfilling the ordinary everyday duties and occupations of the ordinary individual."[69]

Once in San Francisco, Balsley and Paine encountered difficulties in setting up their machine—a common problem for the first vitascope showmen. In this instance, their lens gave too large an image for the distance from the Orpheum Theater's balcony to the screen and a new one had to be purchased from George Beck for $55.[70] There may have been further complications as well, for the New York Clipper listed the vitascope's West Coast debut as June 1st,[71] though it was not until June 7th that the local press, after many promises that the vita-


scope was coming, could announce the novelty's opening for the following day. In doing so the papers presented moving pictures as one of several novelties competing for the attention of vaudeville patrons. The Examiner informed its readers:

The Orpheum announces a strong string of novelties. Of these great stress is laid on the engagement of Edison's latest wonder, the vitascope. This wonderful machine, if it may be termed a machine, has been the sensation of the East for the past two months and has been secured by the Orpheum circuit at great expense, it is claimed. "Wizard" Edison has named the latest product of his remarkable genius the "vitascope" from the fact that it projects apparently living figures and scenes upon a screen or canvas before the audience. Another novelty announced is of a troop of Marimba players from Guatemala.[72]

Still other novelties like the dancer Papinta were holdovers from the previous week.

Balsley and Paine opened the vitascope on June 8th, projecting five films with an intermission of two minutes between each film.[73] Perhaps because San Franciscans had read such glowing reports of the machine's feats in New York, the novelty proved a mild disappointment. While declaring that the vitascope was "well worth seeing," the San Francisco Chronicle only gave it a brief two-line review.[74] Since most of the films had been or were available at Bacigalupi's Kinetoscope, Phonograph and Graphophone Arcade at 940 Market Street, the critic felt "the selection of pictures had not been the most interesting so far."[75] San Francisco clearly expected to see the best films available. Other newspapers did not feel compelled to comment on the machine's debut at any length. The Examiner reviewed the Orpheum's program only in passing. "The presentation of fine pictures by Edison's vitascope will be a pleasing feature of this week's program," it reported.[76] To most it did not seem to be the "Sensation of the 19th Century," as Walter suggested in his ads.

The blasé attitude that greeted the vitascope has to be understood in the context of rival novelties, particularly rival forms of screen entertainment, which converged on the West Coast during the spring of 1896. Alexander Black's picture play Miss Jerry , a "novel form of entertainment," had its debut in San Francisco on June 8th at the Metropolitan Temple.[77] It presented an entire play on the screen using a large number of photographic slides that followed each other in rapid succession. Dialogue for the various roles was mimicked by a narrator, in this case Miss Carrie Louis Ray. The San Francisco Call described the picture play as "a most exquisite treat."[78] A lengthy review in the Chronicle was more impressed with Black's picture play than with the vitascope, to which it was indirectly compared. "The photographer has done his work so admirably that it only needs a bit of imagination to make it all seem real, even to a nineteenth century audience. The idea is from Edison, but the love story is so


daintily and prettily told and so full of humor withal that it would be a captious audience that was not pleased."[79]

The illustrated song was yet another novelty. Lantern slides, projected onto the screen, offered a visual interpretation of the song's lyrics as they were performed. On the day the Examiner announced the vitascope opening, it ran a half-page article on the illustrated song calling it "the Latest Novelty of the Stage." After excerpting a song and describing the slides that accompanied it, the newspaper concluded with a brief quote from the proprietor of a vaudeville theater:

The day for ordinary ballad and sentimental singers on the vaudeville stage is rapidly passing away. Recent advancements along electrical and photographic lines have added so much to the pictorial advantages of the stage that the camera has been brought into active requisition in this particular. During the past few months pictures instinct with life, vivid with color and clear in characterization have been associated with a song so that while the verbal description and harmony come from the throat of a singer, the eye is satisfied with the mimic portrayal of the scene. Not only does the song thus presented gain at least 50% in the estimation of the audience, but it also enhances the salary of the singer in equal proportions.[80]

At approximately the same time, moving pictures, the picture play, and the illustrated song jointly refocused the public's attention on the entertainment possibilities of projected images. Only during the course of time was it to become apparent that moving pictures were to dominate the commercial screen to the virtual exclusion of other formats.

The greatest photographic novelty during much of 1896 was not moving pictures but the x-ray. This newest discovery received constant newspaper attention between March and June, with Hearst's Examiner featuring stories in which bullets embedded in Civil War veterans were discovered after thirty years of unsuccessful probing. Edison himself received considerable front-page attention as he worked on "perfecting the x-ray."[81] Americans were even more impressed by the ability to reveal something no one could see than to capture and "reproduce" what could be seen every day. The vitascope, viewed as the logical extension of Edison's peep-show machine, was outclassed by this impressive scientific discovery.

Despite initial disappointment with the vitascope, the Chronicle reassured its readers that subjects closer to their initial expectations were to be offered during the second week: "There are many films coming and the sensational one of the Wave, which has been so much written about, will be worth seeing especially."[82] The following week Sea Waves (i.e., Rough Sea at Dover ) was heartily praised: "Those who have not seen the wave should see it. It is such a thrilling realistic thing that the people in the front seats involuntarily get up afraid they will get wet."[83] Since James Corbett was about to fight Tom Sharkey


in San Francisco on June 24th and since Corbett was the home-town hero, The Corbett-Courtney Fight was added during the second week as a timely subject with hometown appeal.[84] Boxing fans were able to examine their hero's technique with a life-sized image, and Corbett dropped by to watch himself fight.[85] This coup, however, had to compete with the x-ray. On June 18th, the world boxing champion "submitted to the most searching of all photographic processes for the first time in his life and when it was over Corbett said that the experience had been both interesting and enjoyable." After examining various parts of his skeletal structure, Dr. Phillip Jones made an x-ray of his right forearm—a process that took twenty minutes. The result was then published in the Examiner .[86] Once again the vitascope had been preempted by a rival novelty.

The vitascope's third week at the San Francisco Orpheum featured The May Irwin Kiss , which finally reached the West Coast two months after it had been taken. While the response at the Orpheum was not reported in the press, the film was given an enthusiastic reception almost everywhere. According to one review, "the hit of the show, so far as marvellous lifelike effects and mirthful results with the audience go, was the amusing, much-prepared-for kiss—the May Irwin kiss from the 'The Widow Jones.' In this the effect was wonderful. The figures were so large that one could almost tell by the motion of the lips what Rice was saying to May Irwin and what Miss Irwin was replying. The facial expression was the widow to a T, and ditto Rice, and the real scene itself never excited more amusement than did its vitascopic presentment, and that is saying much."[87] In the middle of the third week, it was announced that "new views have arrived for the vitascope and this week will be the last one that the wonderful work of this machine will be seen."[88] The vitascope's run ended on a happier note than it began.

The vitascope was a "novelty"—a term applied to oddities, scientific innovations, ingenious demonstrations of strength and coordination, or displays of beauty and sexual allure with which vaudeville managers tried to amuse their patrons. Shortly after the vitascope's departure, the Chronicle remarked, "Vaudeville novelties are appearing in such rapid succession at the Orpheum that it would seem as if the supply must soon be exhausted. Papinta, the vita-scope, Black Patti, Blondi and Macart's dog and monkey circus have all appeared in rapid succession and now comes another novelty in the way of Herr Techow's cat show, which by reason of its oddity ought to attract attention."[89]

The importance attached to novelty was particularly significant at this moment in American history. The United States was coming out of a major depression (the one that had bankrupted Porter's tailoring establishment), spurred on by the introduction or successful commercialization of a wide array of products and technical improvements: the automobile, the phonograph, electric trollies, and electric light—as well as cinema. This emphasis on novelty celebrated


innovation and the changes transforming American life. Vaudeville confronted this transformation and often expressed it by emphasizing not only novelty but variety. As one journalist explained,

To those interested in the secret of the great success of vaudeville upon the stage, it must be obvious that the clue to the whole thing lies in the nervousness and desire for change that is characteristic of nineteenth century mankind. Sitting in a theatre for three hours at a stretch, looking at the same faces, hearing the same voices and waiting for the denouement of a play, is apt to become monotonous to most people. They prefer a constant change, both of actors and acts, and this they get in a theatre where vaudeville is presented.[90]

From this perspective, the vitascope was the vaudeville novelty of the nineteenth century, for cinema was to transform America's cultural life in the years ahead.

Despite its need for novelty, popular culture also relied on familiarity. Late nineteenth-century theater, particularly as it was performed in America's small towns, brought back the same plays year after year to be seen by the same audiences. In vaudeville successful acts were held over so that the spectators could see them again the following week and experience the same pleasure. Vaudeville acts themselves were rigorously defined by categories that were repeated over the course of time in an almost ritualistic formula.[91] The obverse side of variety was repetition. The acceptance of repetition can be seen in the projection strategies adopted for the vitascope, with its film loops, and in the exhibition of both new films and holdovers. It is also evident in the redundancy of subject matter that immediately followed the first films. A myriad of "kiss films" followed the Irwin/Rice novelty. Given the cultural framework in which they were shown, it would be too easy for the cultural historian simply to dismiss these imitations as derivative. Vaudeville and the vitascope valorized tradition and continuity as well as change and innovation.

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4 Cinema, a Screen Novelty: 1895-1897
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