Friday, February 1, 2019

Edison’s Black Maria—First Film Studio Building

Edison's tar paper shack the Black Maria was the first structure built as a film production studio shown with it's hinged roof open to provide light for shooting.

On February 1, 1893 Thomas Edison completed construction of what was the world’s first film production studio building to accommodate making product for his new money-making project—ultimately the public exhibition of films employing his recently patented Kinetoscope.  The building, literally a tar paper shack on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, was nearly as innovative as the camera and exhibition equipment it was meant to accommodate. 
Maybe more so since Edison had no more than broadly conceived the devices and left development to his employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson who had returned from the  Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 and incorporated advanced features of systems developed in France by  Étienne-Jules Marey and Charles-Émile Reynaud.  In his patent applications and the intense publicity campaigns that followed, Edison, true to form, took sole credit.
The building—more of a shed, actually—was slapped together on a wood frame, its exterior walls and ceiling covered in black tar paper.  A slanting roof over the filming chamber was hinged and could be raised to admit sunlight, necessary because none of Edison’s electric lights were bright enough to accommodate indoor filming.  The whole thing was built on a turn table so that the open roof could catch the light of the sun all day as it moved across the sky.
Construction had begun in mid-December of 1892 and did not take long taking into account interruptions for normal New Jersey winter.  Edison’s meticulous records show that it cost a grand total of $637.67 to build.  That’s about $15,275 in current dollars or roughly the cost of a home garage

A Harper's  Weekly illustration shows filming in the studio.  The Kinetograph camera is in the box.  An Edison cylinder Gramaphone provides music for the performers.
It was an uncomfortable place to work.  Cold and drafty—virtually unheatable when the roof was raised—in the winter and a stuffy, sweltering hot box in the steamy summers.  Officially Edison named the building the Kinetographic Theater although no films were ever exhibited there.  Informally he called it the Doghouse.  The underpaid employees who worked in it uncomfortably in had an even less flattering name—the Black Maria, after a common nickname for a police patrol or Paddy wagon.
Production began almost immediately on short—a few seconds to just over a minute long—films intended not yet for commercial exhibition but for publicity purposes to whet the public’s appetite.  Edison had no thought of trying to tell stories. For him the thrill would be in simply the novelty of seeing photographic images move.
Edison had already demonstrated short films he had shot outdoors.  In May he demonstrated film produced in the Black Maria for the first time at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.  The public could view—one at a time—a clip of three men pretending to be blacksmiths—by peering into the eye piece of a Kinetoscope machine.
Dickson was placed in charge of production at the studio.  In August of 1893 he sent the first film to the Library of Congress for copyright protection—a few second of Edison employee Fred Ott sneezing.  This was also a promotional film and stills from it were published in Harper’s Weekly accompanied by a suitably breathless article on Edison’s latest triumph.
When the Holland Brothers agreed to exhibit Edison’s product at their Kinetoscope Parlor at 1155 Broadway in New York City, production ramped up of clips for commercial exhibition.  Among the earliest efforts which we loaded into two rows of five Kinetoscopes included titles such as Barber Shop, Blacksmiths, Cock Fight, Wrestling, and Trapeze.  500 patrons plucked down 25 cents to view the marvels on opening day, April 14, 1894.

A Kinetoscope Parlor in San Francisco.  Customers could view different very short films at each of the machines.
The idea caught on and more Kinetoscope Parlors were opened in cities across the country.  Over the next few years Edison would churn out hundreds of short films, both actualities filmed on the street of daily life and clips made in the Black Maria.  Edison invited a parade of dancers, jugglers, circus performers, boxers and wrestlers, vaudeville and Broadway stars to make the trek out to New Jersey.  Many were flattered and others took advantage of the publicity associated with having their name attached to the latest fad.  Several performers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show including Annie Oakley herself and Sioux Ghost Dancers were filmed.
Other famous films included the Butterfly Dance by Annabelle Whitford which was enhanced by hand tinting and The Kiss featuring plump Broadway stars Mary Irwin and John Rice

The Kiss, Edison sells sex in 1896.  Naturally it was his biggest Kintoscope hit.
In 1901 Edison allowed, somewhat reluctantly, the exhibition of his films by projection on a screen in Oberlin, Ohio.  As usual, the French had beaten him to it and he was worried that they would enter the American market so he developed his own projection system.  The innovation made Kinetoscope Parlor obsolete almost overnight.  To accommodate demand for production suited for the screen, Edison made his first film with a plot, The Great Train Robbery in 1903 in the process inventing the western movie and creating the first movie star, Bronco Billy Anderson.
The Black Maria was rendered obsolete for production for the screen.  Edison built a new glass roofed studio in New York and abandoned the old shed in 1901, shortly after the first screenings.  The building was unsentimentally razed in 1903 and its lumber recycled for other use at the laboratory complex.

The second reproduction of the Black Maria is on display at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park on the grounds of the inventor/entrepreneur's New Jersey laboratories,
It was recreated in 1938 for the movie Edison, the Man starring Spencer Tracy and re-erected on the Laboratory ground near the original site.  The National Park Service, which maintains what is now the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, has since built and maintains a replacement reproduction.

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