Early silent movies awed local audiences

This photograph shows the remodeled interior of the Orpheum Theater at 620 Hampshire, which opened on Christmas Eve 1914 as Quincy’s first venue to regularly present movies. By that time, they had replaced live theater, vaudeville, and burlesque as the most popular local entertainment.

Thomas Edison believed his invention in 1888 of a motion picture camera and seven years later a “kinetograph,” which projected these pictures onto a surface, novelties without practical uses. Soon, though, “moving pictures” dazzled people around the world by presenting a dynamic way to view images.

In December 1896, the Empire Theater on Eighth and Maine streets in Quincy — a venue for live theater, vaudeville, and burlesque performances since soon after the Civil War — showed a brief moving picture of German soldiers galloping on horses and brandishing sabers. “Movies,” as they were later called, consisted simply of recorded images like these rather than those crafted into coherent stories.

The Orpheum and Bijou Theaters in Quincy offered moving pictures as a side attraction to live productions, but as technology developed “Nickelodeons” created a sensation. Several of these small theaters started business in town, and their weekly attendance rose to an estimated eight to nine thousand. Trick photography pictures proved the most popular, followed by comedy and westerns. Before long, moving pictures started competing with other forms of entertainment, and their lower prices and flexible show times heightened appeal.

For use by a single viewer, engineers redesigned kinetographs into kinetoscopes, colloquially called “peep shows,” and they sprang up across Quincy and increased exposure to this new medium. Peep shows could be found in businesses, lodges and even the Adams County Courthouse.

Hailed as the first moving picture to have a story line, “The Great Train Robbery” mesmerized audiences in Quincy and around the world. Here and elsewhere, people not used to illusions of reality screamed and ducked for cover when the train appeared to rush headlong off the screen and into the theater. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for over two decades one of the most popular local live theater productions, premiered here as a film in 1904 and received rave reviews.

Although considered “silent,” early moving pictures had live piano or organ and sometimes singing accompaniment. This would change in 1926 when Lee DeForest invented a technique to splice sound directly onto film, ushering in the era of “talkies.” As early as 1909, though, Quincy’s Bijou Theater advertised “Talking Pictures” made from playing film on one reel and recorded sound on another and attempting to synchronize them.

Many municipalities-imposed age limits on attendance to moving pictures, but Quincy did not. Local burlesque shows — with children often in the crowd — had been popular since the 1870s and usually featured scantily-clad women on stage. While burlesque (and minstrel) did not arouse public indignation, moving picture portrayal of showgirls in “Ziegfeld Follies” provoked outcries of “immorality” and “sinfulness” from some community members. A Censor Board of Pictures with the mission of “securing for Quincy the cleanest of pictures” formed and existed for a few years, but without policing power did little to limit the offering of shows.

Educators remained divided about the instructive versus corrupting value of moving pictures. Some saw them as good teaching tools which provided images that had before only been visualized. Others argued that they fostered “lazy pupils,” like those who read comic books instead of their texts. The Quincy Daily Herald serialized an abridged version of Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Three Musketeers” for its young readers and asked them to “read the story, see the picture.”

Churches were equally divided. Evangelists like the Rev. E. A. Lacour of Quincy’s Kentucky Street Methodist Episcopal Church railed against the “theater habit” and compared it to the evils of dancing, tobacco, and liquor. The Christian Endeavor Union proposed a state-wide ban on “demoralizing” scenes ranging from elopements to robberies to prize fights and kissing or “spooning” by anyone but relatives or married couples.

The Western Catholic Union, though, hosted a “Strawberry and Picture Day” for children at St. Mary Church, and St. Francis Solanus Church presented moving pictures of the European conflict that would eventually lead to World War I. Many local churches endorsed the showing of “Open Your Eyes” about the dangers of venereal disease, a scourge that sometimes proved fatal in an era before penicillin.

By the summer of 1907, Quincy had nine theaters devoted exclusively to moving pictures. Soon the largest venue in the city, the Empire, changed its name to Hippodrome and stopped presenting live theater and musicals and only offered “movies” — the new epithet for moving pictures.

The city of Quincy entered movies in 1911 when the Selig Polyscope Company filmed 10,000 yards of the Gem City in their production showcasing construction of Keokuk’s Mississippi River Power Company Dam. This film played across the country highlighting hydroelectric work on the river and brought an economic boon to Quincy.

Promoters billed D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie “Birth of a Nation” as “historical cinema” and “American’s first epic film.” President Woodrow Wilson praised the movie at a White House showing declaring, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” People willing to pay a dollar (the equivalent of $25 in today’s currency) lined up outside Quincy theaters.

Civil War Union Veterans of Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy and the local Censor Board condemned “Birth of a Nation’s” sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as upholding Southern morality by protecting the purity of white women against the threat of former black slaves. Quincy Mayor William K. Abbott, though, failed to see any objections to the movie.

Motion pictures had become a mainstay in most people’s lives by 1920, and rarely had someone reached old age without having seen one. During that year’s Christmas season, Frank Anerino, a well-known movie projectionist, showed a film to elderly residents of the Anna Brown Home, the first ever for most of them. The local Congregational Church ran the facility and its pastor, Rev. E. A. Thompson, chose “Satan’s Schemes.” This movie stunned the audience and riveted them in their seats, bringing, in the words of a staff member, “Christmas cheer and an unforgettable experience.”

Sources

“The Censors of Pictures.” Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 20, 1915, 2.

“Censorship Board Holds a Session.” Quincy Daily Whig, Nov. 27, 1913, 2.

“Dancing, Theater and Tobacco Habit Hit By Evangelist.” Quincy Daily Herald, March 28, 1921, 3.

“First Movies in Quincy Just 20 Years Ago.” Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 20, 1916, 6.

“Had Never Seen a Moving Picture.” Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 27, 1920, 4.

Kornhaber, Donna. Silent Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2020.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1964, pp. 248-59.

“Quincy in the Films.” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 23, 1911, 3.

“Read the Story, See the Picture.” Quincy Daily Herald, April 17, 1914, 7.

“Talking Pictures, Moving Pictures.” Quincy Daily Herald, July 26, 1909, 9.

Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been widely published as a contributor to literary magazines, as a correspondent for Catholic Times, and for the past 23 years as a writer for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has logged more than 10,000 miles on bicycles in his life.

The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving local history. This column’s authors are society members and historians. The Herald-Whig’s website, whig.com, carries each column and includes sources. For information visit hsqac.org or call 217-222-1835.

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