Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Toronto's First Moving Picture Show

I recently went up to Toronto for something called a "development incubator," which is less biological than it sounds. This was a movie development incubator, we weren't splicing genes or creating life or anything. It was exciting to see one of my screenplays in development, even if the odds of a screenplay actually emerging as a fully formed film are still as infinitesimal as hatching an Indominus Rex.

On the very first day of this incubator thing, I totally by accident walked by an extremely exciting and informative historic plaque:

Toronto's First Moving Picture Show

I'd been wanting to do a little more research on this fascinating new discovery, but kept putting it off. But seeing as how today is Canada Day and all, I reckoned there's no time like today to figure out what exactly this is all about.

Let's start with the basics. The plaque says:

On August 31st, 1896, a series of films running less than a minute each was projected from a "Vitascope"invented by Thomas Edison at Robinson's Musee Theatre on this site. On the next day, the Toronto World reported that "... the machine projects apparently living figures and scenes on a canvas screen... It baffles analysis and delights immense audiences." Known as a Dime Museum (admission was ten cents), Robinson's Musee has opened in December 1890 and featured jugglers, magicians, and aerialists; a curio shop and waxworks on the second floor and an animal menagerie on the roof. The building changed hands several times, eventually becoming, in 1899, the first location of Shea's Theatre (later situated on Bay Street). It was destroyed by fire in 1905.

The site in question, it bears mentioning, is the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide Streets. (You can find the exact coordinates here.)

Now I freaked out a little bit when I saw this plaque because it manages to combine so many of my favorite things in one slab of granite: old time moving pictures, Dime Museums, the nascent years of the film industry, and yes, Canada. Without Canada, we'd have no Mary Pickford or Marie Dressler, and at least one of my screenplays would never have been written (it's a high concept comedy that has them solving murder mysteries, it's great... and yet-to-be-optioned, FYI!). Incidentally, the website Toronto Plaques is amazing; it'll also lead you straight to a Mary Pickford plaque if you want to make a day of it.

A little more research yielded this little bit of insight about the Vitagraph's earliest uses in Canada, from the website Kinema, a superb resource from the University of Waterloo:

"The sole right for exhibiting the Vitascope in Canada was secured by the Holland brothers of Ottawa, as agents for Raff and Gammon, the American Vitascope promoters. The scheme devised for marketing called for the selling of franchises of Thomas Armat's Vitascope (not Edison's, since Armat had allowed Raff and Gammon to use the Edison label strictly for commercial expediency). For an initial advance payment, an agent could purchase the exclusive rights to the Vitascope for a state or group of states giving the person [or persons] the right to lease projectors (for US $25 to $50 monthly per machine) and buy, of course, Edison films. The manner and location of the exhibitions were left entirely to the franchise holder. Agents could exploit the Vitascope themselves, or, as Raff and Gammon repeatedly pointed out in their correspondence, the territories could be further divided or sub-franchised."

I like the way this site gives credit to Thomas Armat for the Vitascope. (I guess it's too much for one historical plaque to get into!)

Robinson's had high aspirations to be a museum of the first water, with "nothing cheap except the prices:"

Something new in the line of amusements will be opened to the Toronto public on Wednesday next. The buildings at 91 and 93 Yonge street have been fitted up for Robinson's Musee Theatre. The entrance leads to the second floor, on which is a large hall containing wax works and tableaux, on the third floor is the art gallery, stereopticon views and curio halls, and on the fourth or top floor is the menagerie of living wild animals, aquarium and aviary. From the top floor the public will pass downstairs in the rear of the building to the theatre on the ground floor. The hall is being fitted handsomely and will have seating capacity for several hundred people... The theatrical attractions will be of high order and will be kept free from anything of objectionable character.

(The source Kinema credits for this quote is the Globe, Dec. 1, 1890, p. 8.)

The Toronto Daily Mail, December 2, 1890

 According to Kinema, the introduction of the Vitascope was all part of Robinson's plan to make the "Musee" seem fancy: the Vitascope, of course, was at the forefront of science and technology, educational, and edifying. I mean, come on, it "baffled analysis!"

Kinema has only teeny, tiny picture of what Robinson's Musee looked like:

Robinson's Musee at 91-93 Yonge Street

No word on the critical reaction of Torontonians to these initial short films, but I can only deduce from what the city has become that the moving pictures grew on them. (Admittedly, I am running out toe enjoy that other great Canadian pastime of drinking a few cold ones, so I don't have any more time for this post. But if you have any info, I'm all ears.)

So there you have it. My little bit of Canadiana on this fine July 1st!


Anne Roy said...

I hope the beer was nice & cold ... belated but Happy Canada Day to you ... was Dominion Day back in my day ...

Cdn Anne in England where it is raining ... blustery rain spattering about everywhere ...

Anne Roy said...

hurrah for Mary Pickford ... America's Sweetheart ... America being North America, Canada and the two smaller countries to the south. Who knows? she very well may have been a hit in South America.

She was also an excellent business woman, being one of the founders of United Artists.

Anne, Cdn in England who misses Toronto ...

Anne Roy said...

Ten cents could have bought a reasonable bag of grub back then so going to see a film was an event AND you got a sideshow ...

Anne Roy said...

So, where did you go to have your tipple?

I used to live about an hour from Toronto & spent many happy hours there, in bookshops and hanging around places on Queen Street ...

Cdn Anne in England

Anne Roy said...

Thanks for posting this ... I do miss Toronto (moved to England 18 years ago) ... I hope Queen Street is just as wonderful ...

Cdn Anne in England