Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Opera House (aka: Academy of Music, Thalian Hall, City Hall)
first film screening: March 15, 1897; still operating 2009

Designed by architect John M. Trimble of New York, the Wilmington Opera House was the result of an unusual arrangement between a local amateur theater group and the municipal government. In 1858, the Thalian Association owned the site on North Third Street, which it sold to the City of Wilmington with the understanding that half the purchase price would be used to build a new theater. The city would pay for the other half of the project: a new city hall, to occupy the other half of the structure.

Although many other opera houses occupied the same structure as civic or governmental buildings in towns and cities in North Carolina, none was as elaborate as Wilmington's Thalian Hall.

The first film screening in Wilmington, and possibly the first in North Carolina, occurred on March 15, 1897, at Wilmington's Academy of Music, which was located in the same building as the Wilmington City Hall at 114 N. Third Street.

The week beginning Monday, March 15, 1897, the Opera House hosted the visit of Edison's projectoscope, presenting "life sized animated pictures." Prices for the performance were ten, twenty, and thirty cents. Opera House manager Simeon Schloss reported that the traveling film exhibit drew "fair business" and "pleased audiences." (Morey 1996)

A brief notice in the Wilmington Star the day prior to the opening of the Projectoscope carried a letter from W.S. London, superintendent of schools in Bristol, Tennessee. This was obviously provided by the unnamed traveling exhibitor who toured with the projectoscope in order to promote its presentation in Wilmington. The letter mentions two films shown at the Opera House in Bristol on February 15, 1897: "The Mounted Police of New York City on Dress Parade," and "The Black Diamond Express." Each, says Mr. London, is "worth the price of admission."

"Mounted Police Charge" is preserved at the Library of Congress and is available for streaming/downloading

Both of these short films, lasting no more than a minute or so, were shot by James White for the Edison Company. In October 1896, Thomas Edison decided to sell prints of films rather than leasing films and projection equipment to a small group of license holders. He hired White to produce more films, and he began to submit films for copyright to try to protect against unauthorized duplication. Edison charged thirty-cents per foot for his films in 1896-97 (regardless of subject), meaning that a ten-minute program of brief films (1000 feet) could be purchased for approximately $300.

The "Mounted Police of New York City on Dress Parade," mentioned in the promotional notice for the first film showing in Wilmington (copyrighted as "Mounted Police Charge" on November 2, 1896) was one of several films White made of the New York Police. The half-minute film showed a company of mounted New York City police in full dress uniforms charging toward the camera, pulling up at the last moment to afford a view of the riders and their horses.

"The Black Diamond Express" was copyrighted on December 12, 1896. It was itself an imitation of an earlier film, "Empire State Express," made by one of Edison's early competitors, the Biograph Company, in the summer of 1896. Both films showed an express train rushing toward the camera, which was placed beside the tracks and filmed the locomotive as it hurtled past. The Black Diamond Express was a state-of-the-art locomotive that ran between New York and Buffalo. Called "the handsomest train in the world," it averaged forty-four miles per hour. Such express train films, which gave the illusion of being in the path of a speeding locomotive, were very popular during the first year or two of film exhibition in the U.S. Indeed, Edison had the "Black Diamond Express" remade in April 1897.

The second "Black Diamond Express" is preserved at the Library of Congress and is available for streaming/downloading

The projectoscope (also called the projecting kinetoscope) was a movie projector that Thomas Edison began selling in late 1896, primarily to traveling exhibitors. Costing $100, it was within reach of many show business entrepreneurs, and a number of traveling movie exhibitors had begun playing opera houses across the country by the time it arrived in Wilmington in mid-March. (Musser 1994, pp. 164-167)

A brief notice in the March 18, 1897, edition of the Wilmington Star reveals the name of the traveling movie company: the Maryland Projectoscope Company- and says that last night's performance occurred before a "large and well pleased audience."

Given the fact that this was, so far as can be determined, the first time Wilmingtonians had been able to see movies in their own city, press response to the exhibit is surprisingly limited and tepid. The first article devoted to the movies' debut in Wilmington (Wednesday, March 18, 1897) runs only fifty words. A dog and pony show, performing in a tent on Front Street near Church Street the same week, commanded the same admission price as the film program at the Opera House, and the paper devoted two articles to it, declaring it to be "a real novelty."

A single six-line notice in the Wilmington Star is the only record we have of African Americans' first experience of movies in Wilmington. On Saturday, March 20, 1897, the final day of the projectoscope's run at the Opera House, the following notice appears: "Owing to the great desire of our colored citizens to witness the 'Projectoscope' at the Opera House, the dress circle will be reserved for them to-night. The entire lower floor will be held for whites."

This notice suggests that the general racial admission policy at the Opera House was probably the exclusion of African Americans except for certain performances on certain days. Saturday, March 20, 1897, marks the first occasion on which African Americans were allowed to see movies only from the balcony of a theater. It would remain a common practice in Wilmington and many other towns and cities in North Carolina for another sixty years.

The Opera House also "accommodated" African Americans for other types of performances. The dress circle and gallery were set aside for black patrons when the " Georgia (colored) Minstrel Troupe" appeared at the Opera House later in 1897.

Between the time of this first recorded film exhibition in Wilmington in the spring of 1897 and the opening of the Bijou Theatre in December 1906, the Opera House was the principal place Wilmingtonians encountered motion pictures. Indeed, the opera house was the principal venue for commercial theatrical entertainment of any kind during this nine-year period. Without a vaudeville theater, however, local white residents lacked the regular opportunities to view films that had become common in larger cities. Given the Opera House's racial admission policy of excluding African Americans from most performances, it is likely that few of the more than 10,000 black Wilmingtonians- roughly half the city's population- would have seen a single film prior to 1906.

Movies were only a small and infrequent element in the mix of diverse entertainment forms that found their way onto the Opera House's stage. This was also the case in other North Carolina cities. We catch only faint and fleeting references to movie exhibitions at the Opera House in the pages of Wilmington's newspapers from the period.

Occasionally, movie exhibitions were featured attractions at the Opera House in the period from 1897 to 1906. For two nights In November 1897, for example, the Opera House presented films of a boxing match between James Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons that had been held in Nevada the previous March, giving Wilmingtonians a chance to see "the only authentic record, the Veriscope, showing the great gladiatorial contest."

It might seem odd that a theatrical program would consist of films of a boxing match that had been fought on the other side of the country half a year earlier. But this was no ordinary fight and a chance to see movies of it no ordinary occasion. Boxing had an enormous following in the U.S. in the 1890s, particularly among working class men in urban areas. The movies had sought to exploit this fascination with pugilism and pugilists from its earliest days. Prize fights- boxing matches for money- were illegal in every state in the U.S., however, so the only fights that could be held were exhibition matches where no money changed hands. This did not prevent boxing champions from becoming celebrities or making a living from boxing, however: they toured the country giving exhibits or performing in dramatic vehicles that provided ample opportunities for showing off their form in the ring.

In early 1897, retiring champion James Corbett was persuaded to fight Robert Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada (where prizefighting had been legalized for this match to boost the local economy). The "prize" was not only the winner's purse, but also a share in the revenues from the exhibition of films made of it. Simply put: the movies didn't so much record the fight as provide the primary reason to hold it. A new wide-screen film camera, the Veriscope, was developed to capture all the action and given the best viewing position. The fight attracted huge attention in the national press, and round-by-round summaries of the action were telegraphed to theaters in cities across the country. The film of the fight was released in May, and played for five weeks at the Academy of Music in New York City, and drew huge crowds at theaters in other metropolitan areas as well. In the fall, rights to take the film to smaller cities were sold, and the unnamed touring company that brought the fight film to Wilmington was one of a dozen in operation that November. (Musser 1990, pp. 198-200)

"The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight" (the title under which the film was copyrighted) brought boxing to an audience that would never have attended a live match. It and other fight films also helped to boost the popularity of movies. Rather than relying upon journalistic accounts of the action, fight films enabled audiences to see these "gladiatorial" contests for themselves. The Wilmington Star pointed out the unparalleled capacity of the movies to transport the audience to the event itself and immerse them in the experience: "You are actually sitting in the arena itself. You are the first to arrive. You see everybody who comes in, all the famous spectators who were there, where they sat, how they looked, what they did. You can see them chatting with one another, laughing, making notes, cheering . . . You behold the fight called, then each round as it is fought, with all the transpirings of the interludes, the world-famed knock-out blow, the look of agony on Corbett's face, and then the uproar of enthusiasm when Fitzsimmons is declared the victor."

The number of traveling film exhibitors increased markedly from 1903 to 1906, and this is reflected in the number of North Carolina opera houses reporting film exhibitions to the New York Dramatic Mirror during this period. One of the exhibitors to visit North Carolina cities most frequently was Archie Shepard, who started his own traveling movie company in late 1903. By the end of 1904, Shepard operated three companies, which toured theaters along the east coast. One of them played the Opera House (renamed the Academy of Music in 1902) in March of 1906. Shepard's companies continued to tour until 1907. (Musser 1990, pp. 366, 444.)

The person who can be credited with introducing movies to Wilmington and arranging most of the film exhibitions held in the city prior to December 1906 was Opera House manager, Simeon Archibald Schloss. As with all opera houses, the one in Wilmington was leased to a manager, who arranged for traveling musical and theatrical companies to play for a few days or a week in Wilmington. In the late 1890s, manager Schloss presented minstrel shows, musical comedies, melodramas, variety (vaudeville) companies, and, beginning in 1897, traveling movie exhibitors. He paid $750 per year to lease Thalian Hall. Schloss parlayed his management of the Opera House into control over a number of key opera houses in the state, and thus was responsible for the introduction of the movies to many white North Carolinians from 1897 to 1907.

Schloss was born on October 10, 1865, in Lynchburg, Virginia. His early career in Wilmington was as a merchant and auctioneer. In 1892, S.A. Schloss & Co. at 21-27 Market Street advertised in the Wilmington Messenger as offering china, glassware, and lamps. But Simeon Schloss was also a part-time musician, performing as a part of the Second Regimental Band at the Wilmington Opera House in 1893. After spending some time in Chicago as a band director later that year, Schloss returned to Wilmington and in 1895 leased the Wilmington Opera House. In 1897, he married Mary Bear, the eldest daughter of Solomon Bear, one of Wilmington's most prominent merchants and property developers. In 1898, he also leased the Academy of Music in Raleigh. Schloss went to New York several times each year to book attractions for his theaters. By 1903, he also managed opera houses in Greensboro and Charlotte, and by 1909, he controlled a circuit of some fourteen theaters in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, including houses in Wilmington, Charlotte, Goldsboro, New Bern, Raleigh, Asheville, Winston-Salem, and Danville (Virginia).

The management of the Wilmington Academy of Music was taken over by James Howard and Percy Wells in 1916.

Although he programmed movies at the Opera House in competition with the Bijou and Theatorium in 1907, Schloss was not particularly interested in movie exhibition as a fulltime business enterprise, however. He aspired to be an opera house magnate: owning, leasing, and/or managing opera houses in the largest cities in North Carolina, and presenting nationally circulating performers, musical groups, and theatrical companies to audiences who would be willing to pay from twenty-five cents to more than one dollar for an evening's entertainment. Traveling film exhibitors were a marginal aspect of his programming plans in the years from 1897 to 1906.

Schloss was also a pioneer in what we would now call the billboard industry. He owned a plant that made billboards in Wilmington and served as the secretary of the Middle Atlantic States Bill Posting Union.

Schloss died in December 1913.