The Father of Film: Thomas Edison

A man looking into a kinetoscope
This gentleman has paid a few cents to peer into the kinetoscope and view a short movie. Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Who comes to mind when you think of innovators in the movie business? Spielberg? Hitchcock? Chaplin? What about Thomas Edison?  Following breakthroughs with the first phonograph, incandescent light bulbs, and the delivery of electricity itself, Edison made his indelible mark on one more technological revolution — motion pictures.

The Father of Motion Pictures.

In 1876, Thomas Edison set up shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and by the end of the century, he had become arguably the most prolific inventor in history. With Thomas Edison’s company’s creation of the kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and the kinetoscope (a motion picture viewer), the public was able to view film that moved on spools, but these “movies” only lasted for about ninety seconds. In 1893, Edison presented the first commercial motion-picture machine at the World’s Columbian in Chicago. Later, Edison opened stores called “parlors,” where the public could spend a few cents to view these early movies in a kinetoscope. Edison and others improved the kinetoscope so that the movies could be enlarged and projected onto a screen. In 1896, Edison produced the first public showing in the United States. The movie business was born.

A black and white photo of Thomas Edison sitting on the edge of a table looking at film.
Thomas Edison examines the film for his Home Projecting Kinetoscope (HPK) in 1912, an attempt to introduce educational films into schools and the home. The film format was unusual, consisting of three adjacent strips of 5.7-millimeter film that ran through the projector in an equally unorthodox way—the middle row ran in reverse. The company made many films expressly for the HPK, although some were reformatted from the existing Edison catalog. Image sourced from Thomas Edison in West Orange.

“Wizard of Menlo Park”

The world’s first motion picture studio was a small tarpaper-covered building with black interior walls. Dubbed the Black Maria, Edison’s studio produced films specifically for the use of Edison’s coin-operated Kinetoscope. His Kinetoscope parlors would increase in popularity and open around the country. Constant production from the West Orange studio kept the new tech popular, but competition diminished Edison’s profits. In response, the Wizard of Menlo Park developed the Kinetophone, combining moving pictures with sound from a phonograph. “Talkies” wouldn’t take off until the end of the 1920s, but Edison’s place in history was cemented, and West Orange, New Jersey ultimately became the birthplace of the film industry.

A sketch of people from the 1890s viewing films in kinetoscopes.
In the 1890s, after Edison’s company came up with the Kinetoscope camera, machines were developed for viewing the films in locations like this one in New York City and soon Boston. These machines were set up in rows with each showing a different moving picture short. Films ran only a few minutes, and each person watched separately. Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Image sourced from Boston’s Downtown Movie Palaces.

Edison’s Edifices

Did Thomas Edison realize that one of the most celebrated public building styles would grow out of his moving pictures? There would be no cinema, no picture show, no movie theater without Edison’s entertainment. Among the most beloved buildings of the twentieth century are movie houses. Once his kinetoscope parlors found an audience, entrepreneurs leaped in to find ways to make a buck. Boston, Massachusetts proved to be the perfect site for this new form of entertainment. Always a theater town, Boston grew into a world-class cultural center because of its stages.

An image of a theatre with a movie screen
Intimate in size and designed for film only, the stage was tiny. Musicians sometimes performed music for the silent films while sitting in the first row. And housed in a console in front of the stage was the first Estey 3/38 organ, which was built especially for movie theaters. Note the sloping floor guaranteeing a perfect view from any seat. Courtesy of John Toto. Image sourced from Boston’s Downtown Movie Palaces.

Boston’s Broadway

The history of Boston movie theaters is tied to a seven-block stretch of a narrow Downtown street. From the mid-nineteenth century, Boston’s main entertainment center was home to the Music Hall, then the huge Boston Theatre, followed by dozens of playhouses, dime museums, nickelodeons, vaudeville, and burlesque houses, and movie theaters and palaces. By the turn of the century, there were more than 50 theaters in Boston, most on or near Washington Street. By 1914, Boston was home to the 800-seat Beacon Theatre, the Boston Theatre (for live performances), the tiny Bijou, and B.F. Keith’s vaudeville house. Moviemakers were delivering 90-minute feature films, and opulent movie palaces of the era reflected the ambition of the new visual art medium. Technology was vital to staying competitive, and Boston would be the first to screen the first “talkie” to delighted audiences with The Jazz Singer.

A group of boys standing in front of a picture house with the marque displaying the movie title "The Sultan's Power!"
Youngstown’s first moving picture houses relied heavily on street-level advertising, which included primitive signage and simple theatrical storefronts. Courtesy of Thomas Molocea. Image sourced from Historic Theaters of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

Youngstown, Ohio: Theater Town

The central Ohio steel town fell for movies early in the twentieth century, and nickelodeons gave solace to local factory and furnace laborers. The Dreamland, the Star Theater, the Edisonia, the Luna, and the Dome Theater were filled with citizens of the new boomtown. Following the decline of live vaudeville-style performances, motion pictures took over in four downtown Youngstown stages, the Palace, the State Theater; the Paramount; and the Warner Theater. Small Youngstown was in the same league as Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Even neighboring Warren, the second-largest city in the Mahoning Valley region, featured the Warren Opera House, the Hippodrome, and the Robins Theater.

An ad for a burlesque show featuring Rose La Rose
Rose La Rose was the Park’s most popular draw during the late 1940s and 1950s. She later opened her own burlesque house in Toledo, Ohio. Courtesy of the author. Image sourced from Historic Theaters of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

In decades following World War II, Steel Belt cities like Youngstown, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh fell into economic decline, and many of the grand theaters suffered neglect. Youngstown embraced the working-class art form of burlesque, which kept many old theaters open; but, as television grew in popularity, theaters shuttered. Even today, as the public’s viewing habits change with a plethora of competing screens, fewer and fewer landmark movie palaces remain on the American landscape.