Vitascope Hall (1896) First Indoor Commercial Movie Theater.
Vitascope Hall, July 1896.
The interior of Vitascope Hall, also from 1896. The theater could seat up to 400 patrons.
Backstory and Context
The Vitascope Hall in New Orleans was named after the projector it used: Edison’s Vitascope. Edison did not actually invent the Vitascope, however. The invention came to life as the Phantoscope, a product of the minds of Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Before it and the Cinématographe developed by the Lumiere brothers, films could only be viewed one person at a time via “peep” machines. Projecting moving images onto a screen would allow for more viewers per film and therefore more profits for exhibitors. Jenkins and Armat filed a patent for their Phantoscope in July 1895, then another in 1896 for an improved version of the same projector. Jenkins and Armat would split ways, but before they did, they sold the rights of distribution to Thomas Edison and the Raff & Gammon firm. The name was changed to the “Edison Vitascope” for marketability. The reimagined projector made its debut in Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. Afterward, Edison and Raff & Gammon sold exclusive territorial rights for the technology.
William “Pop” Rock, a British businessman, bought the rights to use the Vitascope in Louisiana. To help him in his new endeavor, Rock enlisted the help of carnival showman Walter Wainwright and the projectionist Walter A. Reed. They decided to try out their new projector in the West End of New Orleans, an area known for family-friendly entertainment. Knowing that the projection of films may not be enough of a spectacle to entice customers, the trio hired a band to play alongside the movie showings. Rock and his partners exhibited “Edison’s Wonderful Vitascope” for the first time on June 28th, 1896. They had a hit and decided to do something risky: project the films for paying customers inside a dedicated storefront.
Rock and Wainwright bought an empty storefront on Canal Street in the commercial heart of New Orleans. They blacked out the windows, bought benches and folding chairs from a closing funeral parlor, and set the Vitascope projector on a cart so that it could be wheeled closer to or farther from the screen as needed. When it opened later that summer, Vitascope Hall became the first for-profit, indoor movie theater with seating. Before it, most places that projected motion pictures were standing-room-only or were free experimental showings with seats. Wainwright advertised in a local newspaper weekly with sensational claims and coupons to bring in audiences. Visitors to Vitascope Hall could pay extra to see the projection booth and take home scraps of film. After a profitable run, Vitascope Hall closed on September 30th, 1896. Rock and Reed continued to exhibit Vitascope films throughout Louisiana for another year. Rock would then go on to become president of Vitascope productions.
Though it was not built from scratch, Vitascope Hall set the standard for movie theaters to come with its use of indoor seating and projection. In 1925, an early film historian by the name of H. E. Richardson realized that Vitascope Hall was the first movie theater in that sense. This fact would not be rediscovered until the 1960s when British researcher Patrick Robertson stumbled upon Richardson’s statement. The storefront that housed Vitascope Hall has since been home to a variety of retail and fast food ventures. The site remains unmarked, though a nearby hotel restaurant bears the name “Vitascope Hall.”
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Keith, Don L. "The First Picture show." New Orleans Magazine, vol. 30, no. 10, 07, 1996, pp. 64, eLibrary, https://search-proquest-com.marshall.idm.oclc.org/docview/206635997?accountid=12281.Scott, Mike. The story of Canal Street's Vitascope Hall, the world's first movie theater. The Times Picayune. June 18, 2017. Accessed March 05, 2018. http://www.nola.com/300/2017/06/vitascope_hall_new_orleans_fir.html.
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