Edison and Lumiere Battled for Motion Picture Glory in Cincinnati

Once lights-camera-action arrived in the late 1890s, the city’s entertainment industry would never be the same.

Cincinnati was first introduced to motion pictures in 1896 through the auspices of Heck & Avery’s Dime Museum on Vine Street. The uniquely American phenomenon of “dime museums” set the stage (as it were) for vaudeville; the typical one boasted multiple floors of curiosities, several small stages, and a theater. Objects that today might be seen in a museum of natural history or an art museum or an historical center would adorn the walls and fill display cases. Sculpture and taxidermy abounded.

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

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

As a technological curiosity, Thomas Edison’s Vitascope motion picture system would have fit right in with the long-running freak show at Heck & Avery’s establishment. While the Vitascope unspooled in the theater, other rooms offered a bevy of young ladies participating in a typewriting contest, a stage full of divorced women explaining why they left their husbands, a ventriloquist, a troupe of gymnasts, and the requisite dog act.

The Vitascope caused a sensation and filled Heck & Avery’s 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 of the films were short, and few had anything even close to a plot. A typical set might include a train arriving at a station, people strolling on a boardwalk, a Native American dance in traditional costume, and a man sneezing. Still, the reviewers were ecstatic. Here is The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [October 11, 1896]:

“The vitascope is certainly a wonderful card. It seems to grow more interesting as the weeks go by. Those who have seen it once always like to see it again and again. They want to see every new picture that is presented, and so large a regular patronage has been established that will be found at the Museum every week as long as the vitascope is exhibited.”

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

“Messrs Heck and Avery are fully impressed with the educational and entertaining value of the vitascope, and will keep it on exhibition as long as it pleases. It stands at the head of all inventions for the purpose of producing and projecting animated pictures.”

Audiences in 1896 didn’t immediately recognize motion pictures as a new medium that would revolutionize American entertainment. It’s clear from the newspaper reports that people saw this new invention as a sort of enhancement to still photography, calling the movies “pictures” because that is how they saw them: pictures that moved, sort of like a Victorian GIF.

As exciting as the Vitascope was, Heck & Avery announced that they would soon unveil an even more outstanding exhibition by securing Cincinnati’s first look at Edison’s chief competitors, the French Lumiere brothers, Louis and Auguste. The Lumieres’ hand-cranked Cinematographe, contrary to Edison’s electric-powered cameras, was relatively small and eminently portable, so films could be shot almost anywhere. Edison’s cameras were heavy and not portable, so they could record activity only in the Edison studio.

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

Whatever impetus shifted the Cinematographe to the Pike Opera House, the arrival of the Lumiere equipment appeared to herald an important event in Cincinnati history: what may have been the first motion pictures recorded in the Queen City. The Commercial Tribune [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 cinematographe. They came direct from France. Upon their arrival Thursday, they immediately began to get everything in readiness for the first exhibition of the cinematographe. After everything is in readiness, they will begin to photograph views of life in Cincinnati, which they will develop and use in the wonderful machine.”

Highlights from championship boxing matches were among the most popular offerings in the early days of motion pictures.

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

Curiously, when the Cinematographe first illuminated the Pike’s screen in early 1897, there was no mention of local content. The newspapers reported that audiences enjoyed films of President William McKinley’s inauguration, military exercises, a fight scene, and some “American” topics, but nothing specific to Cincinnati.

Despite the lack of local views, the Cinematographe enjoyed the same rapt enthusiasm as Edison’s Vitascope months earlier. The Commercial Tribune [December 13, 1896] was a fan:

“The cinematographe is a triumph of scientific photography, electricity being but an aid. Mr. Lumiere’s success, where all others have only partially succeeded, is due solely to his superiority in the field of scientific photography. Wherever this marvelous machine has been exhibited it has delighted enthusiastic audiences.”

By spring 1897, moving pictures using a variety of platforms were being shown throughout the Cincinnati region. One popular destination was Chester Park on Spring Grove Avenue, where audiences paid top dollar to watch brief excerpts from popular boxing matches.

The first Cincinnati theater dedicated solely to the exhibition of motion pictures was opened on Fountain Square around 1900. One source claims it was on the north side of the square, while another says it was on the south side. Both sources agree that the first motion picture theater was upstairs from a penny arcade.

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