Historical Markers
Siegmund Lubin Historical Marker
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Siegmund Lubin

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
21 S. 8th St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
May 6, 1994

Behind the Marker

Betzwood studio in 1915, showing glass studio, 2 dark studios and western street scene in the background.
Interior of the Lubinville factory, 20th and Indiana Streets, Philadelphia,...
The dawn of the movie business bore all the markings of a Wild West land rush. Opportunity lay out there - somewhere - if you just had the ability to see it. Siegmund Lubin had a particular gift for sight. An optician by training, he had an edge there, but it's what he did with what he saw and the way he saw that evolved his vision into visionary. Lubin truly imagined, then made real, what a far-reaching enterprise the movie industry would one day become.

Like so many of that new industry's pioneers, his story begins on the other side of the Atlantic. Born Siegmund Lubszynski, he grew up on the Jewish streets of Breslau in what was then Prussia, now Poland, before immigrating to America at the age of twenty-five in 1876. After eight years of combing his new homeland as a salesman, a prospector, and a vaudeville comic, he finally set down roots in Philadelphia, married, and, in 1885, opened his first optical shop, at 237 N. 8th Street, before moving to larger quarters at 21 S. 8th Street five years later.

Lubin Nickelodeon on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.
Lubin Nickelodeon on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA., circa 1907.
His interest in lenses quickly broadened to photography, and after witnessing a demonstration of Eadweard Muybridge's primitive moving pictures, it widened to embrace the movies, as well. He bought a movie camera in 1896, and began making his own simple movies - not thrillers by today's standards, but films nonetheless - one of his daughter's pillow fight, another of his horse munching hay. The next year, he built, patented, and marketed his first projector - the Cineograph.

Meanwhile, he continued to shoot as much film as he could, teaching himself composition and story, and learning just what a camera could do. He filmed comic shorts, street scenes, and, most notably, a re-creation of the heavyweight championship bout in Nevada between Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. Shot in his backyard with a couple of burly railroad men as stand-ins, its very flim-flammery presaged the master showman Lubin would turn into. The next year, he audaciously re-enacted Spanish-American war scenes in Fairmont Park, and filmed, and acted in, a version of the famed Oberammergau Passion Play.
<i>The Stroke Oar,</i> Siegmund Lubin poster, 1912.
Film poster for The Stroke Oar produced by Lubin Films, 1912.
All of which was prelude to the movie factory he was about to become, and the arduous battle he would have to wage - against no less a national figure than Thomas Edison - to keep his cameras rolling.

Even as Lubin, Edison, and several other pioneering companies ceaselessly battled one another over patent infringement for the next decade, Lubin set about creating the model for what would evolve into such vertically integrated movie powers as Columbia, MGM, and Paramount, powerful studios that oversaw all aspects of the business from idea to exhibition.

The Philadelphia-based Lubin Films - its logo was the Liberty Bell and its slogan, a boast of quality, was "Clear as a Bell" - did just that, billing itself "The World's Largest Manufacturer of Life Movies"; from beneath its enormous glass roof, it produced and distributed its own films, and manufactured movie equipment. By 1899 the company was also exhibiting movies. Lubin soon had theaters in Chicago, Buffalo, and Baltimore, and beyond forming the base of a chain that eventually linked more than 100 screens. So what kind of films did "The World's Largest Manufacturer" manufacture? Anything and everything.

Lubin Film Company, Betzwood studio depicting a western town movie set, 1917.
A western town set at the Lubin Film Company's Betzwood studio, 1917.
Like all movie pioneers, Lubin was feisty and feeling his way, learning the technology and trying to gauge what the public wanted to see. He continued recreating prizefights and began dispatching crews to shoot documentaries. He even experimented - unsuccessfully - with sound. As narrative films gained popularity, Lubin became notorious for remaking other's successes, including a blatant 1904 rip-off of markerEdwin S. Porter's groundbreaker, The Great Train Robbery.

But Lubin was no mere plagiarist. By the end of the first decade of the new century, he was filming a movie a day - crime tales, morality plays, comedies, stories with a psychological edge, westerns, using outdoor locations like the Swedish Log Cabin; and stories ripped from the headlines, including a retelling of the scandalous murder of architect Stanford White. He also understood that films could make important statements; he tapped into his own Jewish roots, most notably in Yiddisher Boy (1908), which he directed himself, in a series of pictures designed to combat anti-Semitism. Indeed, Lubin never forgot his origins; he was instrumental in helping the early careers of such future movie moguls-to-be as Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn, and the Warner brothers. On the other hand, he was not above exploiting racial stereotypes in his popular series of "Rastus" comedy shorts and the 1915 ethnic satire Coon Town Suffragettes.

"Pop" Lubin seated in midst of his Mispocha on occasion of his birthday, April 20, 1912.
Siegmund "Pop" Lubin seated in midst of his mispocha on occasion of his 61st...
In 1910, Lubin moved into expansive modern headquarters in North Philadelphia - marker Lubinville - with the world's most powerful indoor lighting system and a stage large enough for five crews to shoot simultaneously. Two years later, he converted the 500-acre Betzwood estate in Valley Forge into an even grander studio with room to shoot both indoors and out. He would soon open studios in Jacksonville, Fla., Los Angeles, and Berlin, Germany, employing, at his zenith, more than 2,000 actors, directors, writers, and technicians - among them such future stars as Oliver Hardy, Pearl White, and Alan Hale, and directors Frank Borzage and King Vidor.

Neither his studio - nor his fame - lasted, however. In 1914, an explosion and fire in the film vault at Lubinville destroyed most of his negatives. A year later he shuttered Jacksonville, and the year after that, facing heavy debts, sold his Los Angeles studio, and lost Lubinville and Betzwood to creditors. By 1917, he had returned to his old optical shop, and in 1923, Lubin died, largely forgotten by the industry he had helped create.
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