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Going to the Show

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Early Film Exhibition in Wilmington: 1897-1906

Many larger cities in the U.S. had one or more vaudeville theaters in operation during the first decade of projected motion pictures (1896-1906). The vaudeville program of 8-12 independent ten-minute acts provided a convenient format in which short programs of movies could be presented each week. As a result, theater-goers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and other metropolitan centers regularly saw movies during this period.

There were no big cities in North Carolina at the turn of the century, however. Wilmington was the largest with some 21,000 residents, but the vast majority of North Carolinians lived outside of urban areas of any size. Furthermore, social practices in place across the South (including Wilmington) that excluded or marginalized theater attendance by African Americans effectively reduced the size of the overall theater audience in all Southern cities. In Wilmington, segregation excluded about fifty percent of all potential moviegoers.

Determining the frequency with which movies were exhibited in North Carolina cities prior to 1906 is difficult. Catching every instance of commercial film exhibition in a given city would require searching through every page of every issue of local newspapers for a ten-year period, looking for the small notices or ads that would have signaled and documented the visit of a traveling exhibitor. In some cases even this laborious research effort would not be possible because of incomplete runs of newspapers preserved on microfilm.

Theatrical activity in North Carolina was covered in nationally circulated theatrical newspapers, among them the New York Dramatic Mirror. This weekly publication included state-by-state reports on the previous month's theater business, as submitted by theater managers themselves. We searched all reported film exhibitions in North Carolina as listed in the New York Dramatic Mirror from 1896 to 1907 and incorporated what we learned into "Going to the Show." This research revealed what a theatrical backwater North Carolina was at the turn of the century, and how infrequently North Carolinians would have had an opportunity to see movies of any kind in local opera houses.

Theaters were not the only places white audiences would have experienced commercial entertainment at the turn of the century, and movies found their way into some of these non-theatrical venues in towns and cities across the state. Carnivals, street fairs, and agricultural shows were very popular and much-anticipated forms of popular entertainment. In Wilmington, one of the city's many social clubs, the Elks Club, sponsored an annual fair and carnival each fall. In 1901, for example, Front Street was lined with booths set up by local merchants, who also vied with each other to have the most elaborate window displays. A touring carnival, Bostock's Shows, was a part of the fair, which brought an assortment of human and animal attractions to Wilmington. These acts set up along the streets that intersected Front and Market streets in downtown Wilmington. At the corner of Front and Chestnut, Electra, the Flying Lady performed along with a dog, monkey, and pony show. At Front and Dock streets, Wilmingtonians could attend a movie show simply announced as "Edison's Picture Machine." The movies shared the corner with a snake show.

Prior to 1906, movies were sometimes part of the entertainment presented at recreational destinations established at the end of trolley or streetcar lines in North Carolina's larger cities. In Wilmington, summer recreation centered around the city's nearby beaches. In the summer of 1904, Simeon Schloss, manager of the Opera House, showed films at no charge at the Casino, a performance space associated with a hotel in Wrightsville Beach, a short streetcar ride from downtown Wilmington (Morey, 1996).

Wilmington's many social and fraternal organizations were important cultural institutions as well, sponsoring a wide variety of local entertainment events throughout the year: lectures, musical evenings, and dramatic offerings among them. As was the case with other social and cultural institutions in Wilmington at the time, there were separate clubs and organizations for white and black Wilmingtonians. Many of the white social and fraternal clubs had premises on the upper floors of downtown commercial buildlings. The Elks and Masons owned commercial buildings, leasing the ground floor shops, with meeting and entertainment spaces above. One movie exhibition is documented at a Wilmington fraternal order prior to 1906, which suggests that there might have been others. In February 1905, Percy Wells, who with James Howard would open Wilmington's first movie theater in December 1906, presented an exhibition of moving pictures before a "small but enthusiastic" young audience at the Jeff Davis Council of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. His wife, Alice Fisher, accompanied illustrated song slides and offered "serpentine and butterfly dances" as well. The performance was a charity event.

A fraternal organization's lecture hall might well have been the site of the first screening of motion pictures for an African American audience in Wilmington. In his book Strength Through Struggle, William Reaves notes that films were shown at Ruth Hall on March 11, 1902, to "a standing-room-only crowd." Ruth Hall was a three-story lodge building built at 401 S. Seventh Street in the late 1880s for the Wilmington Grand United Order of Odd Fellows and its women's organization, the Household of Ruth. Reaves notes that Ruth Hall was an important community center for African Americans in Wilmington. From the late 1880s until its demise in the 1940s, Ruth Hall hosted dances, concerts, and lectures, in addition to fraternal meetings. (Reaves 1998, p. 19.).

These recorded instances of movie shows in the lecture rooms of fraternal and social organizations in Wilmington suggest that there might well be other articles still waiting to be discovered in the pages of the Wilmington Star or which missed being captured in the Reaves Collection clippings from other newspapers.

Because of their importance as venues for a variety of cultural events, particularly in towns with few if any continuously operating commercial theaters or opera houses, social and fraternal organizations probably played a significant role in introducing movies in communities across the country. Kathryn Fuller's study of Cook and Harris, a traveling film exhibition company operating in New England in the early 1900s, shows that it eagerly sought the sponsorship and/or endorsement of fraternal organizations in the small towns and villages to which it traveled. During the 1906-07 season, twenty percent of the company's shows were sponsored by local fraternal organizations as fund-raising events. (Fuller 1996, p. 14).