Cinematic Firsts: The First Cinema - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Cinema

No popcorn though...

When we left our last Cinematic First article, it was 1891 and the moving picture was here to stay. Just three years later, on April 14th 1894, the first commercial motion picture house opened in New York City at 1155 Broadway, on the corner of 27th Street. It was a long way from the multiplex's we are accustomed to today, but you could still see ten different movies, each housed within their own Kinetoscope.

You may be wondering, what is a Kinetoscope? Well I shall tell you...

Although the Kinetoscope was not a movie projector, it introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter (above right). It was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device (above left).

A process using roll film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince, as we discussed here. The concept was also used by U.S. inventor Thomas Edison in 1889, and subsequently developed by his employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson between 1889 and 1892. Dickson and his team at the Edison lab also devised the Kinetograph, an innovative motion picture camera with rapid intermittent, or stop-and-go, film movement, to photograph movies for in-house experiments and, eventually, commercial Kinetoscope presentations.

Edison released the Kinetophone addition, a cylinder phonograph, in 1895, and a decade later would bring projection into the Kinetoscope range.

But, back to the late 19 Century we go, and the first public demonstration of Edison's Kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9th 1893. Two years later the New York Kinetoscope parlor was opened by local entrepreneurs the Holland Bros. The venue had ten machines, set up in parallel rows of five, each showing a different movie. For 25 cents a viewer could see all the films in either row; half a dollar gave access to the entire bill.

The ten films that comprised the first commercial movie program, were descriptively titled: Barber Shop, Bertoldi (mouth support) (Ena Bertoldi, a British vaudeville contortionist), Bertoldi (table contortion), Blacksmiths, Roosters (some manner of cock fight), Highland Dance, Horse Shoeing, Sandow (Eugen Sandow, a German strongman managed by Florenz Ziegfeld), Trapeze, and Wrestling.

As historian Charles Musser describes, a "profound transformation of American life and performance culture" had begun. Indeed it had. Finally, the American public could watch cats wrestle each other on film...

Now, twenty-five cents for no more than a few minutes of entertainment was hardly cheap for the time. Even if it did involve wrestling cats. For instance, for the same amount in 1894 you could purchase a ticket to a major vaudeville theater, and when America's first amusement park opened in Coney Island the following year a 25-cent entrance fee covered admission to three rides, a performing sea lion show, and a dance hall! But the Kinetoscope Parlour was an immediate success, and by June the Hollands were also operating venues in Chicago and San Francisco.

After fifty weeks in operation, the Hollands' New York parlor had generated approximately $1,400 in monthly receipts against an estimated $515 in monthly operating costs, and a whole host of other entrepreneurs had got in on the act, opening their own Kinetoscope Parlours.

The big winner though was Thomas Edison. For each machine, Edison's business at first generally charged $250, with individual Kinetoscope films initially priced at around $10 each. During the Kinetoscope's first eleven months of commercialisation, the sale of viewing machines, films, and auxiliary items generated Edison's company a staggering profit of more than $85,000!

Cinema was here to stay.

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