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4 Cinema, a Screen Novelty: 1895-1897
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Porter Joins His Connellsville Friends in Los Angeles

Porter was discharged from the navy on June 18, 1896.[92] Later he testified that his career as a motion picture operator began in June 1896, and he may have stayed briefly in New York City to operate the vitascope at Koster & Bial's.[93] At the end of the month, he was in Connellsville, but he soon "went to California to operate the first Vitascope machine exhibited there."[94] If the former naval electrician left Connellsville quickly, he could have reached Los Angeles just as the vitascope was opening at Walter's Orpheum Theater in that town.

After a week's hiatus while Balsley and Paine moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the Connellsville entrepreneurs resumed their film projections on


July 6th. The Los Angeles Times heralded the machine's imminent debut with enthusiasm greatly exceeding that of the San Francisco press:

The vitascope is coming to town. It is safe to predict that when it is set up at the Orpheum and set a-going, it will cause a sensation as the city has not known for many a long day.

The vitascope is Edison's latest and most shining triumph. It is a miracle of human ingenuity in the realms of electricity and photography. It is on the same order as the kinetoscope, with the difference that in the kinetoscope one person at a time peeps into a hole and sees a tiny moving picture while in the vitascope, the picture is thrown upon a screen and shines forth. . . life-size, so that the entire audience can see the picture at once. The vitascope was first publicly exhibited only about two months and a half ago.

The things shown by the vitascope are of many different kinds. A bit of Broadway in New York is very striking. The audience can see the swarms of people hurrying along, the jostle of horses, carriages, trucks, etc., in the street, all moving and changing and so real one almost expects to hear the street noises. A snowstorm, a skirt dance and a sea beach scene are some of the things shown. The life-like reality of the pictures is said to be startling. In San Francisco and elsewhere, one of the most popular scenes was a reproduction of the famous bit of acting in which May Irwin is kissed by John C. Rush [sic ]. The changing expression of their faces, their graceful movements, the play of hand and lip and eye, are said to be faultlessly reproduced.[95]

The Los Angeles Herald felt it necessary to describe the novelty and how it worked, suggesting that Balsley, Porter, and Paine were the first to project moving pictures in the city that was to become the center of the film industry.[96]

Once again there were competing novelties. Miss Jerry opened on the same night, this time at the Los Angeles Theater. Inquiries for tickets to Black's picture play indicated that "any novelty will take well in Los Angeles."[97] Another "novelty" reported in a Herald article ran opposite the paper's blurb on the vitascope: a French scientist claimed that thoughts could be photographed.[98] In this context, projected moving pictures did not seem quite so "marvelous." Anything, however extraordinary, now seemed possible. As the Los Angeles Herald was to comment on the vitascope, "Can genius go farther? We have been made to hear the voices of our distant friends and now we are enabled to see them move and act. Truly it is enough to make Franklin turn in his grave with wonder of it and yet, so attuned are we to the marvelous in this day and age of the world that we are scarcely decently surprised."[99] Nevertheless, the vitascope headlined one of the Los Angeles Orpheum's best programs in its three-year history.

News of the vitascope's arrival had packed the 1,311-seat Orpheum.[100]

Every seat in the theatre was sold ere the box office window was opened for the evening's business. Standing room only was sold, and the purchasers of it formed a fresco around the entire circuit of the walls from box to box in addition to which some hundreds who applied for seats left, to come again later in the week. So much for what


was expected of the management, and it can be said but in a few words, the immense audience was not disappointed.[101]

The Los Angeles Times provided readers with a clear description of the show's format, the protracted screening of the "endless band" of film and the interruptions that occurred while these films were changed:

The theatre was darkened until it was as black as mid-night. Suddenly a strange whirling sound was heard. Upon a huge white sheet flashed forth the figure of Anna Belle Sun [sic ], whirling through the mazes of the serpentine dance. She swayed and nodded and tripped it lightly, the filmy draperies rising and falling and floating this way and that, all reproduced with startling reality, and the whole without a break except that now and then one could see swift electric sparks. Then the picture changed from the grey of a photograph to the color of life and next came the fairy-like butterfly dance. Then, without warning, darkness and the roar of applause that shook the theatre; and knew no pause till the next picture was flashed on the screen. This was long, lanky Uncle Sam who was defending Venezuela from fat little John Bull, and forcing the bully to his knees. Next came a representation of Herald Square in New York with streetcars and vans moving up and down, then Cissy Fitzgerald's dance and last of all a representation of the way May Irwin and John C. Rice kiss. Their smiles and glances and expressive gestures and the final joyous, overpowering, luscious osculation was repeated again and again, while the audience fairly shrieked and howled approval. The vitascope is a wonder, a marvel, an outstanding example of human ingenuity, and it had an instantaneous success on this, its first exhibition in Los Angeles. A representation of Niagara Falls is now on its way [from the] East, where it was first exhibited only two weeks ago, and this will be added to the bill on Thursday evening.[102]

The opening night performance suffered from minor deficiencies, which were probably owing to inadequate power, since the Connellsville group was running its machine on batteries, an uncommon practice at the time.[103] The vitascope, unlike traditional magic lanterns or the Lumières' cinématographe, ran on electricity, which often created problems. The first vitascope exhibition in Worcester, Massachusetts, for example, was marred by electrical problems. As a result, "Cissy Fitzgerald's wink was invisible owing to insufficient speed and light, and the boxers struck with dreamy sluggishness."[104] Here Porter's background as an electrician and telegraph operator provided expertise that could correct the problem. After one critic returned to the Orpheum, he was able to report that the vitascope "scored even a greater success than on its first appearance, for there had been time to remedy all slight defects caused by the hurry in which it had been necessary to set it up."[105]

The vitascope program at the Los Angeles Orpheum was changed in midweek and reviewed the following day:

The announced change of programme of the Vitascope at the Orpheum last evening was well received, though some of the plates [sic ] which had just arrived from New


York were broken in transit and could not be presented. The view of the whirlpool rapids of Niagara Falls was a most realistic picture showing the rushing, roaring, whirling foam-beaten waves and splashing spray true to nature. Another view presented was that of the Atlantic Ocean beaches rolling up to the shore in the vivid way peculiar to the breakers of that turbulent pond. The picture of the female equilibrist doing a difficult act was appreciated, but the sympathies of the audience went out to the two performers in the kissing scene, and the graceful woman who danced in skirts.[106]

During the first week of moving pictures, at least 20,000 attended the Orpheum, while as many as 10,000 others were turned away. This encouraged the theater to plan a Sunday matinee.[107] Suggesting the city's enthusiasm for the novelty, a Los Angeles Times reporter speculated on the vitascope's future. "Wonderful as it is, the vitascope is as yet surely in its infancy," he wrote. "It is hard to say to what proportions it may yet be used in the amusement field 'with the development of color photography and the combining together of the vitascope and the phonograph, both of which are probably not so very far away."[108]

The most successful films shown on the vitascope were those that isolated a specific characteristic or representational technique to achieve a novel effect: the close view of a kiss, the forward-moving wave assaulting the spectator, even scenes of busy street life "vitascopicly" presented inside a theater (breaking down the separation of indoors and outside). These images were non-narrative, pure examples of what Tom Gunning has called the cinema of attractions.[109]The May Irwin Kiss , for example, was excerpted from a musical, but audiences did not need to know the story or the situation in which the kiss occurred to enjoy the film. In fact, as we shall see, the film could easily be attributed to an entirely different play. With the couple placed against a black background, the kiss was isolated in time and space. Even to the extent that the kiss had a beginning, middle, and end, this progression was undermined by the scene's rapid repetition during the exhibition process. Films like the wave were particularly effective when shown as loops, the repetition of the scene mirroring the repetitive nature of the ocean waves breaking on the shore. In the process these loops drained the image of temporal and spatial meaning.

During the second week, Porter and his associates offered another set of films. "The vitascope came last and the audience applauded every one of the magic pictures rapturously," reported the Los Angeles Times . "The new pictures were Amy Fuller's famous skirt dance, ending with a hand spring; a picture of three pickaninnies, patting, juba and cutting up capers, and a weird Oriental thing, 'the India short stick dance' in which half a dozen natives figure."[110] Ending their Orpheum engagement after the second week, Balsley, Paine, and Porter had toured the California vaudeville circuit as it then existed. Their options were limited by their dependency on electricity. As another vitascope exhibitor wrote Raff & Gammon, "To enable us to make money we have to so remodel the machine that it can be worked with hand power when we cannot


Tally's Phonograph Parlor on Spring Street in the summer of 1896.

get electricity and construct new travelling cases so that the breakable parts can be safely and rapidly packed for shipment. I believe there is plenty of business to be obtained in the country once we are prepared to work it, but it is worse than folly undertaking it in our small towns until we are ready to meet a three night's business and then pack up and get out to the next town."[111] Visits to California's smaller cities and towns were neither practical nor financially justified, particularly in the middle of the summer.

After the Orpheum run was over, R. S. Paine returned to Connellsville, leaving Porter and Charles Balsley to manage the machine. The two friends stayed in Los Angeles and reopened their show at Tally's Phonograph and Kinetoscope Parlor. Tally, who was eventually to become a major West Coast exhibitor and an important executive at First National during the late 1910s and early 1920s, promoted his move into cinema with blurbs in the local papers:

Tonight at Tally's Phonograph Parlor, 311 South Spring St, for the first time in Los Angeles, the great Corbett and Courthey 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.

New York and London went wild over this wonderful invention and last week the Orpheum was packed to the walls with people anxious to see the wizard's greatest wonder, the vitascope. Come tonight and see the great Corbett fight. From this date on the fight will be exhibited every evening.[112]


Tally's Phonograph Parlor as it would appear in 1898. 
Thomas Tally appears behind the kinetoscopes.

The next day it was reported that "great crowds flocked to see the greatest wonder of the world, the vitascope, Mr. Edison's latest invention. Performances will be given regularly every afternoon and evening and the programme will be changed daily."[113] Admission was ten cents. After a successful run, the Connellsville entrepreneurs sold their rights for California to Tally and returned home. Tally's machine was destroyed by fire shortly thereafter—or so, at least, it was said—perhaps as a way for Tally to free himself from any royalty requirements.[114]

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