The Early Days of Cincinnati’s Film Industry

An ad man turned filmmaker helped jump-start our city’s love of the movies.
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With all the film crews around nowadays, Cincinnati could start a streaming service featuring solely movies backgrounded by our local scenery. Hollywood’s recent attentions excuse us from forgetting Cincinnati once boasted its own thriving film industry, churning out feature-length, homegrown entertainments.

Runey with his first camera at Latonia Race Track.

Photograph extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

“Moving pictures” first transfixed Cincinnati audiences via the legendary Edison Vitascope projector in 1896. Shown in the theater of Heck & Avery’s Vine Street Dime Museum, Vitascope pictures caused a sensation and sold out that auditorium for months. Moving pictures proved far more popular than other acts billed at Heck & Avery’s, which included a bevy of young ladies pecking away in a typing contest, a stage full of divorced women explaining why they left their husbands, a man who talked backwards, a troupe of gymnasts, and the requisite dog act.

Every week, the Edison factory in New Jersey shipped a new batch of reels, and crowds returned again and again to see the latest offerings. All of these 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, an American Indian dance in traditional costume, and a man sneezing.

Ten years after Cincinnatians first thrilled to primitive cinema, a young businessman on Liberty Street acquired his own movie camera. Clarence E. Runey, born in Wisconsin in 1866, had a father in the Chicago printing business who produced circus and vaudeville posters. After an apprenticeship in the Windy City, Clarence opened his own printing plant in Cincinnati, the Runey Show Print Company.

Around 1900, Cincinnati was the largest and richest printing town in the U.S., and a lot of that trade involved posters, flyers, and billboards for show business. It is no accident that Billboard Magazine was founded here—Cincinnati printed the posters that plastered most vertical surfaces in any American town. Shortly after arriving, Runey organized, and was elected president of, the still-extant Advertising Club of Cincinnati. As the 20th century dawned, and newspapers started leaning toward photographs, he filled the need—enlisting as an on-call photographer for the old Cincinnati Times-Star while still managing his printing operation.

Runey added moving pictures to his repertoire in 1906 by filming the German gymnastic exhibitions staged to celebrate the silver anniversary of the North Cincinnati Turnverein. He also hauled his equipment out to Latonia’s racetrack, creating the first of a series of weekly newsreels he would produce on behalf of the Times-Star. So ubiquitous was Runey and his movie gear that a shout of “Here comes Runey!” signified a truly momentous Cincinnati news event.

Runey filming “Homerun Hawkins” at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Photograph extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

While the newsreels paid the bills, Runey aspired to greater achievements, and in 1913 converted the ground floor of his print shop on West Liberty Street into a fully equipped motion-picture studio stocked with the latest European technology. A list of Runey projects in the works at that time includes public service announcements from the Anti-Tuberculosis League, promotional films for the Cincinnati Health Board, and advertisements for Chester Park and Coney Island. In addition, Runey signaled his interest in theatrical material by announcing his production of dramas like Hal of the Hills and a “baseball photo play” titled The Honor of the Game, with a script by the sports editor of the Times-Star.

If any of those original screenplays got produced, they are lost to history. Runey notched a significant milestone in 1916 by producing the first three-reeler (a moving picture with a length of around 30 minutes) ever filmed in Cincinnati, a monumental documentary of the International Rotary convention that, believe it or not, got national distribution. So did a 1914 newsreel on a “hobo funeral” at one of Cincinnati’s relief missions—Runey claimed it was exhibited on 10,000 screens.

By this time, Runey had acquired a passel of competitors, but almost every one of them went under. The Veritas Photoplay Company, backed by some of Cincinnati’s wealthiest names, tanked in 1916, as did the International Film Products Company, located at Clifton and Dixmyth, and the Highland Film Corporation. Cincinnati continued to distribute and screen films, but the only man who made films here was Runey.

When the “talkies” introduced sound to cinema, Runey was ready, announcing full sound capability for his productions in January 1930. The first films with soundtracks out of Runey’s studio included President Herbert Hoover delivering a speech in Cincinnati and a short of John Robinson’s circus elephants lumbering around their winter home in Terrace Park.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Runey’s artistic endeavors was 1930’s Homerun Hawkins. This was a Cincinnati product through and through. Based on the popular Seckatary Hawkins newspaper series created by Robert F. Schulkers for The Cincinnati Enquirer, the film’s cast included an army of local boys and celebrities from the nation’s first City Manager, Clarence A. Dykstra, to author Schulkers himself. Locations filmed for the project included the Kemper log cabin—then located at the Cincinnati Zoo and now at Sharon Woods—Redland Field, the Hotel Gibson, and the Rubel Baking Company. The film, among the last of the silent era, ran for a brief engagement at Cincinnati’s RKO theaters in late November of that year.

Within a month, Runey, Cincinnati’s first film impresario, was dead, succumbing to a chronic heart condition. His Cincinnati Motion Picture Company was shuttered and all his equipment auctioned off. It would be decades before a Cincinnati company got back into the movie business in any significant way, but the seeds were planted.

A selection of Clarence Runey’s newsreels is preserved at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at Union Terminal.

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