Vitascope Hall was the first for-profit movie theater in the United States that offered indoor seating for viewers. It was named for the projector the owners used, Edison’s Vitascope. The owners, William “Pop” Rock and Walter Wainwright, bought a storefront to exhibit Vitascope films after their success projecting the films outdoors. Though the business was ahead of its time and the theater only operated for a few months, the growth of the film industry and the availability of longer and more technically-advanced pictures led to the growth of movie theaters throughout the United States in the early 20th century.
The Vitascope Hall in New Orleans was
named after the projector it used: Edison’s Vitascope. Edison did not actually
invent the Vitascope, however. The invention came to life as the Phantoscope, a
product of the minds of Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Before it and
the Cinématographe developed by the Lumiere brothers, films could only be
viewed one person at a time via “peep” machines. Projecting moving images onto
a screen would allow for more viewers per film and therefore more profits for
exhibitors. Jenkins and Armat filed a patent for their Phantoscope in July
1895, then another in 1896 for an improved version of the same projector.
Jenkins and Armat would split ways, but before they did, they sold the rights
of distribution to Thomas Edison and the Raff & Gammon firm. The name was changed
to the “Edison Vitascope” for marketability. The reimagined projector made its
debut in Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. Afterward, Edison and
Raff & Gammon sold exclusive territorial rights for the technology.
William “Pop” Rock, a British businessman,
bought the rights to use the Vitascope in Louisiana. To help him in his new
endeavor, Rock enlisted the help of carnival showman Walter Wainwright and the
projectionist Walter A. Reed. They decided to try out their new projector in
the West End of New Orleans, an area known for family-friendly entertainment.
Knowing that the projection of films may not be enough of a spectacle to entice
customers, the trio hired a band to play alongside the movie showings. Rock and
his partners exhibited “Edison’s Wonderful Vitascope” for the first time on
June 28th, 1896. They had a hit and decided to do something risky:
project the films for paying customers inside a dedicated storefront.
Rock and Wainwright bought an empty
storefront on Canal Street in the commercial heart of New Orleans. They blacked
out the windows, bought benches and folding chairs from a closing funeral
parlor, and set the Vitascope projector on a cart so that it could be wheeled
closer to or farther from the screen as needed. When it opened later that
summer, Vitascope Hall became the first for-profit, indoor movie theater with
seating. Before it, most places that projected motion pictures were standing-room-only
or were free experimental showings with seats. Wainwright advertised in a local
newspaper weekly with sensational claims and coupons to bring in audiences.
Visitors to Vitascope Hall could pay extra to see the projection booth and take
home scraps of film. After a profitable run, Vitascope Hall closed on September
30th, 1896. Rock and Reed continued to exhibit Vitascope films
throughout Louisiana for another year. Rock would then go on to become
president of Vitascope productions.
Though it was not built from scratch,
Vitascope Hall set the standard for movie theaters to come with its use of
indoor seating and projection. In 1925, an early film historian by the name of
H. E. Richardson realized that Vitascope Hall was the first movie theater in
that sense. This fact would not be rediscovered until the 1960s when British
researcher Patrick Robertson stumbled upon Richardson’s statement. The
storefront that housed Vitascope Hall has since been home to a variety of
retail and fast food ventures. The site remains unmarked, though a nearby hotel
restaurant bears the name “Vitascope Hall.”