Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania Show Business
Pennsylvania Show Business
Chapter 2: Motion Pictures

"I am very doubtful there is any commercial future in it, and fear that they will not earn their cost. These Zoë tropic devices are too sentimental a value to get the public to invest in."

Thomas Edison

Image of the entrance of the Nickelodeon Theater.
Entrance to the Harris nickelodeon, Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, PA., 1919.
In the 1800s, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean became fascinated with the idea of creating pictures that moved. In the 1880s Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins teamed with San Francisco photographer Eadweard Muybridge to produce rapid shots of people and horses in motion, including multiple exposures of Eakins running in the nude. In 1891 the indomitable Thomas Edison applied for patents on both a motion picture camera and projector, and although the Wizard of Menlo Park was at first skeptical about the commercial potential of the new technology, motion pictures soon exploded in popularity.

In 1903 Edison cameramanmarkerEdwin Porter, of Connellsville, PA, directed the world's first "story film," splicing together more than twenty separate indoor and outdoor shots in his path-breaking films video The Great Train Robbery and The Life of an American Fireman. Five years later, Edison created the Motion Picture Patents Company, which monopolized the production of motion pictures in the United States. Edison's Trust, however, was soon challenged by William, Fox, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, and other independents, many of whom got their start in the motion picture industry as theater owners. One of the most successful of Edison's early competitors was Philadelphia optician turned filmmaker markerSiegmund Lubin, who in the early 1900s built one of the nation's largest film production companies and theater chains, making movies at his 500-acre Betzwood Studios in Valley Forge.

Artist's Sketch Showing Detail of Exterior Architecture and Lighting.
Artist's Sketch of the Mastbaum Theatre, Motion Picture News, December 29,...
The new business of "canned drama" quickly emerged into a major international industry. Mass production made motion pictures much cheaper than live performances. To get its product to consumers, the new industry also required first regional and then national systems of distribution and sale. In the 1890s, "Professor" markerLyman Howe of Wilkes-Barre moved into the new film business by offering "high-class" programs of primitive newsreels, local scenes, and travelogues that he accompanied with sound from phonograph recordings. Soon Howe's six companies were carrying films, some produced by his own film company, to towns throughout northeastern Pennsylvania.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Pittsburgh was a booming industrial metropolis. And there in 1905 John Harris and Harry Davis partitioned off part of their penny arcade and charged a nickel for entrance into what may well have been the nation's first theater devoted exclusively to the showing of motion pictures. Soon "nickelodeons," a term coined in Pittsburgh, were popping up across the nation. In Youngstown, Ohio, butcher Ben Warner sold his store horse so that his sons could buy a Kinetoscope projector to show films in western Pennsylvania coal and steel towns. ThemarkerWarner Brothers soon opened a 99-seat theater in the steel town of New Castle, and then moved to Pittsburgh, where they started a regional film distribution company. From there they moved into film production first in New York and then Hollywood, founding one of the nation's largest and most successful motion picture companies.

Exterior of theater with sign that has stopped screening "The Ramparts We Watch."
Closing of The Ramparts We Watch by the Pennsylvania Censor Board, Harrisburg,...
As the motion pictures grew in popularity, storefront nickelodeons gave way to motion picture palaces. And once again Pennsylvanians were in the forefront. In 1908 door-to-door salesman Samuel "Roxy" Rothapfel opened a nickelodeon in the backroom of a saloon in Forest City, PA. Thirty years later Rothapfel owned a chain of theaters that included some of the nation's largest motion picture palaces, and managed New York's Radio City Music Hall, the nation's largest theater.

To appeal to its primarily urban and working-class audiences, the early filmmakers made movies filled with romance, sexual titillation, slapstick humor, satires of the rich and powerful, and other popular fare. Convinced from the start that motion pictures were a menace to the nation's morals, critics organized their opposition. In 1911 Pennsylvania became the first state to pass a film censorship law. First led by its influential secretary marker Ellis P. Oberholtzer, the Pennsylvania Board of Motion Picture Censors rejected hundreds of films, and required the editing and removal of hundreds of scenes, including pictures and captions dealing with a coal strike.

Image of Lorenzo Tucker in a tuxedo, wearing a top hat and holding a cane.
African-American film star Lorenzo Tucker, "The Black Valentino," in 1932.
The critics, however, could do little to hold back Americans' love affair with the movies, or young Pennsylvanians' desires to direct films and appear on the silver screen. markerTom Mix, one of the most popular cowboy stars of the silent screen, was born and raised in Cameron County. Mahanoy City's markerVictor Schertzinger achieved success both as a Hollywood composer and film director. Windber's markerJohnny Weissmuller parlayed his celebrity as an Olympic gold medallist in swimming at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics into a Hollywood career as "Tarzan" in a string of successful films. In the 1930s Philadelphian Lorenzo Tucker became known as "The Colored Valentino" for his leading roles in the films of pioneering African American filmmaker Oscar Michaux. Pittsburgh song and dance man Gene Kelly's long career included his staring role in the beloved 1952 Hollywood musical Singin' in the Rain. One of fifteen children of Lithuanian immigrants, Ehrenfeld's Charles Bronson worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines before becoming an action adventure star in the 1960s.

From Philadelphia came siblings markerEthel, Lionel, and John Barrymore, who carried their extraordinary talents from the stage to the screen; singers Jeanette McDonald, Nelson Eddy, markerPearl Bailey, and markerMario Lanza, whose voices made them stars in both music and film; and the inimitablemarkerW.C. Fields, the curmudgeonly comic actor who in the end decided he would rather be in Philadelphia. The epitome of American grace and beauty in the early 1950s, Philadelphia's Grace Kelly would win an Academy Award in 1955, and then leave Hollywood at the height of her career to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.

Princess Grace and Gene Kelly, 1961.
Grace Kelly and Gene Kelly meet in Monaco, January ,1961.
After a series of financial disasters forced Lubin in 1914 to close his Betzwood and Philadelphia operations, Pennsylvania lost its only major film production company. But in the decades that followed, filmmakers continued to use Pennsylvania stories and locations for their motion pictures. markerJimmy Stewart, the all-American hero from Indiana, PA, won an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story in 1940. Filmed on a shoestring budget in Chester Springs, The Blob (1958) became a cult classic, as did George Romero's breakthrough horror film Night of the Living Dead produced in Pittsburgh a decade later.

A movie poster depicting the Blob creature devouring a diner, while onlookers scream in terror.
Film poster of The Blob, 1958.
With its gritty urban neighborhoods, historic landscapes, and low cost of production, Pennsylvania in the late 1900s attracted a growing number of filmmakers. The Molly Maguires was filmed in Eckley in 1970; Rocky (1976) made Philadelphia an attractive location for feature films and television series; Slap Shot (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978) drew Hollywood to western Pennsylvania, and Witness (1985) placed Harrison Ford among the Lancaster County Amish. To attract more filmmakers, Governor Milton Shapp established the Pennsylvania Film Office.

Philadelphia in 1985 and Pittsburgh in 1990 also established film offices that facilitated the production of dozens of feature films, and a smaller number of network television series. In 1994 Philadelphia became the only major studio film to be shot entirely in Philadelphia. Both Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen won Oscars for their work in it. Founded in 1991, the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema emerged as a major national festival. In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense earned seven Oscar nominations. Since then, Shamayalan, who was raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley, has based his production company in Conshohocken, giving the Commonwealth its first major film production company since the collapse of the Lubin Films in 1914.

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