Edison and Lumière battled for movie glory in Cincinnati

VSincinnati was introduced to filmmaking in 1896 under the auspices of Heck & Avery’s Dime Museum on Vine Street. The uniquely American phenomenon of “dime museums” set the stage (so to speak) for vaudeville; the typical had several floors of curiosities, several small stages and a theatre. Objects that one might see today in a natural history museum or art museum or historic center adorned the walls and filled the display cases. Sculpture and taxidermy abounded.

The theater at Heck & Avery’s Vine Street Dime Museum was packed as audiences lined up to see the latest shorts from Thomas Edison’s factory.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (1896), image from microfilm by Greg Hand

As a technological oddity, Thomas Edison’s Vitascope cinematic system could have fitted in perfectly with the long-running monster show at the Heck & Avery establishment. While the Vitascope unfolded in the theater, other rooms offered a crowd of young women competing in a typing contest, a stage full of divorced women explaining why they left their husbands, a ventriloquist, a troupe of gymnasts and the dog number required.

The Vitascope caused a stir and filled the Heck & Avery auditorium for months. The Edison factory in New Jersey shipped a new batch of reels every week, and crowds returned again and again to see the latest offerings. All the films were short and few had anything close to a plot. A typical setting might include a train arriving at a station, people strolling on a boardwalk, a Native American dance in traditional costume, and a sneezing man. Still, critics were thrilled. Here is The Cincinnati Commercial Stand [October 11, 1896]:

“The Vitascope is certainly a marvelous card. It seems to get more interesting as the weeks go on. Those who have seen it once always like to see it again. They want to see every new image that is presented, and such a great regular patronage has been established that will end up at the Museum every week as long as the vitascope is on display.

The inspector [November 3, 1896] was equally positive:

“MM. Heck and Avery are thoroughly impressed with the educational and entertaining value of the Vitascope and will keep it on display for as long as he wants. She is at the head of all inventions for the purpose of producing and projecting moving images.

Audiences in 1896 did not immediately recognize cinema as a new medium that would revolutionize American entertainment. It’s clear from newspaper reports that people saw this new invention as a kind of improvement on still photography, calling films “pictures” because that’s how they saw them: pictures that moved, a little like a Victorian GIF.

As exciting as the Vitascope was, Heck & Avery announced that they would soon be unveiling an even more remarkable exhibit by getting Cincinnati’s first look at Edison’s main competitors, the French Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste. Lumieres’ hand-cranked cinematograph, unlike Edison’s electric cameras, was relatively small and eminently portable, so films could be shot almost anywhere. Edison’s cameras were heavy and non-portable, so they could only record activity in the Edison studio.

Although they announced on October 25, 1896 that they would begin exhibiting the Cinematograph alternately with Vitascope, Heck and Avery did not follow through. The Cinematograph would not debut locally until January 1897, then at Pike’s Opera House rather than Heck & Avery’s Dime Museum. No Cincinnati newspaper appears to have published an explanation.

Whatever impulse drove cinematography to the Pike Opera House, the arrival of Lumière equipment seemed to herald an important event in Cincinnati’s history: what may have been the first films recorded in the queen city. The commercial platform [December 18, 1896] provided the details:

“Manager [David H.] Hunt was approached by two gentlemen, who silently presented letters of introduction from Lumiere & Sons, Paris, the inventors of the marvelous cinematograph. They came directly from France. As soon as they arrived on Thursday, they immediately began to prepare everything for the cinematographer’s first exhibition. Once everything is ready, they will begin photographing views of life in Cincinnati, which they will develop and use in the marvelous machine.

Highlights of boxing championship matches were among the most popular offerings in early cinema.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (1896), image from microfilm by Greg Hand

Curiously, when the Cinematograph first lit up the Pike’s screen in early 1897, there was no mention of local content. Newspapers reported that audiences enjoyed films of President William McKinley’s inauguration, military exercises, a fight scene, and a few “American” subjects, but nothing specific to Cincinnati.

Despite the lack of local views, the Cinematograph enjoyed the same rapturous enthusiasm as Edison’s Vitascope months earlier. The commercial platform [December 13, 1896] was a fan:

“The cinematograph is a triumph of scientific photography, electricity being only an auxiliary. Mr. Lumière’s success, where all the others have only partially succeeded, is due solely to his superiority in the field of scientific photography. Wherever this marvelous machine was exhibited, it delighted an enthusiastic public.

By the spring of 1897, motion pictures using a variety of platforms were broadcast throughout the Cincinnati area. A popular destination was Chester Park on Spring Grove Avenue, where the public paid top dollar to watch brief clips of popular boxing matches.

Cincinnati’s first theater dedicated solely to exhibiting films was opened on Fountain Square around 1900. One source says it was on the north side of the square, while another says it was on the side south. Both sources agree that the first movie theater was upstairs from a penny arcade.

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