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A Slippery Job: travelling exhibitors in early cinema

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A Slippery Job: travelling exhibitors in early cinema
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  A Slippery Job: Travelling Exhibitors in Early Cinemaby Deac Rossell [Draft Copy; Published in Visual Delights. Essays on the Popular and Projected Imagein the 19 Century  , ed. Simon Popple and Vanessa Toulmin (Trowbridge, Wilts.: 2000: th Flicks Books) pp. 50 - 60.The subject for this paper came about during an attempt to sort out in somelogical way the many different moving picture projection machines offered on themarket before 1900. Thomas Edison, of course, had famously rejected the idea of moving picture projection when it was suggested to him after the appearance of hisKinetoscope peep-show machine; Edison, whose principal income had always comefrom manufacturing apparatus for telegraphy, electrical transmission, and businessdictation, thought that if he were to build a projection apparatus, there would be a usefor “maybe about ten of them in the whole United States,” and preferred to stay with 1 his single-viewer Kinetoscope. Edison was (once again) wrong about moving pictures,but even so, if not just ten, why were there so many different machines on the market inthe late 1890's, manufactured by scores of companies in Europe and America? Howwere these machines used? By whom? What caused the demand? How, in fact, hadmoving pictures evolved from a mechanical novelty into a lasting and expressivemedium?The most useful theoretical tool with which to examine these questions criticallycomes from recent work in the sociology of the history of technology. This approach 2 asserts the interpretive flexibility of a technological artifact, i.e., that an artifact can havedifferent meanings to different people. A widely known example of this interpretiveflexibility is another of Edison’s inventions, the phonograph: to Edison it was a machineto be used in the office for business dictation and to increase efficiency; many otherssaw it as an instrument that could reproduce music for both home and publicentertainment. The interpretive flexibility of an artifact further implies that different socialgroups are involved with it; moreover, that each social group can and does influencenot only the use, marketing, or acceptance of an artifact, but influences even its specificdesign and construction. Among the relevant social groups involved with early moving pictures weremagic lantern manufacturers, lanternists, optical suppliers, mechanical engineers,magicians, theatre owners and impresarios, varieté artists, travelling showmen,photographers and photographic manufacturers, scientists, lecturers, concertpromoters, and others. Each group brought their own skills, business habits, implicitknowledge, and social connections to moving pictures at the turn of the century.When film historians discuss early exhibition, and the needs and practises of exhibitors, they do so in two broadly defined categories, discriminating betweentravelling exhibitors and exhibitions in fixed theatres. The appearance of movingpictures as an element in varieté theatres, music halls and, briefly, as an interlude intheatrical and concert halls has been the most thoroughly examined of these twomodes of exhibition, since these established businesses produced the most easilyaccessible documentary records for later historians, through the survival of their advertisements, press reports, and business papers. Steady contracts with a chain or circuit of theatres were the most desirable and most remunerative for early filmcompanies; some have been well studied such as the American Mutoscope andBiograph Company’s contract with B. F. Keith’s theatre circuit or Oskar Messter’s 3  relationship with the Apollo Theatre in Berlin. Since these fixed location exhibitions 4 formed the context out of which purpose-built movie theatres and the modern exhibitionand distribution system evolved, they have been privileged in existing film histories. 5 Travelling exhibitors have been much less studied in the literature, in part sincetheir itinerant shows are more difficult to trace from town to town, and even fromcountry to country, and since their documentary records are less well preserved. For the most part, travelling exhibition has been treated by historians as a romanticinterlude in the story of film exhibition, a kind of sideshow on the way to “real” exhibitionin the movie palaces built after World War I. Early travelling exhibitors are lumpedindiscriminately together into an era when “showmen peddled movies on the open road,at street fairs, picnics, county benefits, church socials, medicine shows, in one smalltown after another, and they found a warm welcome everywhere”. However, looking 6 closely at the relevant social groups involved in early cinema, and how their varyinginterests might have influenced the evolution and success of different technologicalartifacts, leads directly to a more sophisticated picture of various types of travellingexhibitor. Four main types of travelling exhibitor can be identified, each type requiringdifferent skills and each having its own way of dealing with moving picture exhibition.Exhibitors travelling the major fairgrounds were the most distinct group of travelling showmen who turned to exhibiting moving pictures in the early period, andthey have had the most extensive historical treatment from recent writers. Since a 7 good location on the grounds in major fairs and markets like those in Bremen, Leipzig,Munich, Hull, Nottingham, Nijmegen, Leeuwarden and other cities was only to beobtained by longstanding annual attendance, moving picture exhibitors on this circuittended to be showmen converting other types of entertainments to the new attraction of moving pictures. Christiaan Slieker, the first travelling film exhibitor in The Netherlands,had exhibited curiosities, run a games booth, and then a spectacular electrical fishingapparatus; Johann Schichtl in Germany added films to his travelling theatre and 8 varieté booth; Randall Williams in Britain converted his Grand Phantascopical 9 Exhibition, a ghost show, to moving pictures in late 1896. Most of these fairground 10 showmen were members of families with longstanding attractions on the fairgrounds: 11 these were substantial ongoing businesses that happened to be itinerant, oftenemploying a dozen or more people.Their businesses required capital investment inelaborately fronted booths, regularly accommodating from 500 to 1000 people at atime, and used substantial projection apparatus and illumination that was equal to or more powerful than the machines used at the time in fixed theatres in larger cities.Their travelling schedules were established long in advance by the dates of the greatfairs, and they moved between locations in strings of wagons drawn by steam tractionengines or teams of horses. Fairgrounds exhibitors also had many business supportsystems, such as access to insurance, professional associations, and often aremarkable sense of concern about safety and mutual help. 12  A second type of exhibitor, the independent travelling showman, gave short-termmoving picture shows in public houses, hotel ballrooms, public plazas (in goodweather), church halls, and other temporarily rented spaces in towns and villagesacross both Europe and America. Normally served by just the showman and perhapsan assistant, there are two major subgroups in this type of exhibition: experienced andnovice. For novice independents, their travelling schedule was fixed from week to weekas audiences ran out in the current location and the next one was arranged; this groupdepended on the novelty and attraction of moving pictures for their audiences. Mostwere starting out in the entertainment business. Without substantive prior entertainmentexperience, their primary loyalty was often to the medium of moving pictures itself: to itstechnology, its newness, and its modern appeal. Experienced independent travellers  were often lanternists re-visiting known locations with a new moving picture attraction,or educational lecturers on a regular circuit, like Lyman Howe in America. Their  13 schedules were semi-fixed well in advance, and since these were known figures withexperience on the road, they tended to have slightly better venues and publicity thansome of the novice travellers. The apparatus requirements for both were similar:portability, ease of repair whilst underway, flexibility in the use of different illuminantsdepending on the facilities they found at hand. Some, like Georg Furkel, modified their projection apparatus so it functioned as a camera and they could also take localviews; others used their practical experience to tinker with their apparatus and make 14 improvements like the three-bladed shutter constructed by Theodor Pätzold, the 15 ultimate solution to flicker on the screen. Many of these early independent travellersstayed in the film industry as it matured and remained active with moving pictures butnot as exhibitors, perhaps accounting for the dominance of this type of exhibition in thehistorical record, since it is their reminiscences that were frequently published in thelater film trade press at 25th, 30th, or 40th anniversaries of the birth of the movies. JeanDienstknecht, who travelled in both southern and northern Germany became an earlyfilm distributor, A. J. Gee, who travelled briefly in the British midlands before setting 16 off on a long tour of Scandinavia, became the owner of a small-town cinema inDenmark, Guido Seeber travelled in central Germany with his father, a photographer  17 and lanternist, before becoming an outstanding cameraman. 18 The third type of travelling exhibitor was the theatrical traveller, an independentshowman, or occasionally woman, who used an agent to make traditional varieté or music hall bookings with their cinematographic show in fixed theatres, travellingbetween small cities and towns as a self-contained professional act wholly within thenormal touring practices of varieté artists. Some, like fairgrounds showmen, werealready in show business and converted pre-existing acts to film exhibitions, returningto their srcinal speciality after a few seasons. Their apparatus requirements were notdecisively distinct from independent travellers, outside of a need for a steady picture ona large screen; it was their presentational mode that was more distinct, often involving adramatic vocal style or other stage devices deemed particularly suitable to their placeon a varieté bill. Madame Olinka, whose husband acted as her projectionist, travelled acircuit of medium-sized theatres across northern Europe from Hamburg to Gorlitz to Amsterdam, describing the action of each film from the stage in stentorian tones thatone reporter found “very srcinal and strange”. The British magician David Devant is 19 another example of a theatrical personality very active in moving pictures for a shorttime; other artists who took up moving picture bookings on the varieté circuit include 20 the magician Balachini, who exhibited living pictures on his regular return to theOrpheum Theatre in Frankfurt am Main in July 1896, or the Circus Korty-Althoff, who 21 added moving pictures to their regular attractions from 1900. Similarly the strongman 22 Eugene Sandow not only appeared in films for Edison and Biograph, but briefly addedBiograph projections to his 1896-7 tour. 23 The last category of travelling showmen is the most ephemeral: these wereeager outsiders with little or no entertainment industry experience, who took up movingpictures momentarily, sometimes only for a few weeks, and then retired back intooblivion. The evidence that they left behind consists primarily of numerousadvertisements for used apparatus “almost new” or sold “due to further developments”or “little used”. Further evidence for this class of ambitious traveller can be inferred 24 from the many offers of manufacturers who emphasised that their apparatus was“Complete....all packed in Case and ready for use” or who sought customers with 25 headlines like “Lots of money is to be earned in the shortest time through theprojections of the kinematograph....”; This was the cheaper end of the market, where 26  price was an issue, a set of six or seven films was often included in a “complete outfit”,and any inexperienced entrepreneur was tempted by the promise of making his fortunequickly. Many, if not most, exhibitors in this last group were not a long time in themoving picture business. But their enthusiastic presence is well-reflected in manyadvertisements by apparatus manufacturers and film sales offices ready to exploit their naiveté and their fervour.Not only did the economic investment, personnel requirements, planning time,business contacts and technical demands vary widely between different types of travelling exhibitor, but very different requirements of showmanship and presentationwere also necessary if they were to continue to be successful and remain in business.For fairgrounds exhibitors, the fair or market itself was the main attraction for the public,so promotion of the moving picture show was concentrated at the front of the booth,with paraders, singers, and a fast-talking barker complementing the gaudy fronts,electrical displays and noisy organs to urge people inside to see the pictures. The citiesor entrepreneurs who organised fairs and markets quickly recognised the attraction of moving picture shows, and sometimes advertised in the trade press for bioscopeshows, as did the city of Dürkheim in Germany, which sought a kinematograph inDecember 1899 for their forthcoming Wurstmarkt. The economic rewards on all sides 27 were substantial: the minimum rental for a bioscope at the medium-sized fair atNijmegen in The Netherlands was 75 Guilders in 1902, rising tenfold to 750 Guilders by1905 and then doubling to 1500 Guilders in 1910; in 1902 Hommerson’s SprekendeElectro-Bioscope paid more than four times the minimum rental, over 310 Guilders, andduring the next decade movie exhibitors in Nijmegen regularly paid above the minimum,often three to five times more, indicating an advantageous commercial operation on allsides. Major shows had fixed annual schedules, exhibiting for a week or more with a 28 week to travel between engagements during the season. These major businesses oftentravelled long distances between fairs and markets: Johann Schichtl spent the spring of 1897 in the area around Frankfurt am Main, including Mainz and Coblenz, beforetravelling to north Germany (Gmund) and then to the south (Lindau and Kempten). On 29 the continent it was also not unusual for an exhibitor to travel between countries, like H.J. Fey, who exhibited in both Germany and The Netherlands. 30 Independent travellers did not have the advantage of a pre-promoted audience,and their shows did not rely on elaborate physical structures or free entertainment atthe entrance. Renting existing temporary premises, they needed to advertise in thelocal newspaper and post handbills throughout the town to announce their presence.Some of these exhibitions tended to be just two or three day stops, especially if theshowman had a central booking base in a large city; in 1897 Karl Pahl travelled acrossGermany for the firm of Philipp Wolff, giving shows on Saturday, Sunday, Monday andWednesday, reserving Tuesdays and Fridays for travelling to the next location. Some 31 independents were very local entrepreneurs who used moving picture exhibition initiallyas a supplement to their principal profession, like the Essen bicycle dealer LouisBogdan, who was very active between 1896 and 1903 in the small towns and villagesof the Ruhrgebiet, changing his programme annually and re-visiting the same locationseach year. The schedule for a successful independent exhibitor was gruelling and 32 unrelieved, with only a few days between shows in which to travel, make the necessaryarrangements for a hall, and announce the forthcoming screenings. The independents 33 were the adventurers who needed to be ready for every eventuality and whosereminiscences in the later moving picture trade press gave such a romantic andrumbustious gloss to the era of travelling exhibition. Georg Furkel recalls telegraphingurgently to Berlin for a new supply of oxygen for his illumination as he gave a show at apub in a town near Frankfurt am Main; when his supply failed to arrive at the railroad  station, and he ran out of fuel two-thirds of the way through his show, “the elderlypeople left calmly, but a group of 60-70 young thugs remained behind and started ahellish noise.....Mostly drunk, they now screamed ‘Come out Edison, where is Edison,we’ll beat him dead, the dog, the swindler, we’ll strike him dead, the crook...” causingFurkel to flee to an upstairs room of the pub; when the youths, with clubs, hung abouton the village street, he finally slipped out the back and walked through the night (anda snowstorm) to the next town, leaving his apparatus behind for later collection. 34 Exhibitors on the fairgrounds, theatrical travellers, and some independenttravellers already had a fixed profession: they were showmen --- entertainers or lecturers well versed in presenting attractions or information to a well defined section of the public. They took up moving picture work as the latest novelty of the day, or because the new medium was efficient and economical in expanding their pre-existingwork. Some, as noted, remained exhibitors negotiating between the public and thescreen by opening permanent cinemas as the era of travelling bioscope shows came toan end. But some independent travellers were principally defining a new profession,that of moving picture operator; their loyalties were primarily to the new medium, to itstechnology and to its expanding possibilities. These independent travellers frequentlymoved on into the growing film industry to become technicians, distributors, or filmmakers. For example, Georg Furkel, Martin Kopp, Guido Seeber, and Martin J.Knoops became cameramen; Jean Dienstknecht opened the first film distribution 35 agency in Munich; William T. “Pop” Rock became a production executive at the 36 Vitagraph Company; and Jack Smith became a salesman and filmmaker, first for  37 Robert Paul and then for the Warwick Trading Company and others. 38  At this point, it can clearly be seen that the application of conceptual structurestaken from theoretical work in the sociology of the history of technology is a useful toolin opening up an area of early film exhibition that has habitually been superficiallytreated by most historians. To return briefly to the technological concerns that initiatedthis work, it is clear that travelling exhibitors supported the emerging marketplace for moving picture apparatus and films across its entire range of offerings, from the mostdemanding high quality apparatus intended for large audience screenings right down tothe most basic inexpensive machines intended for barely professional usage. Inparticular, the “high end” of the market was very much supported by the elaboratefairgrounds travellers and professional independent travellers: Vanessa Toulmin hasidentified about 120 fairgrounds booths travelling in the United Kingdom between 1897and 1914. Since Britain was slower than either the US or Continental countries in 39 taking up fixed exhibitions in the era of the Nickelodeon, it is apparent, provisionally, 40 that the relatively unstudied travelling exhibitors did, indeed, have a significant influenceon the development of early film practises, institutions, and technology far beyond their scant reporting in the historical literature. There is also some direct evidence thatindependent travelling exhibitors had an influence on the design and construction of moving picture apparatus, as envisioned by writers on the social construction of technology: when the photographer and lanternist Clemens Seeber and his son Guidotravelled from Chemnitz to Berlin in Autumn 1896 to buy a moving picture projector,they visited “a number of companies” including Philipp Wolff and Dr. Adolph Hesekiel;they found the apparatus “usually built around a wooden case”, and returned toChemnitz with a projector from Oskar Messter, which “was built on an especially strongcast iron three-legged stand and whose mechanism, including the lamp house, wasmounted solidly on a cast iron base plate....” Within half a year, Philip Wolff’s 41 Vitaphotoscope was also “made entirely of metal; the framework altogether being of steel.” 42 But beyond any purely technological results, it can be seen that a scrupulous
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