Kinetoscopic Theatre

( Originally Published 1911 )


THE kinetoscopic theatre is at the parting of the ways. The crucial point has arrived when it shall either be a great success or an absolute failure. In New York alone, people have been flocking through the gaudy, blatant entrances at the rate of two hundred thousand a week. In eighteen minutes they have been given a production of "Romeo and Juliet" or of "Othello" or of "Francesca da Rimini," and they have gone out, only to be superseded by a crowd as big and just as eager. The manager of the mechanical " show" measures his profit by the rapidity with which he turns out one audience and gathers in another.

The kinetoscopic theatre, however, is a factor to be reckoned with. It may be made a source of good or a source of evil. It has built up a business which has its problems similar to those confronting the theatre managers. It requires for its success an intelligent handling on the part of the manufacturer of the pictures, of the middleman, and of the show-man. Unfortunately, with the rapid increase of the business, this careful thought is lacking. Where a manufacturing firm turns out nearly two hundred and eighty thousand feet of film a day, it is natural that much of the material should be of inferior quality. There is ample room for the kinetoscopic dramatist.

The kinetoscopic theatre audience speaks in terms of minutes and miles. When it goes to see " Othello," it expects to grasp the story in seventeen minutes. The actors who are employed to perform a play before the camera interpret their r๔les in terms of large gestures, of abnormal facial expression, and of excessive passion. Not so very long ago a stock company in New England was employed by one of the kinetoscopic companies to play for them the first act of Belasco's version of "Zaza." Ordinarily, this takes from forty-five to fifty minutes for actual performance, but the company ran through all the "business" in fifteen minutes. This might be called strenuous acting in a mechanical age. Instead of having to pay actors for performing "Romeo and Juliet," the manager of the nickelodeon has to pay for the use of his films by the week, being charged ac-cording to the number of feet used in telling the story. For example, the film of Boker's "Francesca da Rimini," em-bracing seven scenes, has a length of 990 feet, "Romeo and Juliet" 915 feet, and "Macbeth" 835 feet. A time will come, therefore, when drama for the kinetoscope audiences will literally be measured by the mile.

The five- and ten-cent theatres sell their tickets as the drug stores dispose of their soda checks, in long rolls. Unfortunately for the business, there are many sections of every large city where two or three such theatres are found in one block, following the example of the saloon. Competition is healthy, but such wildcat speculation is ruinous to the small manager. He thinks that to have his machine and to rent his films are sufficient. He does not calculate upon whether or not the location is good; he does not plan how to manage his audiences; he believes — judging by the profits that others have made — that the show will run itself, whereas it is subject to the same rules as other businesses. The average exhibitor of moving-pictures must either show brains — which he is not doing — or else go under. Though his outfit may be mechanical, his audience is not; the people have definite tastes regarding what they see, and the exhibitor, the manufacturer, and the renter must watch this public in order to sound its varying desires.

It is only a question of time before the nickelodeon is improved: either the wildcat manager will be forced out of business, or he will have to conform to better methods. A failure to-day in the moving-picture business means that the man who owns the business has no brains, and does not know the people of the locality in which he works. For, after all, the success of the nickelodeon represents so much human response.

Usually, the frequenters of these cheap places are those who cannot afford more expensive pleasures; those who gather around the white tin entrances with their glaring posters are most likely children who, cannot even afford five-cent luxuries. These waifs are kept at bay by a man flourishing a cane. Sometimes, when business is slack, children are invited in to help keep up appearances.

There is much to be said for and against the moving-picture. Judiciously used, it could be educational, but at best it is mechanical, it lacks individuality; this must be kept in mind. Its usefulness has received widespread recognition. The government at Washington has its film department; the moving-picture serves as record for military manoeuvres and naval displays. A catalogue records the title for a film twenty-seven feet long: "A German Torpedo Flotilla in Action," taken by special command of Kaiser Wilhelm. In New York, the Museum of Natural History is experimenting with the cinematograph, picturing the flight of birds, the habitat of bears.

The moving-picture as an amusement lacks the human element, yet the response it creates is human. It can never be art; it can only be a representation of art, and as such it must be directed. The Victor talking machines have ground forth the speeches of Taft and of Bryan; the biograph has projected the motion of the National Conventions. Bring the phonograph and the biograph together, and still the live element is absent. For this reason it is one of the greatest enemies to the theatre, which is a live institution, presenting plays in human fashion.

At best the nickelodeon audiences are casual groups: they are not held together by any effective bond of common interest or large idea. Their drama is told in seeable action, and there is little or no time spent on other than elemental idea or sentiment. That is a danger which only an educational grip of the situation could stop. But the boys and girls of the tenements, their mothers and fathers, go of an evening because the diversion is stimulating without effort, even though there is a strain upon the eyes.

The manufacturer of mechanical music, of mechanical drama, has an ethical responsibility. It lies between points admirably indicated by two scenes which are uppermost in my mind. One Sunday morning, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, I visited a cabin perched above a forest of trees; grandmother, grandfather, mother and father, son and daughter, and a string of children sat grouped around a phonograph, listening to some country-man telling his comical city experiences. Then the father, in flannel shirt and heavy boots, his lined and roughened face aglow with pleasure, announced that a church choir would sing to them. Despite the grating sound, these simple folk sat awed by the beauty of the quartette. The manufacturers measure popular taste by the music halls, and, unfortunately, not by the native temperament.

The other picture is on Avenue C, in New York, in a crowded block, where people must elbow their way, where there is never quiet, and never a blade of grass. The Herr Professor in charge of one of these houses would have nature scenes brought from the topmost mountain, from the inner-most depth of the American forest, to offset the cramping city view of tenement upon tenement. Such is the possibility, yet such is not the accomplishment, except in this one instance. The moving-picture business needs intelligent guiding; that is its one hope. Otherwise, it be-comes a menace, socially, morally, and ethically. What is now urgent is to prevent the vitiating effect of undesirable performances. The nickelodeon without an idea behind it is a menace to the neighborhood. The idea must be inserted, for there is no doubt that the moving-picture has come to stay. The visual sense must be supplemented by a mental stimulus. Intellectually, the five-cent audience is worthy of a higher form of amusement than the moving-picture show can supply. It is the personality of its manager, with his ideas and his ideals, that raises the business to a different plane. And the Herr Professor, with his educational aspirations and his knowledge of what the people like, found that being a conscientious nickelodeon manager brought profit in more ways than one.

It must be borne in mind that the exhibitor has to deal with the manufacturer through a middleman. There is a film trust, just as there is a theatrical trust, and the exhibitor is not allowed to rent directly from the manufacturers.- There are two dangers consequent upon this arrangement. The exhibitor often has no choice but to take what the renter gives him. If he receives a good subject one day, he has to expect a poor, a sensational, a common subject the next. This would be obviated, provided the exhibitor could select his films for each show directly from the manufacturer. To judge by investigations, it will be found that the exhibitor has not yet discovered that he is not obliged to take what he does not wish. The trust situation, as it confronts the kinetoscope business, is a struggle carried on between several organized manufacturers on the one hand and a number of independent firms on the other. The exhibitor, therefore, has reached that stage when he grabs what he can get. A censorship bureau, begun in New York, but of wide scope, now gives better advantages to the small exhibitor, inasmuch as by its actions it is weeding out that which will be harmful, and demanding higher grade films.


The nickelodeon theatre has its press-agent, and this press agent has his particular vocabulary, filled with descriptive adjectives that express motion. The Moving Picture World, devoted to the interests of animated photographs, quotes a sample of such literature: "To hear the voice, to catch every sound and intonation of every word, and see the people in life size moving before your eyes, and yet realise there is not a single person there — it seems like some phantom of the brain, an hallucination, and one is almost tempted to rush to the stage and grapple with the ghostly actors as one is moved to cry out in the vividness of a dream."

After a performance is completed, the audience is supposed to pass out. In some places the management delicately re-minds them of this fact by repeating one or two of the pictures previously seen. In other places, however, such a method is entirely too subtle, and so an official, known as the chaser," proceeds down the middle aisle doing his work. Most of the theatres are managed in practically the same way. Should you visit several of them you would find a certain monotony, which is one of the insurmountable facts about moving-pictures — the monotony of mechanical interpretation.

But the moving-picture has in many respects come to stay. The newspaper reporter, for instance, has a rival, since it has now become generally recognized that wherever an event of moment is taking place, side by side with the news-paper man may generally be found the moving-picture man with his outfit. I have been told that in England such a phrase as "the animated newspaper" has been coined. King Edward VII. once opened an exhibition at South Kensington; two hours and a half after the ceremony, a matinee audience twelve miles away was witnessing the occurrence by means of the kinetoscope. The reporter speaks of his Sunday feature in the newspaper. In the same sense the moving-picture man is accomplishing similar results by his films, which show the surrender of Port Arthur, the riots in St. Petersburg — led by Father Capon — and the assassination of the Grand Duke Sergius.

Already the operators of the kinetoscope have formed themselves into an organization known as "Local No. 23 of the Theatrical, Electrical, Calcium Picture and Projecting Machine Operators' Union of New York." Everywhere in this moving-picture business, there seems to be organization, but there are many entering the field who have no idea as to how the work should be run.

Sometimes when the films are particularly fine, the manager raises his price from five to ten cents, just as the theatre manager raises his price when Bernhardt comes to this country. On the New York East Side during Easter Week the whole Passion of Christ was given in moving-pictures. The performance took more than an hour and was accompanied by a lecture outlining the chief incidents. Altogether the films, divided into four parts, amounted to three thousand, one hundred and fourteen feet in length. Despite the fact that this nickelodeon theatre was situated in the Jewish quarter, the manager told me that during the week he exhibited the film, his business had been larger than ever before.

I have used the phrase "exhibited the film." This means that, according to the way in which the business is managed, the films travel from point to point, just as a stock company would go from theatre to theatre. A film has its "route," just as a traveling company has its "route," and I have been told by many operators : " My `Way Down East' film, or my `Ben-Hur' film arrives to-morrow evening." The American dramatists have sought to protect themselves through a revision of the copyright law, and a suit once pended over the kinetoscope use of "Ben-Hur." When one considers that we are applying human terms to the mechanical facts, the humor of the situation is very striking.

In Paris, the Path้ Fr่res — realizing the essential right of the French dramatist to his own property — have done the next best thing; they have arranged with members of the Society of French Dramatists and Authors to write special plays for use solely by the kinetoscope. If the talking-machines may preserve the voices of our opera singers, why may not the kinetoscope preserve the acting of our actors? For, to carry the educational feature one step further, the time may not be far off when our dramatic schools will be instructed by Mme. Bernhardt and Coquelin from the moving-picture screen.

Unfortunately, in our rush to introduce the moving-pictures into this country — a rush that is creating a very thoughtless competition in the trade — our manufacturers are forgetting the ethics of the business. They have not as yet compromised in the French manner with the American dramatist, though they will be forced later on to do so. But they have been taking without permission the popular successes of the moment, and turning them by the wholesale into kinetoscopic shows. That is why, in its last session, the Copyright Committee called before it many representatives of the American Dramatists' Club, especially those who were suffering by reason of the kinetoscopic performances of their plays. William A. Brady gave his evidence as to "Way Down East": "My play," so he said, "is now being printed on films of from a hundred to two hundred copies a week, by a company which is a member of this [moving-picture] Trust in Chicago; and yesterday one of my companies, composed of thirty-five people — men and women — was forced off the road and sent back to New York. They never can play again, because in nearly every one-night stand in this country, `Way Down East' is being presented on every street corner, presented from a stolen manuscript by a man who went into one of our theatres and took down a copy of our play, and sold it to this picture firm which is now destroying my property." At the same committee meeting, Charles Klein spoke of "The Music Master" which had been presented at a nickelodeon house on Fourteenth Street. This competition with his own play hurt the gallery receipts at the Academy of Music; and such a condition is ruination in many instances to the manager, since the profits of a theatre are almost always to be found in the gallery.

During the course of this conference between legislators and theatrical people, it was brought out that contracts had been made in France by moving-picture manufacturers, with Edmond Rostand, Henri Lavedan, and Alfred Capus, for the writing of special plays, the former to do three fairy dramas, of which the first will be "The Sleeping Beauty," while Lavedan will write an historical drama, dealing with the Duc de Guise, and Capus will depict scenes of financial life in Paris.

The manager of the nickelodeon has his legal problems to contend with. There is a license to be obtained. There is the consideration of whether he will be allowed to introduce vaudeville into his performance without being required to pay for a theatre license. There are laws to be considered that bring him in contact with the Department of Electricity, the Fire Department, the Tenement House Department, and the Department of Licenses. He has to struggle with the insurance companies, which look askance at the risk. He is now being menaced by a law that is looming up before him, preventing a nickelodeon theatre from being situated in any tenement house where the risk jeopardizes the lives of families living above.

On the other hand, the managers of these small amusement places have to be watched carefully. It has been found that some will take out licenses as operators, and then will transfer these licenses to small boys who are employed in their stead at lower salaries. In New Jersey, to cite one instance, boys of eleven years old were reported as running the machine. The sanitary condition of the places has to be supervised, and the Building Department has found difficulty in making the managers comply with the laws regulating the exits. So many foreigners are now entering the business that it has been found necessary to agitate the adoption of a special bill requiring all managers and operators to be citizens of the United States, as well as residents of the community in which they work. Massachusetts has been markedly active in passing ordinances. One in particular has touched upon the greatest weakness connected with the kinetoscope as an educational or amusement consideration. I refer to the strain upon the sight. After visiting a number of these places in succession, subjecting the eyes to two hours' continual use, it will be found that the persistent flutter of the film not only tires but pains the muscles of the eyes. After careful investigation by some of the leading physicians in Boston, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill requiring that five minutes of light must flood the theatre after every twenty minutes of pictures. This requirement, if it is generally passed through the States, as it should be, will hurt many small places which are only long, dark stores supplied with a number of seats but with no ventilation and no windows.

Inventors are busily engaged in trying to overcome the defects in the moving-pictures. It has been found that the flutter of the film on the screen is due to one of two causes: either the strip is an old one, or there are not a sufficient number of pictures covering the different movements. By this latter statement is meant that were more pictures taken per second, there would be less apparent flutter of the film. A French firm has just avoided any possibility of eye strain by having their films contain many more pictures to the second, thus reducing to a minimum the apparent gap from point to point of action, and thus doing away altogether with any jar. Another important change has been effected. Most of the pictures thrown upon the white screen appear flat; there is no atmosphere behind objects seen. In other words, the figures look as though they were being witnessed by a person with one eye closed. Perfect perspective will soon be given to the kinetoscope theatre performances through a binocular effect.

Still another improvement will come. That will be in the reproduction of natural color upon the screen, the application of color photography to the kinetoscope. The other improvement which is now a fact will perhaps mean more in a general way to the operator than the others. In running his machine, he has always been fearful of fire; the slightest defect in the instrument would result in his film catching fire from the electric spark. The companies are now sending out non-inflammable material.

The important point regarding the moving-picture is that it has educational possibilities. The five-cent audience is not only a clean audience, but is ambitious as well. The manufacturers of films have thus far produced much that is trash, especially in their comic, or what they call harmless, scenes. They have unnecessarily sensational stories, showing that much of their object is to supply a wildcat demand rather than to improve that demand. The five-cent audience is always interested in desirable subjects that will describe the occupations, customs, architecture, and chief racial characteristics of the nations.

The five-cent audience is interested in wild-animal life and in historical views much more than in the ridiculous comedies that are not so suggestive as they are inane. Of course the police have been obliged at times to put a stop to certain subjects thrown upon the screen, not because of their outward suggestiveness but because of their lack of healthy moral. The Children's Court has had to consider cases of grand larceny inspired by the moving-pictures of a burglar. There have been petty thefts committed by children who for five cents have been taught the best way of getting what belongs to others. But as a general rule the nickelodeons, or moving-picture theatres, of which there are some three or four hundred in New York City, present a harmless bill of fare, if not a very educational one.

After examining a number of catalogues of the different manufacturers, and bearing continually in mind that every moving-picture has been the result of actual performance, one is surprised to find the dangers that kinetoscopic actors have to risk in order to depict a given story. Every manufacturer has his paid company of actors, and these have to be richly costumed just as though they were to give a performance on a regular stage. Historical plays are accurately mounted. Not only is scenery prepared, but the actors are likewise taken into the country where different localities are agreed upon for different situations. The trouble and expense in this respect are great. Only recently in Rochester, two automobiles met with an accident while rushing through the street illustrating for the kinetoscope the abduction of a girl. So that a manufacturer finds more profit in sending his photographers traveling throughout the world, making pictures of pageants, historical scenes, military and naval spectaculars, than in mounting rich productions himself.

The kinetoscope, however, has had to adopt many methods of the theatre. One of the chief ,resorts is dramatization, so we find one concern making arrangements with the author and publisher of "Monsieur Beaucaire" and with the author and manager of "Raflfes," and with the publisher and author of "Sherlock Holmes" for the privilege of dramatizing. The kinetoscope dramatist, so to speak, takes wherever he can find. He outlines the story of "Treasure Island;" he adapts Boucicault's "The Shaughraun;" he makes a scenario of "Dora," based on Tennyson; he modernizes "Oliver Twist;" he receives suggestions for Belasco's "Madame Butterfly;" he turns Hawtrey's "Messenger from Mars" into a sentimental tale of a selfish man; he takes the motive of "Othello" and puts it into a story that is the husk without the spirit of Shakespeare. In some cases, where a film has been particularly popular, he is forced to write a sequel. All this is not specially original work, but the moving-picture man expects eventually to encourage the high art of the pantomimist. And there is no doubt that eventually the American dramatist will himself write small plays for the kinetoscope that will accentuate pantomime.


All of these subjects are thrown upon the screen for an eager audience. They are supplemented very often by a word of explanation from the manager, or by a short description printed on the film. Sometimes the phonograph is called into use, but as yet it has not been very successfully employed. The manager must know his pictures, so that if a horse dashes upon the roadway he can imitate the clatter of hoofs; if a man falls from the roof he must represent the crash, just as whenever a clown falls at the circus the drum in the orchestra measures the extent of his hurt. An intelligent manager could inject much humor into his pictures from behind the screen, but he must be careful to keep the moral tone clean. He must also at times watch the realism of his play. In Chicago, according to the Moving Picture World, the police stopped the performance of "Macbeth," and the report of the officer of the law is worth quoting: "I am not taking issue with Shakespeare," he said. "As a writer he was far from reproach, but he never looked into the distance and saw that his plays were going to be interpreted for the five-cent theatre. Shakespeare has a way of making gory things endurable, because there is so much of art and finish. But we cannot reproduce that. . . . When it gets on the canvas, it is worse than the bloodiest melodrama ever."

The stabbing scene in the play is not predominant, but in a picture show it is the feature. By outdoing melodrama, the moving-picture has been one of the agents to kill melodrama of the violent kind. In the play, the stabbing is forgotten amidst the other exciting and artful and artistic creations that divert the imagination. On the canvas, you see the dagger enter and come out, the blood flow, and the wound that is left.

Thus it is essential to remember that in externalizing a story for the kinetoscope, the bare details through their very nature sometimes become over-accentuated.

The moving-picture has undoubtedly hurt the theatrical business. It steals the spoken drama and reduces it to motion. Every road company has its tale to tell of business ruined by the kinetoscope; every vaudeville house is forced to open its doors to celluloid drama. And when summer arrives, the legitimate playhouses turn themselves into nickelodeons. In a way all this is a menace to the American dramatist.

Home | More Articles | Email: