The first permanent movie theater in the United States was the 400-seat Vitascope Hall here in the Crescent City. Where was this theater located?
Vitascope Hall in New Orleans opened July 26, 1896, at what is now 623 Canal St. on the corner of Exchange Place. It was a vacant building converted into a theater, with chairs added. Folks paid a dime to see short subjects such as The Corbett-Courtney Fight and Niagara Falls.
On Oct. 19, 1896, Buffalo, N.Y., opened a Vitascope Hall. It is believed to be the first such venue constructed from scratch with no other purpose than to show motion pictures.
The year 1896 was important in the development of the motion picture industry. In January, two Englishmen — Birt Acres and Robert Paul — developed their own film projector. The same month in America, Charles Jenkins and Thomas Armat invented a projector called the Phantoscope. The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture the Phantoscope and to produce films for it — on the condition it be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope. The Vitascope's first public exhibition was April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City.
The first movie in New Orleans was shown on June 28, 1896, at the West End Resort. Technology was pretty primitive back then, but folks certainly were impressed when Allen Blakemore, an electrical engineer for one of the railroads, set up a Vitascope and showed a short flickering film on a large canvas screen in front of the bandstand. The crowd went wild, and the reviews in the newspaper were full of praise.
A month later the Vitascope moved into its own hall on Canal Street. Black canvas covered the windows, and folks — about 400 of them — sat on folding chairs or benches. The shows began at 10 a.m. and played continuously until 3 p.m. After a three-hour break, the shows began again and lasted until 10 p.m. The program consisted of five short films, each lasting only a few minutes. Most of the films were changed daily.
Vitascope Hall was officially called William "Pop" Rock's Vitascope Hall. In addition to the dime patrons paid to get in, Rock charged another dime to watch the man in the projection booth operate the amazing machine. For an additional dime, you could get a souvenir: a piece of used celluloid film.
One of the early pioneers of the motion picture was Siegmund Lubin. In 1896, Lubin visited the Vitascope Theater in New Orleans and began distributing films for Edison. One of these was the short film The Kiss. Starring American actor John Rice and Canadian actress May Irwin, the film features the first on-screen smooch. Some people were shocked.
"Pop" Rock was determined to make his business a success, so he placed ads in The Picayune. One proclaimed, "The Great Craze of the Day, Edison's Vitascope/ New Series of Thrilling Views Photographic Motion at Last Perfected/ The Dream of a Century Realized." The Picayune praised the business venture, noting the hall was always crowded and folks never seemed to tire of the pictures. Rock's theater was a success, and the films were shown until September 1896, when the machine was taken on a tour throughout Louisiana; it returned to New Orleans the following spring.