The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama

Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.

Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”

The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.

Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.

Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:

Wage of manager $25
Wage of Operator 20
Wage of doorman 15
Wage of porter or musician 12
Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50
Rent of projecting machine 10
Rent of building 40
Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18
Total $190

Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.

The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.

The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.

But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.

To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.

Who the Patrons Are

The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.

In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.

As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.

Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.

The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.

The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.

The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.

The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.

Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.

By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.

The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.

How the Drama Is Made

Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.

The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.

The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.

Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.

Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.

Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.

The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.

The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.

To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”

………

Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.

The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?

The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.

The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.

Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.

The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.

If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:

Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet
Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ”
Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ”
Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ”
Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ”
A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ”
Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ”
Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ”
Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ”
The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ”
Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “

Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:

LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST
Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78
Extra for coloring $125.10

The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.

Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”

Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.

Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).

Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.

Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.

Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.

It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.

Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.

In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.

The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.

Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust
Transcribed copy at The Silent Bookshelf (archived site)

The Teleview

Fanciful illustration of a Teleview show, from Motion Picture Magazine, August 1923

Source: Henry Albert Phillips, ‘The New Motion Picture: No. 1 – The Teleview’, Motion Picture Magazine, August 1923, pp. 35-36, 86

Text:
The New Motion Picture

A Series of Searching Articles Showing the Constant Efforts of the Moving Picture to Re-Create Nature and Life as We Actually Experience It

I. THE TELEVIEW

By HENRY ALBERT PHILLIPS

Of the many thrills that enlivened my boyhood days, one stands out with vivid distinctness. As I recall it now, not a little of the original “kick” comes back with the recollection. I cannot help recalling with a certain amount of wistfullness the ravishing odor of candle grease and drying Christmas tree greens. For it was very early Christmas morning. And I had come down to see what Santa had brought me and stood there shivering from the cold and mingled emotions, when my eye fell on a pasteboard box about a foot long. It looked mysterious. I removed the red ribbon with trembling fingers and a rapidly beating heart. Within was excelsior — only wonderful things were wrapped in excelsior! I was further ecstatically tantalized to find the object inclosed in tissue paper. Each of these barriers heightened my imagination to a quite alarming state, and enhanced the value of the gift out of its true proportions.

The wonderful present proved to be a stereopticon. It consisted of a wooden canopy shaped to fit the brow and shade the eyes. You held it to your face and looked thru two windows of slightly magnifying glass at pictures which were set in a sliding cross-piece and regulated according to your astigmatism, or lack of it. The peculiar part of it was, that there were two pictures side by side on the picture card, one being identical with the [other]. I remember feeling that some mistake must have been made in the pictures they had sent me, likewise a sense of dreadful waste! If they had only put two different pictures on each card, I would have had twice as many! The pictures were photographs of noteworthy scenes the world over. There was the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember, with the low skyline of buildings in the background of New York of the eighties: there was a chamois standing on a mountain crag, with a breath-taking abyss beside him and other mountains in the background; and some hunters standing with their clogs in an open field, with a wood in the background. In other words, I remember, that there was always a foreground and a background in every picture, with distinct “air spaces” intervening between the two.

If for one moment, I had had any doubts of a possible commonplaceness in my stereopticon and its “views,” they immediately vanished when I looked thru the little windows and saw every object standing out both as big and as thick as life! I could actually see behind each object! By this, I mean objects did not appear as objects usually do when drawn on a flat surface, like so many facsimile shadows, but they actually had body, length, breadth and thickness and were actually separate from other objects around them. Why, you could actually feel the nearness of the near objects and calculate the distance of those far away. It was as tho each object in the picture had been cut out and stood up separately and accurately in relative distance one from the other.

This magical toy has never yet ceased to thrill and delight me. It brought ordinary scenes to life, or at least it lacked one essential which seemed too audacious for me to conjecture even — motion! Add motion to our three-dimension picture and the magic would be complete — for, bear in mind, that objects were magnified to the normal dimensions in which they would be perceived by the naked eye, known as “life-size.”

Well, this magic picture — which seemed too blasphemous for my boyish mind to consider possible — has come into being, like so many other undreamed-of wonders, in this Age of Invention in which we are living open-mouthed. The Moving Picture Stereopticon is here! They call it — possibly for the same reason that a living apartment in a more or less high building is called a “Flat” — the Teleview. That name has numbed thousands of potential patrons into a state of innocuous disinterestedness.

However, altho a name may give a thing a black eye, it cant hurt it if its character is good and sound. Call it even Teleview and the virtue of the device will survive.

It is human nature and cupidity in the crowd that makes it shrink from novelties of progress — especially if they have to dip their hands into their pockets and contribute a few cents to support the idea at a critical moment; while this same crowd, propelled by the same human nature, will flock en masse to witness some act of decadence — such as fire, murder or suicide — admission free! At the recent showing of the Teleview in one of New York’s big theaters, the public showed considerable interest over it — only when they had read the publicity stuff about it they yawned and went to bed, instead of going to see it and catering to their better faculties. Several of the passholders in the seat behind me showed that rare good taste so often exhibited by pass-holders — and all other people who get good things for nothing – by sneering audibly during the performance and, on leaving, announcing in scornful tones that the whole show was rotten.

There is probably something to be said on both sides. Restricting ourselves to the Teleview process of projection, I must acknowledge having witnessed a really marvelous exhibition. When we step aside from the invention proper and touch upon the judgment and skill of those responsible for the selection and production of “the first moving picture to be produced in three dimensions,” then I too must join those who remarked that there was surely something rotten in Teleview’s Denmark.

The picture-play was called “M-A-R-S.” From scenario to directing, and directing to acting, it was among the worst ten pictures I ever saw, and that is saying a great deal. To mention names in this instance is to call names. They have suffered enough. But the point remains, that Teleview suffered a great deal unjustifiedly. The critics went and their odoriferous opinion of the picture made them dub the whole performance as being one and the same piece of cheese. Honest, interested spectators came and had their sincere enthusiasm numbed by an hour and a half’s boredom. Outside, were thousands upon thousands of credulous people who would have been willing to go to see Teleview — and kill two movie birds with one stone as it were, by seeing this wonderful new process and a good picture at the same time — if the picture had been only as bad as the average. So their scientific end was excellent, but their artistic end was not. Because of this error — oh, so common! — in artistic judgment and execution, thousands of people may not see this wonderful new process so soon as they might otherwise have done so.

The reason for all this is simple. Teleview picture making is costly from beginning to end. A special camera is necessary, a special method in the processes between exposure and projection, and, finally, in seeing the pictures on the screen it is necessary for each individual spectator to look thru what corresponds to our former stereopticon, which consists of two little windows within which passes a revolving shutter operated by a tiny motor. Here’s the rub — both in the matter of enormous expense to the producer, and also in [that] of training the spectator to his comfort and savoir faire [to] adjust his individual apparatus and maintain the rigid poise necessary to keep his eyes on a level with the small apertures.

The Teleview method of motion picture photography, production and projection is the invention of Lawrence Hammond, assisted by William F. Cassidy, both of the class of 1919 at Cornell.

“To see the Teleview pictures on the screen it is necessary for each individual spectator to look thru what corresponds to our former stereopticon, which consists of two little win- dows within which passes a revolving shutter operated by a tiny motor”

Looking with the naked eye upon Teleview pictures projected on the screen, we find a blurred double image with a fuzzy suggestion of chromatic colors permeating it. And it is true that there really are two images on the screen; one superimposed — slightly off-center — over the other. In the projection-room you will find two projection machines operating in co-ordination and each throwing its contributive image on the screen simultaneously. Going further back, we learn that the subject-matter was originally photographed with a stereoscopic, or double-lensed, camera these lenses have been adjusted to a distance apart corresponding to the space — optically speaking — between the two human eyes.

An observation by the writer at this point might be helpful to the reader in understanding and visualizing the Teleview method at this stage of its development. Several years ago I had a serious infection of the eyes. An operation and heroic treatment effected a cure, but I suffered a collapse of the optical muscles. They refused to binoculate. I saw two images. Each eye saw separately. You can do the same thing, by deliberately forcing the eyeballs to draw themselves so as to look in two straight parallel lines. You will then see two slightly blurred images.

The ingenious feature of the method is introduced at this point. Just before the projection on the screen begins, spectators become aware that the stereoscope device, thru which they must look at the screen, has suddenly come to life! We can hear a slight whirring and feel a tiny smooth vibration within. It is the motor within each instrument. Perhaps we had noted on first examining the instrument that it contained a small, two-vaned “shutter,” which persisted in sticking in one of the windows and thus threatening to spoil our clear view of the screen. But now we note with satisfaction that the shutter has mysteriously disappeared! The fact is that it is revolving so fast that we cannot see it.

Now, this shutter co-ordinates perfectly with the projection machine and cuts off the vision of each eye alternately so that one eye sees one “frame” — as each separate picture that forms the strip of pictures is called — and the other eye sees only the following or alternate one. Because of the infinitesimal elapse of time — l/196th of a second — of the duration of each impression, they seem to be simultaneous but separate images. When they are blended in the brain they give the sensation of depth, observable in the old- fashioned stereoscope. The ordinary rate of 16 pictures to the foot is used.

The cost of equipping a theater with mechanical shutters is given by the inventors as five dollars a seat, separate shutters being necessary for each observer. The cost of producing a picture by this method is said to be about double.

The result of witnessing a Teleview moving picture is startling. In stereoscope “still” pictures we were impressed with the realism induced by the appearance of solid images with perceptible air-spaces between them. With these “real” images set in motion, the effect is astonishing. But one gets a real thrill when moving objects are set in motion coming directly toward the spectator. They actually leap from the screen! The result is uncanny. One shrinks back for an instant to avoid what must prove a disastrous impact. The illusion is perfect.

The background of the photographic picture appears to be no farther distant than the surface of the actual screen from the spectator. Any person or object in the picture that moves in any degree from the picture background toward the observer seems actually to step out of the picture and approach. Thus moving figures appear to be carrying on the action on a real stage projected toward the audience in front of a realistic back-drop.

What presumably happens is that objects approach just as close to each individual spectator as they did to the camera. The audience is really looking thru the lens of the camera, which has been made to synchronize with the universal focus and vision of all who see it thereafter. The eye of the cameraman has attended to that. Thus, if an object is moved to within six feet of the camera, it seems to have emerged from the background and approached to within the same distance of each spectator. I sat at a distance of let us say one hundred feet from the screen and yet the illusion in one or two instances was so perfect that I felt convinced that if I had put out my hand I could almost have touched the foremost objects in the picture!

And Teleview is only one of the many indications showing the marvelously rapid advance of the motion picture to spheres of perfection and efficiency at which we can only hazard a guess from day to day!

Comments: Henry Albert Phillips (1880–1951) was an American film scenarist and editor of Motion Picture Magazine. The science-fiction feature film M.A.R.S. (aka The Man from M.A.R.S.) was first exhibited in December 1922 as part of a programme of films demonstrating the ‘teleview’ invention of Laurens Hammond (also inventor of the Hammond organ). The ‘teleview’ was a glass viewer with a revolving shutter attached to the side of the cinema seat that was operated by a small motor. The special ‘teleview’ camera had two lenses, giving a blurred picture to the naked etye, but through the projection device a stereoscopic effect was produced, though the effect was restricted to a small projection space. The film was re-issued in August 1923 as Radio-Mania in non-stereoscopic form, being either entirely re-shot or possibly filmed simultaneously with a normal camera. No further ‘teleview’ films were made. Stereopticon was an American term for the magic lantern.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers

Source: Eileen Elias, Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers (London: W.H. Allen, 1979), p. 126

Text: I always claimed that I didn’t care for Westerns; they were or children, and I considered myself too old for such childish things. Nevertheless, when on occasion I did see them, I found myself riveted to my seat as the flying spectacle galloped by. It was as thrilling and alarming as Harold Lloyd and his window-sill hanging, only in a different way; I didn’t want to jump out of my seat, but cringe within it as the racing hoofs swept past, it seemed, only a few feet from my nose. Things came to a climax when Ben Hur arrived on the screen, better far than any Western with its famous chariot-race scene. This was a stupendous film which we all must see, Father pronounced; so off we trooped to the local cinema and sat in a trance watching the close-ups — and how close they seemed! — of whirling wheels and galloping hoofs while the organ surpassed itself in a frenzy. We came out with our heads spinning, and all that night I lay in bed, my dreams full of the thunder of chariots and the tug of leather harness just about to give way as the rival competitors passed and re-passed each other on the course. Ben Hur broke all records in the West End, and toured all the local cinemas while whole
families went to watch it again and again. The art of the cinema, it seemed, could reach no further: Ben Hur had said it all.

Comments: Eileen Elias was an author of books on child management and memoirs of her Lewisham upbringing. This passage part of a detailed and atmospheric chapter on cinemagoing in London in the 1920s in her books Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (USA 1925), directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro, was based on the novel by Lew Wallace. It was one of the most expensive but also one of highest-grossing films of its era.

Impressions of America

Source: T.C. Porter, Impressions of America (London: C. Arthur Pearson, Limited, 1899), pp. 193-194

Text: At dinner, some printed notices laid by our plates reminded us that the kinematoscope was at work in the town, showing in several separate scenes the fight between Fitz-Simmons and Corbett. Wishing to see how such exhibitions in America compared with those at home, I took a seat, perhaps rather too near the screen, and witnessed the struggle between the two athletes. The flicker was unpleasant throughout, which means that somehow or other more pictures should be thrown on the screen per second; and what is more trying to the eyes is the want of correct register in successive views, which causes the whole view on the screen to wobble up and down through a small distance, perhaps two or three inches. This often made it impossible to follow any rapid action, and I should think might be partly due to the nature of the film on which the pictures are taken. On the whole, I do not think this particular show was nearly so good as the “Biograph” entertainment in London.

One thing interested me a good deal. I noticed that a man sitting next to me viewed the pictures through two small holes, cut out in a sheet of dark-coloured paper. He told me it notably lessened the flicker. I tried the plan, and found it work, as my informant said: but it cut off too much light to my mind, so I did not use it long. Several of the scenes which happened just after the wrestling were shown. A man passing in the foreground looked up for an instant towards the audience with a tragically woe-begone expression, whilst the conductor or expositor, whichever he should be called — simply remarked, “That is Mr. So-and-so; he has just lost 70,000 dollars!” Perhaps that is not the exact sum mentioned; in any case it was large enough to provoke most unfeeling mirth on the part of the spectators.

Comments: Thomas Cunningham Porter (1860-1933) was a British physicist and Eton schoolmaster, member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Physical Society of London. The world heavyweight boxing championship between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was held at Carson City, Nevada on 17 March 1897. The full fight was filmed by the Veriscope company using a 63mm-wide film format and was widely exhibited, the full film being 11,000 feet in length and lasting around an hour-and-a-half. There was no projector called a ‘Kinematoscope’. The screening took place in Colorado.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

New Chapter in Wireless History

Source: ‘A Wireless Correspondent’, ‘New Chapter in Wireless History’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1929, p. 5

Text: NEW CHAPTER IN WIRELESS HISTORY.

Television Demonstrated.

SEEING AND HEARING AT THE SAME TIME.

[By a Wireless Correspondent].

The first public broadcast of television took place yesterday, the transmission being sent out from the 2LO aerial in Oxford Street.

I was one of the few who were able to listen in and “look in” at the same time. We were gathered in a room the headquarters of the Baird Television Development Company in Long Acre, London. There was installed a Baird television receiver, and while we heard the speech and music issuing from a loud speaker which formed part of the apparatus, looking into a glass screen on the front of the cabinet we were able to sec the devised faces of the speakers and the artists, among whom were Sir Ambrose Fleming, tho distinguished scientist and inventor of the wireless valve; Professor E.N. de C. Andrade, another well-known scientist; Mr. Sydney Howard, the comedian; and Miss Lulu Stanley. The studio was connected by land line to Savoy Hill, and tho televised faces were passed on to the Oxford Street transmitter, where they were broadcast in the ordinary way.

Two wave lengths are necessary, however, for television listeners to hear and see the broadcasts simultaneously, and at present the B.B.C. only have one wave length available. Hence any listeners who were in possession of Baird television receivers yesterday were able only to hear and see alternately. It is hoped that when the twin-wave length transmitter is in operation, simultaneous transmission will tako place enabling listeners to see and hear at the same time. We were able to this yesterday because there was a special line connecting tho receiver to tho studio, so that while the B.B.C. were broadcasting the televised face of the speaker, his words came through the loud speaker. The televised image was “picked up” by means of an ordinary aerial on the roof of the building.

Features Recognised.

At the outset, a letter was read from Mr. William Graham, President of the Board of Trade, who stated that he looked this new applied science to encourage and provide a new industry not only for Britain and the British Empire, but for the whole world. “This new industry,” he added, “will provide employment for a large number our people, and will prove the prestige of British creative energy.” In an introductory speech, Sir Ambrose Fleming, who is the president of the Television Society, remarked that television would contribute to the pleasure of countless persons. After Sir Ambrose came Professor Andrade and then Mr. Sydney Howard, whose features were easily recognisable. We could see clearly the movement of his lips as he spoke and his varying expressions as he moved about in front of thee televisor. “This is Television Monday.” he said, “and I am the vision,” and we could see him smiling he said it. “Really I not know why people should have my ‘mug’ inflicted on them,” he added. Next came Miss King, who is member of the Baird staff, and Miss Lulu Stanley, both of whom sang before the televisor. We heard their voices and saw their changing expressions as they sang.

Not Perfect Yet.

Sir Ambrose Fleming summed up the situation in a nutshell when he said me afterwards “At the present time, the B.B.C. have a vast music-hall for the blind in which people can hear but see nothing. What Mr. Baird has done is to provide them with opera glasses or spectacles in which the audience can see well as hear.” It is obvious, of course, that much progress will have to be made before the same degree of perfection reached with television is now attained with ordinary speech broadcasts, but yesterday’s demonstration showed that much has already been done, the televised faces of to-day being marked improvement on the image the early television experiments. Mr. Baird told me that he was perfectly satisfied with the broadcast, and he was particularly glad that he had now been afforded opportunity making a public broadcast. “Men’s faces broadcast better than women’s,” he remarked. “Some men’s faces come out better than others because their features are more marked.” He added that they do not propose that there should any television on a large scale until a satisfactory television service can be provided. At present, very few television sets are in existence.

Comments: The Baird Televisor was first demonstrated to an invited audience in 1926. The BBC began experimental broadcasts using inventor John Logie Baird’s system on 30 September 1929 (a Monday), at 11:00am, in Long Acre, London.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Light Visible and Invisible

Children at Play no. 1 (R.W. Paul, 1896)

Source: Silvanus Thompson, Light Visible and Invisible: a series of lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain, at Christmas, 1896, with additional lectures (London: Macmillan, 1912, 2nd ed. [orig. pub. 1897]), pp. 97-99

Text: Another example of effects produced by persistence of the optical impressions in the eye is afforded by an old toy, the zoetrope, or wheel of life; in which the semblance of motion is given to pictures by causing the eye to catch sight, in rapid sequence, through moving slits, of a series of designs in which each differs slightly from the one preceding. Thus if you want to make the sails of a windmill seem to go round, the successive pictures must represent the sails as having turned round a little during the brief moment that elapses between each picture being glimpsed and the next being seen. These intervals must be less than a tenth of a second, so that the successive images may blend properly, and that the movement between each picture and the next may be small. Mr. Muybridge has very cleverly applied this method to the study of the movements of animals. Anschutz’s moving pictures, illuminated by intermittent sparks, were the next improvement. And the latest triumph in this development of the subject has been reached in the animatograph, which the inventor, Mr. R. Paul, has kindly consented to exhibit.

The animatograph pictures are photographed upon a travelling ribbon of transparent celluloid; the time which elapses between each picture being taken and the next being about one-fiftieth of a second. A scene lasting half a minute will, therefore, be represented by about 1500 pictures, all succeeding one another on a long ribbon. If these pictures are then passed in their proper order through a special lantern, with mechanism that will bring each picture up to the proper place between the lenses, hold it there an instant, then snatch it away arid put the next in its place, and so forth, the photograph projected on the screen will seem to move. You see in a street scene, for example, the carts and omnibuses going along; the horses lift their feet, the wheels roll round, foot passengers and policemen walk by. Everything goes on exactly as it did in the actual street. Or you see some children toddling beside a garden seat. A big dog comes up, and the boy jumps astride of him, but falls off, and rises rubbing his bumps. Or a passenger steamer starts from Dover pier: you see her paddles revolve, the crowd on the pier wave farewells with handkerchiefs or hats, the steamer wheels round, you see the splash of foam, you note the rolling clouds of black smoke proceeding from her funnel, then she goes out of sight round the corner. The reality of the motions is so great that you feel as though you had veritably seen it all with your own eyes. And so you have. You have just as truly seen the movements of the scene as when you have listened to the phonograph you have heard the voice which once impressed the record of its vibrations. Of all the animatograph pictures those that appeal most to me are the natural scenes, such as the waves rolling up into a sea-cave and breaking on the rocks at its mouth, and dashing foam and spray far up into its interior. Nothing is wanting to complete the illusion, save the reverberating roar of the waves.

Comments: Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916) was a British professor of physics and member of the Royal Society. The above passage comes from a series of lectures Thompson gave at the Royal Institution over Christmas 1896. The Animatograph was a projector produced by British engineer and film producer Robert William Paul. The films mentioned include Children at Play [no.1] (1896, frmes reproduced here from Thompson’s book) and A Sea Cave Near Lisbon (1896).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The “Theatrograph” in Court

Source: ‘The “Theatreograph” in Court’, The Era, 18 July 1896, p. 7

Text: At the Clerkenwell County Court, on Tuesday, Robert William Paul, of 44, Hatton-garden, inventor and patentee of the “theatrograph,” and well known for his exhibitions at Olympia, Earl’s-court, and the principal music halls, was the plaintiff in an action to recover from “Wonderland, Limited,” a music hall company conducting their business in Whitechapel-road, £22 10s., three weeks’ rent of electric accumulators supplied to the defendants on hire. The defendants counterclaimed for £15 damages. Mr Gill, barrister, was for the plaintiff; and Mr Dodd, barrister, for the defendants.

The plaintiff’s case was that in April last he was engaged by the defendants, through their managing director, Mr Jonas Woolf, to give performances with his theatrograph at “Wonderland.” For these the plaintiff was to receive £20 a-week, in addition to £7 10s. a-week for supplying accumulators on lire, the defendants to provide the electric current. The plaintiff exhibited for three weeks, and was paid his salary, but had received nothing for the hire of the accumulators.

The defendants admitted their indebtedness for two weeks only. In support of their counterclaim they alleged they had bet heavily through the neglect of the plaintiff, whose performances were a complete failure. It was his duty to provide the electric current, but he had not done so, contenting himself with the use of weak batteries obtained from the defendants, and afterwards of limelight apparatus. The result was that the illusions presented by the “Theatrograph” were blurred and indistinct. The audience, it was said, used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money. The “Theatrograph” was the “star attraction” and, owing to its failure, the takings of “Wonderland (Limited)” fell in one week from £128 to £73, and in the next to £58.

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King and Queen of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-holt pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?” Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens were also padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

Judge Meadows White held that it was the duty of the defendants to have supplied a proper light, the absence of which had caused the failures of which they complained. He gave judgment for the plaintiff, with costs, and disallowed the counter-claim.

Comments: Wonderland was an entertainment venue in Whitechapel in London’s East End. It was best-known for hosting boxing bouts, but included other kinds of entertainment, including the Theatrograph projector of British inventor Robert Paul, whose poor reception in April (two months after its public debut) Clerkenwell County Court decided was due to poor illumination from the venue’s accumulators, at a hearing on 14 July 1896.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 161-162

Text: Damascus boasts of three theatres — all cinemas, as the “movies” are called in the Orient. I chose the Palace Theatre, near the hotel, because on its billboards it announced a troupe of dancers in addition to its photo plays. Twenty piasters (80 cents) bought a box, which was located in the balcony overlooking one of the strangest audiences in the world. The entire lower floor was filled with turbaned Arabs and befezed Syrians smoking “hobble bobbles,” as the Turkish water pipes are called in Syria. When you take your seat in a Damascus theatre, you are asked by the usher if you want a “hobble bobble,” and if so one is provided for a trifling tip.

Nearly five hundred men were puffing away downstairs, while thirty or forty smart looking Turkish officers were in the tier of boxes when I took my place. The pictures — mostly French made films — were shown without musical accompaniment, and when the lights were turned on after forty minutes of darkness a third of the audience was asleep.

Under the guidance of my dragoman I visited two cafes chantants, where the few unattached European women in Damascus make their headquarters, and where the “night life” of the officers and higher officials centers. One of the cafes — known as the American bar — proved quite gay. Its guests were being entertained by a phonograph, and I was informed that there would be muscle dancing as soon as the performers could leave the Palace Theatre.

That sent me back to the Victoria Hotel in a hurry, where I found real “night life” under my mosquito bar. But that, as Kipling says, is another story.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. His book The Night Side of Europe documents his experiences of theatres across Europe, Russia and the Near East. In 1914, Syria was part of the Ottoman empire.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Pound of Paper

Source: John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (London: Doubleday, 2002), pp. 103-106

Text: But then, around 1965, whatever it was that made the Sixties such a distinctive decade began to work its liberating magic on Australia. Hints of other lifestyles and different points of view drifted across our skies like UFOs. Some saw them in the literature of the Beat Generation, others in rock music, but for me the vehicle of revelation was the movies.

Most Saturdays, I’d stop book hunting around noon, buy a slab of roast pork-belly at the Chinese takeaway on Campbell Street, watch the owner hack it into slices with his cleaver, then carry it with a bottle of Coke across the road to the Capitol Cinema. There I would pay, in those pre-decimal days, 2s 6d for a ticket and search the empty circle for a seat without protruding springs to spike my backside, and where I could munch the deliciously greasy spiced meat with no risk of being rousted by some officious usher.

A few moments usually remained before the start of the first film in the day’s double bill to contemplate John Eberson’s flaking midnight-blue ceiling, and wonder how it would look with its tiny stars illuminated — a feature rusted up long before I discovered the place. Since then, the Capitol has been restored and even its stars shine once more, but in those days its greatest appeal resided in its shabbiness, offering as it did both cheapness and anonymity. One could lose oneself in the warm dark — ‘lie low,’ as Leonard Cohen said, ‘and let the hunt go by’.

But what drew me back every week was the films. Mostly black and white and Italian or French, invariably dubbed into English, cut down to a jerky ninety minutes, and further hacked by the film censor, they reflected lives utterly alien to someone who’d never eaten an olive, seen a subtitled film, spoken to a Frenchman or kissed a girl, let alone slept with one.

Occasionally, during my adolescence, a foreign film had reflected back some flashes of my own experience — a 1954 movie called The Game of Love, for instance (a title attached by British distributors to almost anything French where the heroine removed a garment more intimate than a cardigan). Two teenagers, friends since infancy, meet at the same resort every year. They’re too shy to do anything about their mutual attraction until an older woman seduces the boy. The experience frees him to see his childhood friend for the first time, but undermines their uncomplicated love. An adaptation, in short, of Colette’s Le Blé en herbe — Ripening Seed. But its world of the beach and holidays was familiar enough to hint at lessons I might put into practice, some time, with some woman, if I ever got to know any.

Anybody in Australia hoping to learn about life from the cinema faced an uphill struggle in the Sixties. Nudity, violence, horror, obscenity, blasphemy and sedition — the censors cut them all. In the film of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Liz Taylor, explaining to Eddie Fisher how she came to be a ‘party girl’ — i.e., part-time prostitute — traces it back to childhood, when a boyfriend of her mother’s, whom she regarded as a sort of uncle, took her on his knee and ‘interfered with’ her. Liz goes on, ‘But the worst thing was…’ At which point the film hiccuped, the sure sign of a cut. The next shot was of Fisher, looking bemused. Only much later did we discover that Liz said, ‘But the worse thing was, I enjoyed it.’ Enjoying sex? Obviously that had to go.

Interesting as I found the occasional flashes of eroticism in foreign films, the one that got me thinking most had no sex at all. The version presented at the Capitol was known as The Bandit’s Revenge, though it was actually called Salvatore Giuliano. Set in the rocky landscape of Sicily, it was a half documentary / half drama about a young man — face never seen — who, dressed in an incongruous grey dustcoat and with a World War II machine gun over his shoulder, led his gang against … who exactly? I couldn’t make that out. It would be years before I decoded the film, but Francesco Rosi’s darting direction remade my sense of how a story is told, as did the near-operatic behaviour of the characters – the old man who walks to a hilltop, for instance, and apostrophizes his native land like a character from Greek tragedy. Above all, the ink black and lime white of Gianni di Venanzo’s photography prepared me for Antonioni and the French new wave, just as the content lured me to history, politics, and, above all, to Europe.

Comments: John Baxter (1939- ) is an Australian writer of science fiction, film criticism and memoir. The cinema to which he refers is the Capitol Theatre, Sydney. The films he mentions are Le Blé en herbe (France 1954), Butterfield 8 (1960) and Salvatore Giuliano (Italy 1954).

Industrial Town

Source: Charles Forman, Industrial Town: Self Portrait of St Helens in the 1920s (London: Paladin Books, 1979 [orig. pub. 1978]), pp. 120-121

Text: THE JOINER, BORN c. 1905

My brother and I used to get 1½d every Saturday to go to the picture palace. There was one film and lantern slides. It used to be a gymnasium. You climbed on the bars to get a better spec. There was a cinema at the top of Helena House, the Co-op building. It was 1d to go in and ½d for two ounces of toffee. We used to give one of the halfpennies to a friend. He had no money, there were too many of them, seven in the family. If we gave the two halfpennies to him, the three of us could go in. The children’s idol was a fellow called ‘Pimple’ – in the same year as Flora Finch. He was a fellow like a clown. He came on in a series each week – ‘Pimple at the North Pole’. Then there wasn’t enough film to go round all afternoon. The lantern slides used to come on – pictures of plants, flowers and birds, the drawing-room scenes. Sometimes they told a story.

Comments: Charles Forman’s Industrial Town is a collection of eye-witness accounts of life in the Lancashire town of St Helens in 1920s (and earlier, as with this account). ‘Pimple’ was a character played by British comedian Fred Evans, who plays the character in a long series of short films in the 1910s. The film referred to was Lieutenant Pimple’s Dash for the Pole (UK 1914). Flora Finch was a British comic actress popular in American films.