Going to the cinema remains a popular activity today, despite the growth in technology and the home cinema experience. With amazing surround sound, a bucket of popcorn and a bag of pick ‘n’ mix, nothing can beat the excitement of seeing the latest blockbuster on the big screen.
People have been enjoying a night out at the cinema for more than 120 years, with historians agreeing that the world’s first cinema was the Berlin Wintergarten in Germany, where the Skladanowsky brothers presented a silent film in 1895.
In June 1894, American cinema pioneer, Charles Francis Jenkins, is documented as having screened a silent film of vaudeville stars to family and friends, but it was the Skladanowsky brothers who launched the world’s first movie-theatre with paying customers.
The first cinema in the UK was the Polytechnic Institute on Regent Street, London, where the Lumière brothers’ innovative device, the Cinématographe, made its debut on 21st February 1896.
In America, the first cinema to host paying customers was Koster and Bial’s Music Hall on 34th Street, New York. Inventor Thomas Edison began public showings of his films using the Vitascope projector on 23rd April 1896. A dedicated cinema called Vitascope Hall then opened on Canal Street, New Orleans, on 26th July 1896.
Magic lantern shows
The history of cinema is fascinating, since it has been through so many changes and technical innovations during the past century.
The earliest films were magic lantern shows in the mid-1890s – or stereopticon shows, as they were called in America. As the forerunner to modern movies, they were a combination of projected images, live music and live narration. Very popular in the late 19th century, particularly in the United States, there were an estimated 60,000 magic lantern shows in existence.
They could be described as the Victorian equivalent of the Discovery Channel, in that they were usually factual shows, relating to subjects of popular interest such as travel, art and science. They were presented using photographic lantern slides, which audiences found interesting and exciting in the 1890s.
At the same time, silent films were in their infancy, beginning in around 1894 and continuing until 1929. Silent movies were first made in Hollywood, France and Germany, but unfortunately, few of the early films have survived.
The actors conveyed the dialogue by miming and using exaggerated gestures, while the words appeared on static title cards, including dialogue and written descriptions of the plot.
When the film was shown at the cinema, it was accompanied live by a pianist, an organist, or sometimes by a whole orchestra in the larger cinemas in the city. The musicians played from sheet music or improvised, making sure the music matched the action.
Silent movies began to be phased out in the late 1920s as the new “talkies” (films with their own audio soundtrack) were launched. The first big budget film with a soundtrack synchronised to the action was Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927.
Some of the biggest silent film stars weren’t massive fans of the talkies, such as British-born Charlie Chaplin, who continued to produce silent films during the 1930s, including City Lights in 1931, followed by Modern Times in 1936.
As the films became more sophisticated, so did the cinemas, as a night at the movies had become big business for the owners of the venues.
It became apparent that as more people went to the cinema, the interior climate was very important, as nobody wanted to sit in a packed auditorium in stifling heat.
In the United States, the first air-conditioned cinema was the Rivoli Theatre in Times Square, New York, where Willis Carrier installed a “refrigerating plant” in 1925. This was the start of a new era of summer entertainment, in a comfortable, controlled, cool temperature.
Summertime box office receipts were usually better in cinemas offering “air-conditioned comfort” in the 1920s, compared with those that didn’t boast the latest in technology.
An early advertisement for the Rivoli said $100,000 had been spent on the “refrigeration plant” to keep cinema-goers cool when the world outside was “sweltering”. When the Rivoli launched its new system, the cinema was packed, as customers wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Even Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, was in the audience. As the temperature dropped when the air conditioning kicked in, customers put their fans away and settled down to enjoy the movie. Afterwards, Zukor proclaimed that people were going to like air conditioning.
More than 300 cinemas had air conditioning by 1930 and many hung a banner in a prominent spot, advertising that they were “cooled by refrigeration”.
Air conditioning also assisted the development of the “talkies”, as the Hollywood sound studios could keep the windows and doors closed during filming, thus eliminating outside noise. The cast and crew were still able to keep cool, despite California’s hot climate.
During World War II, the cinema embraced a new and important role. American president Franklin Roosevelt told Hollywood to carry on doing what it did best: making motion pictures. He urged the film studios to increase public awareness and support for the war effort.
The studios produced far more than propaganda films – they “emotionalised” the conflict, with plenty of what we would call “feel good” films today. Both in the US and the UK, the films were screened to appeal to civilian and military audiences, to help boost morale.
British Pathé newsreels kept the public informed about the war effort, without revealing any information that would endanger national security. It was all about broadcasting positive news and boosting flagging spirits.
Some of Britain’s best-known World War II films were produced by documentary-maker Humphrey Jennings, whose trilogy (Fires Were Started, Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy) were hugely popular.
The cinema provided the only visual record of what was happening, and the Ministry of Information recognised its importance and pledged to keep Britain’s 4,000 cinemas open.
The Ministry of Information’s Crown Film Unit produced documentaries, dramas, comedies and cartoons, telling people what they should do to help the war effort – such as make do and mend, keep mum and grow your own. In total, they made around 2,000 public information films that are now stored at the British Film Institute in London.
The cinema enjoyed many changes in the 20th century. The first official drive-in cinema was opened by Richard Hollingshead on 6th June 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. Cinema-goers paid 25 cents per car and an additional 25 cents per person to see the comedy, Wives Beware.
An auto parts salesman, Hollingshead had conceived the idea in 1928 because his mother was too large to fit in a regular cinema seat. His first drive-in cinema was in his own garden, where he put a projector on the roof of the car and projected the film on to sheets tied to trees! Outdoor cinemas soon became big business.
Another innovation of the 20th century was 3D movies. They have become quite commonplace now at multiplex cinemas, especially for the big budget action and adventure films.
Although motion picture pioneers such as English inventor William Friese-Greene experimented with 3D film-making in the early 20th century, the technique didn’t rise to prominence until the 1950s. In 1952, the first major release in 3D was the action adventure based on a true story about man-eating lions in Africa, Bwana Devil.
Other 3D films followed, such as the horror film House of Wax in 1953, starring Vincent Price, which was also the first film with stereophonic sound. While many critics declared 3D was a “flash in the pan”, on the contrary, it has continued to be popular into the 21st century.
Today, most of us take it for granted that a trip to the cinema means watching a film with HD images and high-quality surround sound, in a well-ventilated, pleasantly air-conditioned climate. It’s all thanks to the pioneers of cinema over the past 120 years that we can enjoy such an awesome all-round experience.
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