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2 Porter's Early Years. 1870-1896
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Porter and Connellsville's Cultural Life

Porter has been portrayed by some historians as a naïf who "had no background or experience in art" and so was unaware of the implications of his work.[32] This is certainly inaccurate, for he was an active participant in Connellsville's cultural life at a time when it was being fundamentally transformed. During the 1870s commercial, popular culture had come to Connellsville only infrequently. The churches, public schools, and the local press were the principal cultural institutions. For an evening's entertainment, a minister might deliver a light-hearted lecture on subjects such as "Fashion" or the local debating society argue topics such as "Can the existence of God be proven without the aid of divine revelation?" or "Should foreign immigration be prohibited?"[33] Performances by touring theater groups were rare and not well attended. When Thorne's Comedy Company came to town in April 1880, twenty people were in the audience, and the play was dismissed as "worse than mediocre." This, the first company to be reported in the Keystone Courier , did not survive its Connellsville performance and was disbanded.[34] The next troupe to visit the borough, the Stenson Comedy Company, did not pass through town for another eight months. In 1880 residents were dependent on their occasional visits to Pittsburgh for most of their theatrical entertainment.


In September 1881, however, work began on Connellsville's first commercial theater, the Newmyer Opera House, a source of civic pride, "as finely furnished as any in the country."[35] According to one local reporter, "The stage is fitted up with a thousand dollar piano, a five-piece parlor set and Brussels carpet. The drop curtain is one of the prettiest we have seen anywhere, and is supplemented with abundant scenery of various kinds."[36] After opening with a performance of Camille , the opera house was frequented by many traveling companies.

Edwin Porter later recalled: "I worked around a local theater of which my brother was manager; acted in the capacity of ticket taker, usher, etc."[37] While the Newmeyer did have a manager named Porter during the 1883-84 and 1884-85 seasons, this was Byron Porter, at most a distant relative.[38] His small orchestra provided visiting theatrical companies with music. It also gave concerts, performing pieces that were arranged, and in at least one instance composed, by Byron Porter himself.[39] Called "the leading artist in this section of the state,"[40] Byron Porter was apparently an important figure in Ed Porter's early life. The two Porter families were closely associated; and, as manager of the opera house, Byron Porter had to maintain links with the town's main undertaker and furniture store in case he needed additional seating. Young Edward was an apparent beneficiary. Byron Porter was also the town's first photographer and ran a photographic gallery and art store. He may have taught Edward the rudiments of photography, an invaluable skill for his subsequent career.[41]

The Newmyer Opera House exposed Porter to a wide range of theatrical experiences. The ever-popular Uncle Tom's Cabin , which enjoyed a unique place in American cultural life, was performed there many times during Porter's Connellsville residence. In later years he was said to have acted out the story as a child, assuming the role of slave owner Simon Legree.[42] Other companies gave minstrel shows, melodramas, various works by Gilbert and Sullivan, travesties like the seriocomic Medea , Irish plays like Hibernica and Shamus O'Brien , and even a few tragedies. Performances included Daniel Boone; or, On the Trail (a local favorite), Peck's Bad Boy, The Count of Monte Cristo (minus James O'Neill), and She , adapted from Rider Haggard's book and produced by William Brady. The opera house was also used by the Kickapoo Indians, a medicine show; for wrestling matches; and to host a visit by John L. Sullivan, the world's boxing champion.[43] This eclecticism of subject matter would find continuity in much of Porter's own filmmaking career, if only as a result of similar commercial pressures. Certain of his pictures may have also been informed by Porter's early experience in the opera house—for instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), the Irish drama Kathleen Mavourneen (1906), Daniel Boone (1906), and She (1908). His later conception of cinema as filmed theater must have owed something to this as well.

As a successful filmmaker, Edwin Porter recalled other jobs that acquainted him with the mechanical end of the theatrical business. "Later my brother was


'advance' for Washburn and Huntington's circus. I was on the bill car. In that way I came to have a general idea of the circus business. I also traveled with him a part of the season in comic opera."[44] Although these experiences are impossible to verify, they were not unusual for the period; Vaudeville magnate Benjamin Franklin Keith entered the world of commercial amusements after visiting the circus at seventeen.[45] Edward Franklin Albee and Frederick F. Proctor, both prominent vaudeville entrepreneurs, also had early circus experiences.[46] Circuses were the major form of commercial summer amusement in many sections of the United States and frequently came to Connellsville while Porter was growing up. A visit from Barnum's Circus was an important event on the year's calendar, with 20,000 people seeing the main attraction in one day. In 1888 Forepaugh's Wild West Show stopped off and reenacted the holdup of the Deadwood Stage and "Custer's last rally."[47]

Porter also claimed to have been an exhibition skater. Roller-skating became a craze for the first time in the mid 1880s. During the winter of 1884-85 Connellsville had two indoor skating rinks. At their height, the rinks offered recreational skating in which the sexes mingled in casual social contact. Rink managers drew customers by presenting exhibition skaters, bicycle acts, and variety companies. They organized competitions and sponsored "a neck-tie and apron social."[48] Only a few out-of-town performers are mentioned in press clippings, but Porter could have easily been a local demonstrator. Porter thus associated himself with the three major forms of popular culture then making their appearance in Connellsville: the opera house, the circus, and the skating rink.

The emergence of commercial, popular culture in Connellsville during the 1880s produced a cultural split within the town's middle class. The rise of various amusement forms challenged what Alan Trachtenberg has called a virtually official middle-class image of America that was "a deliberate alternative to two extremes, the lavish and conspicuous squandering of wealth among the very rich, and the squalor of the very poor."[49] This Protestant culture sought to enrich people's lives through self-cultivation and self-education. It was centered in the churches, which provided an array of lectures and other educational opportunities. Among these were several examples of pre-cinematic screen entertainment. The lantern shows Paradise Lost, The Customs and Times of Washington , and Sights and Scenes in Europe were given at Methodist, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches.[50] A panorama showing painted scenes of America and Europe was exhibited by Presbyterian and Baptist denominations.[51] In Connellsville, as in most communities outside the metropolitan centers, these two entertainment forms continued to be aligned with religious institutions seeking to educate, inspire, and entertain their mostly middle-class congregations.

The opera house, the circus, and the skating rink did not attempt to educate their patrons; they sought instead to address their desires. They drew middle-


class people away from evening lectures. Trying to revive these older forms of community entertainment, some lectures were moved to Newmyer Opera House; attendance, however, did not improve.[52] In frustration ministers and conservative newspapers denounced the skating rinks, but without success. "The louder the denunciations, the more popular the rinks grew."[53] This reaction against secular, comparatively informal forms of amusement was intensified with the appearance of the Salvation Army in 1886. The pro-amusement Keystone Courier reported its arrival with derisive headlines, calling the group "a case of misdirected energy."[54] The Young Men's Christian Association, which appeared in Connellsville in late 1884, was a more moderate attempt to maintain or expand the church's position in an increasingly secularized cultural life.[55] In the confrontation between church-oriented, moralizing culture and popular commercial culture, Porter sided with the latter.

Porter's early experiences reflect the extent to which the American middle class participated in the amusement realm. Too often commentators link the "official" cultural programs of churches and elites with the entire Protestant middle classes. Too often informality, camaraderie, and frivolity are located within the working classes. Yet important, probably dominant, elements of the Connellsville middle class did not conform to this Victorian ideal or stereotype. They undoubtedly had strong ties to the plebeian culture described by Francis G. Couvares.[56] Popular entertainment was not segmented by class as much as many historians have suggested. Rather, cultural divisions within classes are at least as important when examining leisure activities.

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