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Lyman H. Howe Historical Marker
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Name:
Lyman H. Howe

Region:
Poconos / Endless Mountains

County:
Luzerne

Marker Location:
South River Rd. and South St., Wilkes - Barre

Dedication Date:
October 18, 2000

Behind the Marker

Poster depicting the phonograph demonstration on a stage with people sitting in an audience, and an advertisement.
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A poster for Howe's Wonderful Phonograph Concert: Edison Up To Date, circa 1893.
Invention works in marvelous ways. The early days of the movies form a fascinating laboratory for examining the way advancements in technology create new opportunities for business. In the mid-1890s, the movies were so new that even the most primitive movie theaters - the nickelodeons - were still a decade away. Where, then, and how to showcase the new medium? Within that question, Lyman Howe saw opportunity, and built himself a small empire.

Born in Wilkes-Barre in 1856, Lyman Hakes Howe, like so many of the early movie entrepreneurs, had only a smattering of formal education, and floated from odd job to odd job before stumbling on his calling. He learned his first important business lesson - the ways of the road - as a traveling salesman in the 1870s. Then, in 1883, he created his own path into the entertainment business - and his route to Lesson No. 2 - by purchasing a miniature working coal mine which he took on tour from town to town throughout coal country. Howe's combination of lecture and demonstration proved to be marketing genius that tapped into an important vein: the American desire to learn and be entertained simultaneously. And it was just a harbinger.

Lyman H. Howe Attractions, Festivals of Travel, playing the Principal Theaters of America. General Offices, 175-177 West River Street, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Includes an image of Lyman H. Howe that has a caption reading Travel with me. Different destinations are lightly faded into the background.
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Letterhead, Lyman H. Howe Attractions, Festivals of Travel, playing the Principal...
In 1890, Howe found a new mechanical marvel to bring to the masses - the Edison phonograph. For the next several years, he toured eastern Pennsylvania and its neighboring regions offering recorded concerts of music and speech in any gathering place video where he could get a booking. While the nation had no shortage of peripatetic showmen in the second half of the nineteenth century - the most famous, of course, was that master of hype, P. T. Barnum and his itinerant sideshow - Howe created a particularly dignified aura for his exhibitions. Billing himself as "Professor," he stressed the moral and enriching qualities of his presentations wherever he went. His strategy proved as reassuring as it was clever. Howe's self-styled "high class" imprimatur appealed to the wide range of high-brows, low-brows, and no-brows who could all feel better about themselves after an evening with Lyman Howe.

The advent of the movies in the mid-1890s presented a natural segue for Howe's "high class" formula. Though his first steps were bumpy, his own creativity opened the door. When he failed to secure a Kinetoscope territory from Thomas Edison - the great inventor held tight patents on his inventions and closely guarded their use - Howe built his own projector, the Animotiscope, which improved Edison's machine by adding a second reel, thus making longer showings possible. Using Edison films that he spliced together - and a phonograph to add sound - Howe successfully debuted his first motion picture show in video Wilkes-Barre in December of 1896.

Colorful film poster depicting an audience watching a movie in progress.
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Film poster, Lyman H. Howe's new marvels in moving pictures, circa 1898.
Soon, Howe had his own film company, exhibiting movies in church halls, community centers, legitimate theaters, and opera houses throughout the region. His "high class" programming featured primitive newsreels, local scenes, and travelogues that Howe supplemented with sound accompaniment on the phonograph - Howe was the first to use these mediums in tandem commercially - and his own spoken commentary. Audiences flocked to the shows. Howe evenings bore the aura of special events.

His "high class" approach immediately separated him from other early traveling exhibitors like the markerWarner Brothers, and he consistently sought ways of improving it. He added a backstage crew to provide sound effects including galloping hooves and sirens. He toured Europe to acquire more exotic footage for his travelogues. By 1901, he was shooting his own newsreels and travelogues with teams he would hire out across the country. All were industry firsts.

Howe's shows were so popular that he eventually had six different traveling companies based out of his Wilkes-Barre headquarters to video bring movies to the masses.With their images of American presidents (including Theodore Roosevelt's trip to Wilkes-Barre), European royalty, important events, and faraway ports of call, the shows had cachet. Howe carved out such a niche market that he still flourished even as the vast majority of his touring competitors went belly up when nickelodeons began dotting the landscape around 1905. Indeed, Howe's company was still very much in business when he died in 1923, and continued on as a commercial film laboratory and distributor of educational shorts into the Great Depression.
 
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