When Edison announced that he could record and reproduce human speech, he met with inculity. Eminent authorities, including French scientist Sainte Claire de Ville, upon reading announcements of the talking machine, pronounced it a fraud and a hoax perpetrated by a concealed ventriloquist; a total phoney. Either Thomas Edison's reputation for chicanery had preceded him, or there existed conceptual barriers that made the feat seem more difficult than it actually was the very first motion picture studio in America opened in December, 1892, and at a cost a sum of $637.67 to build! Thomas Edison, had built the unwieldy gizmo himself named it: "The Kinetographic Theatre!" But it was known far and wide by it’s more descriptive moniker, the “Black Maria!”
It was in the Black Maria that some of the first movies in the United States were filmed. They were short productions, none of them exceeding about 30 seconds. The films were designed to be shown in the Kinetoscope, a peep show device. The patron would drop a nickel in a slot, peer through a magnifying glass, and view a bit of action! A kind of segmentation of a vaudeville act, a smidgen of a Broadway play, a magician’s trick, or the turn of a dancer!
Tar Papered Black Maria!
The movie clattered through the upright wooden contraption on a 50-foot continuous loop of 35mm film. The films, of course, were silent. The tar-papered Black Maria was the colour of a police paddy wagon, hence its nickname. It was even painted black on the inside. Part of its roof opened on hinges to allow the sun to shine upon the shooting stage. Sunlight was the only light source strong enough to register an image on the slow film emulsion of the day. If the sun happened to be on an inconvenient side of the Black Maria, the building was simply rotated on casters to face in the proper direction. The picture shooting stage was just about 12 feet square. Facing the stage was a huge wooden camera officially called the “Kinetograph.” Edison called it “The Doghouse.!
Library of Congress!
Indeed, it could have served such a purpose if the camera mechanism had been removed! The camera was exceptionally large indeed, as a matter of fact, it took two insuperable strong arm muscle men to manhandle it! For this reason, it was never removed from the building and always pointed in one direction. If a close shot was needed, the subjects simply moved toward the camera! Both the Kineto-
graph and the Kinetoscope were patented in 1891. Ironically, the earliest surviving paper print submitted to the Library of Congress by Edison was not intended to be shown in the Kinetoscope. This was a five-second snippet entitled the “Edison Kinetoscope Recorded A Sneeze,” which was known as “the F Ott’s Sneeze.” Ott was an Edison employee who amused his co-workers with outrageous exhibitions of comic sneezing and Heise put the resident clown to work. “Harper’s Weekly” needed a series of pictures of someone sneezing, so Heise filmed Ott expectorating in front of The Doghouse and chose the best frames for publication! Next chapter, something quite different!