Here’s everyday life in the near future, according to the 1912-1913 Santa Rosa newspapers: Someone in your family might go to the theater after supper to catch the latest blockbuster, but the rest of you will probably watch a movie or something in the living room. As a special treat there may be an occasional trip to San Francisco to see a much-hyped film only playing in certain theaters because it required special movie equipment, which made the audience feel the movie was almost real.
That may not seem much different from today, except: The movie at the local theater would be black and white but have sound synchronized from a recorded cylinder. Being watched at home would be a silent, flickering image shown by a hand-cranked machine. And what made the movie in San Francisco worth the trip was it being in color, made possible by the theater having a special color projector.
There were several methods of adding color or sound to movies in the early 1900s, but this isn’t cinema technology history 101; the topic here is limited to what was mentioned in the local papers, and in the spring of 1912 the excitement in Santa Rosa was the opportunity to see movies in “natural color.”
(Your obl. Believe-it-or-Not! factoid: 1912 was also the year when the word “movie” first appeared in the papers, and it was almost always used in quotes to show it was slang. The origin of the word is unclear, but the first use I can find is in a 1911 Central Valley newspaper where it was mentioned as being coined by “a bright El Centro youngster.”)
“Kinemacolor” movies were quite the rage that season; the Cort theater in San Francisco sold out for a month (including most matinees) with a three hour Kinemacolor spectacular showing the pageantry of the coronation of King Edward VII as emperor of India. The film itself was 150 minutes – the longest movie produced up to then – with the show padded out with a live speaker and “orchestra rendering Oriental melodies” (a fragment can be seen here). Also produced were Kinemacolor travelogues along with hundreds of short comedies and melodramas with titles like, “Dandy Dick of Bishopsgate” and “Detective Henry and the Paris Apaches.” In New York J. P. Morgan’s daughter threw herself a party showing Kinemacolor home movies of the hostess colorfully prancing around the family’s Italian villa. Editors at both Santa Rosa papers were clearly excited such a high-falutin’ event was coming to town – and it would be free admission, too!
The Kinemacolor films were shown in the Native Sons of the Golden West ballroom (that impressive red brick building which still stands at 404 Mendocino Avenue). The big Columbia theater in town couldn’t be used because a special Kinemacolor projector was required. The film – which ran through the projector at twice the speed as normal – was still black and white, but alternating frames were captured through a red or green filter and the projector had a synchronized red and green color wheel. More about the process is explained in a BBC documentary (the five minute section on Kinemacolor begins at 13:23) and in a video showing how the frames were merged. The result is awful; when there is any movement onscreen red or green fringing follows like a ghost. How anyone could watch such a thing for more than a couple of minutes without suffering a ripping headache is a mystery, as is why Kinemacolor was widely praised for its “natural color.”
But even if the color effect was far from perfect (far, far, far away) at least it was a free evening at the movies; perhaps there would be scenes from exotic lands or an exciting yarn about those “Paris Apaches.”
“There were pictures, true to life in color, of aeroplane flights, of automobiles busy about the factory,” promised an ad disguised as a Press Democrat news item. “Views showed the process of molding brass castings. The lighted furnaces and the men pouring the metal made the scenes seem real. They showed improved machinery turning out its products. Then there were views of the men and women at work, and leaving the factory.” As exciting as it might be to watch factory workers shuffling home at the end of their shift, the movie was actually an industrial film produced by a company to sell cash registers. “All the residents of Santa Rosa, especially the business men, are invited,” chirped the advertisement.
Okay, so maybe color movies with actual entertainment weren’t in Santa Rosa’s immediate future – at least there would soon be sound movies in the theaters and films to watch at home…right?
The movie projectors mentioned for home and local theater were versions of Edison “Kinetophones,” which were also called Phonokinetoscopes and Kinetoscopes, the latter also being Edison’s name for the peep show cabinet he had introduced twenty years earlier (old Thomas Edison may have been a maniac for inventing things, but he certainly fizzled when it came to naming them).
Like many papers nationwide, the Press Democrat in January 1913 ran a front page story on Edison’s announcement that he was about to revolutionize the entertainment industry. Where there had been earlier gizmos which played music on a phonograph while a movie was shown (including some of Edison’s peep-show boxes), his Kinetophone “delivers at the exact instant of occurrence on the film any sound made at the moment such action took place. Every word uttered by the actors is recorded and delivered in time with the action,” Edison boasted. A segment of the short sound film made to introduce the system can be viewed on YouTube and it’s still impressive to watch, once you keep in mind it is over a century old.
Edison should have ended the press conference with the demo; regrettably, he went on to say that thanks to his Kinetophone, performers would no longer have to tour – they could make “talkies” at the studios, which would probably be located in New York. “Entire operas will be rendered,” Edison told reporters. “Small towns, whose yearly taxes would not pay for three performances of the Metropolitan Opera company, can see and hear the greatest stars in the world for 10 cents.” The press twisted those egalitarian visions into a doomsday prophecy. “EDISON SEE FINISH FOR STAGE” was the PD headline, and the San Francisco Call warned the Kinetophone “Will End ‘Legitimate’ Careers.”
“Legitimate” performers soon discovered they had nothing to fear (although you gotta love how the SF Call put the word between cynical quotes). It may have worked flawlessly with engineers back in the lab, but real projectionists in real theaters struggled to keep the record and film in synchronization and often failed. Having never seen such a screwup before, audiences howled. Remember the end of “Singing in the Rain”?
But even at its best, Edison’s Kinetophone was a not-ready-for-primetime invention. Sound was recorded on large Edison cylinders which offered six minutes of playback (instead of the usual four) so forget the option of watching those entire operas Edison promised – most of the Kinetophone productions were of vaudeville acts. As the amplified loudspeaker was still years away, sound came out of a big metal horn behind the screen, making dialog hard to hear in all but the smallest theaters; one of the most popular Edison films was a comedy where two characters thought the other was deaf, causing the pair to continually shout at each other.
The Kinetophone wasn’t the only half-baked Edison invention Santa Rosa learned about in 1913. Just a few days before the Kinetophone announcement, the front page of the Press Democrat displayed the ad at right for the “Edison Home Kinetoscope.” It had no sound because there was no ability for it to synch with a phonograph, but it could show a film nearly twice as long as a Kinetophone, thanks to the bizarre, non-standard film it required.
Although the arc lamp was electric, the person standing in the silhouette was turning a crank which advanced film containing three streams of images side-by-side. The person acting as the, um, designated cranker, turned it one direction until the film stopped after about six minutes; the film gate was then shifted to the middle position and the projectionist cranked backwards – the images on the middle strip of film were printed in reverse. After another six minutes the film stopped again and the film gate was shifted to its final position, with the machine to be cranked forward. A photo of this ingenious layout can be seen here.
The ad proclaimed it was “not a toy,” but despite the high price (it cost up to $100, or about $2,500 in today’s dollars) it really couldn’t be taken seriously, either. Each image on the film was merely about 6mm wide so resolution wasn’t nearly as good as a 35mm film shown in a theater; nor was there pin registration to pause the film for a fraction of a second while it is being projected, resulting in vertical “motion blur.” And although the owner’s manual claimed it could throw an image thirty feet and a promotional photo shows a bright, clear image at about half that distance, the low resolution images and teensy arc lamp (with no reflector, either) meant that 3-4 feet was probably all that was practical.
As the Press Democrat ad noted, Home Kinetoscope owners could watch the same movies as were being shown in theaters – limited, of course, to titles produced by Edison’s studio. About 250 were listed (amazingly, copies of most still survive) and sold at prices from $2.50 to $20. A service was available to exchange your boring old films for others by mail, using pre-paid coupons purchased from dealerships such as the one on Fourth street.
The Home Kinetoscope was a flop, with only about 500 sold in the U.S. Nor did the sound Kinetophone system last very long; Edison and his staff continued tinkering with it for the next two years and in 1914 a magazine wrote, “Mr. Edison is at work now on some vital problem dealing with the synchronism effect and has promised that the day is near when the world’s greatest singers will be heard in grand opera scenes, with voice and action concretely reproduced.” But when a fire later that year swept through Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey complex and destroyed all Kinetophone negatives, Edison created no further talkies. Shortly after that he also discontinued making motion picture equipment of any kind, despite having ads running for a new, top-end theatrical “Super Kinetoscope.”
And at about the same time, the last Kinemacolor film was made. Public interest in the odd system still remained high; they were starting to produce feature films and much-desired footage of early WWI battlefields and armaments. But their undoing was their constant drumbeat about displaying “natural color.” A competitor challenged this on their patent claim and Kinemacolor lost, because it could not, in fact, display any form of the color blue.
MOVING SCENES IN NATURAL COLORUnique Entertainment Will Be Given Here on Monday Afternoon and Evening
Much interest is taken in the public moving picture entertainment that will be given at Native Sons’ Hall next Monday afternoon and night. The pictures will show the famous Kinemacolor process.
Kinemacolor, the new motion picture process in nature’s colors, is an English invention and was developed in all its details by an American. The process is fairly simple and somewhat similar to the three-color process in printing.
The camera taking the subject resembles the ordinary moving-picture camera, save that it operates at double the speed and interposes alternate red and green colored filters by means of a rapidly revolving wheel operated by a very nicely timed mechanical device, 1-32 or a second is devoted to the production of each picture, of which there are sixteen to the foot of film. This film is remarkably sensitive to the colors of nature, is produced by an American concern.
The films are developed in absolute [illegible microfilm] reproduction of the colors on the screen, the picture made through the red filter is projected through a similar red filter, and the green picture through a green filter. These appear upon the screen 32 to the second, too rapidly for the eye to detect the color changes that take place. As a consequence, the colors blend harmoniously, giving the remarkable effects which you are about to witness.
120 feet of film moves through the delicately adjusted apparatus starting and stopping 1920 times in one minute. You can readily see from these figures that it would be absolutely impossible to hand color or tint this enormous quantity of film with such gorgeous hues as are shown by this marvelous process, Kinemacolor.– Press Democrat, March 8, 1912Rare Treat for Santa RosansWonderful Moving Pictures Are Shown in Natural Colors At Business ShowTHE FIRST TAKEN IN AMERICA
Scientists and photographers have worked for years on processes for photographing in Nature’s own colors. The solution of their problem has been found.
By the Kinemacolor process, moving pictures are now taken in colors and thrown on the screen with the motion and tints of actual life. The Kinemacolor film differs from other moving picture films in that it is not colored by hand nor by chemicals.
The first Kinemacolor pictures made in America were taken at the plant of the National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio.
While A. J. Strayer, the local representative of that concern, was attending a business efficiency convention at the N. C. R. plant, he saw these pictures.
There were pictures, true to life in color, of aeroplane flights, of automobiles busy about the factory, of scenes at the N. C. R. Country Club, where baseball, tennis, running races, horseback riding and games are enjoyed Saturday afternoons during the summer.
Views showed the process of molding brass castings. The lighted furnaces and the men pouring the metal made the scenes seem real.
They showed improved machinery turning out its products.
Then there were views of the men and women at work, and leaving the factory.
Fireless locomotives drew their loads to and from the receiving and shipping platforms.
The green grass, the shrubbery and the vines clinging to the walls, made pictures in color which no artist could equal.
Mr. Strayer asked that the film be shown in this city at the earliest opportunity. His request was granted.
These beautiful pictures in natural colors will be shown in the Native Sons’ Hall, March 11th at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p. m.
All the residents of Santa Rosa, especially the business men, are invited to see these Kinemacolor views.
Admission free.– advertisement in Press Democrat, March 8, 1912NO ADMISSION TO SEE PICTURESFirst Kinemacolor Entertainment Tonight
Everybody is invited to attend the lecture and exhibition of the Kinemacolor pictures at the Native Sons’ Hall this evening, and the entertainment is absolutely free. The pictures to be shown are the first to be taken by a new process of moving pictures, that show nature in all of her wonderful moods and colorings. Flowers are shown in their original tints without any hand coloring.
The lecture is delivered by H. C. Ernst, who arrived here on Monday with his operators of the moving pictures. A. H. Walker and E. C. Deveny. included in the entertainment are many beautiful scenes of landscape gardening and suggestions for the beautification of homes, and the adornment of the exterior and interior of residences. The progress of the past twenty-five years in machinery is graphically shown, it being greater than all the progress of the ages preceding that time.
The reproduction of flowers and nature in the original colorings is the latest thing in the moving picture world and these pictures are the first to be taken and the first that have come to this city. They are interesting, educational and instructive, and should attract a crowded house to the Native Sons’ Hall this evening. No admission is charged, the expense being defrayed by the National Cash Register Company. Arthur J. Strayer is the local representative of the company, and he has arranged for the entertainment of the people of Santa Rosa by his company.– Santa Rosa Republican, March 11, 1912
EDISON SEE FINISH FOR STAGESays His New Invention, the Kinetophone, Will Put the Legitimate Actor Our of Business and Reduce Prices to Minimum
New York, Jan. 6–Thomas A. Edison, in an interview today declared that he believed the legitimate stage doomed as the result of the completion of his “Kinetophone.” The success of its operation in the last few days was such as to make him believe that the $2.00 theatre must give way to the cheaper show with the better talent. He was sure that there would be no more barnstorming companies. The inventor declared that not one out of fifty had the right to spend the price of a theatre ticket. He believes that the legitimate action must leave the stage as more money is to be made acting for the new machines.– Press Democrat, January 7, 1913COLUMBIA WILL PRESENT EDISON’S KINETOPHONE
Morris Meyerfeld, Jr., head of the Orpheum Circuit, announced Wednesday that the Orpheum and affiliated theatres have secured the American rights for Edison’s latest invention, the kinetophone, by which talking motion pictures are presented, and that it will be put simultaneously in all the playhouses of the circuit in about three weeks. The kinetophone recently was demonstrated successfully and promises to revolutionize the career if the stage profession in some respects through its ability to transmit not only the actions, but the voice of the performer. The inventor has declared it will result in the stars leaving the legitimate stage to work for the “movies.”
Manager Crone of the Columbia Amusement Company has arranged to have the kinetophone at one of his amusement houses in the near future, which will give the lovers of “movies” a chance to see this latest invention by Edison.– Santa Rosa Republican, January 20, 1913