3 November 1894
Motion pictures have entertained and informed us for more than a hundred years. Through the media of the cinema, television, and most recently the internet, they are an integral part of western culture. They reflect our dreams, hopes, and nightmares, and have helped to shape who we are and who we aspire to be. Their appeal is universal. They fascinate us, and draw us together. Watching a movie in a darken cinema, or at home on a television or computer, provides a common experience, and the source of limitless debate and discussion.
Two Ottawa-born, nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, Andrew and George Holland, were midwives to this cultural phenomenon. Thanks to them, Ottawa was among the first cities in the world to witness motion pictures. The Holland brothers were business associates of Thomas Edison whose company invented the kinetoscope, an early motion picture machine. While conceived by Edison, the invention was largely developed by his employee William Dickson in the early 1890s. The electrically-powered device, which stood roughly four feet high in a wooden cabinet, drew a perforated 35 millimetre celluloid film strip bearing sequential images over an electric light. A high-speed shutter rapidly broke the beam of light, providing the illusion of movement when each frame of the film was illuminated in turn. The continuous film strip, roughly fifty feet in length, was looped around a series of spools in the body of the kinetoscope. A viewer looked at the film through a peep-hole about an inch in diameter at the top of the wooden cabinet. A magnifying lens enlarged the image. In one version, called a kinetophone, an audio cylinder was included in the cabinet which allowed the kinetoscope viewer to listen to sound by using a stethoscope-like instrument.
The Holland brothers, who were the Canadian agents for the distribution of Edison’s phonograph, were quick to spot the commercial possibilities of the new invention, and acquired the eastern U.S. and Canadian distribution rights. Andrew Holland, a founding partner of the Kinetoscope Company, opened the world’s first kinetoscope parlour in New York City in April 1894, roughly a year after the machine’s first public showing at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on 9 May 1893. Similar parlours were quickly established in other major US cities, including Chicago and San Francisco. They were highly lucrative. On 3 November 1894, the Holland brothers brought the kinetoscope to Canada, setting up a machine for public viewing in Ottawa at the Perley building on Sparks Street.
To a modern moviegoer’s eye, the programme menu was hardly riveting stuff. Viewers could choose to watch a number of very short movies made by Edison’s film-production company. These included a ballet dance, a blacksmith at work, and a barber cutting somebody’s hair. For the sporting enthusiast, a clip of a boxing match between Champion Jim Corbett and P. Courtenay was also on offer. But to a nineteenth century audience, this was pure magic. Despite the steep ten-cent cost, the price of a good meal in those days, for a single viewing that lasted but a few seconds, the kinetoscope drew huge crowds. The Ottawa Journal reporter covering the machine’s arrival in Ottawa, was held spellbound by the ballet dance. He wrote: “There were three figures in the view and every motion of the dancers was perfectly reproduced. Even the slightest movements of the folds of the dancers’ fluffy skirts were shown. The view was quite as good as a ballet at an opera house.” He called the kinetoscope “the scientific wonder of the age.”
Two years later, the Holland brothers wowed Ottawa audiences again with an exhibition of the vitascope, a film projector that could cast moving images on a wall or screen, enabling many people to witness a show simultaneously. An earlier version of the device, called the phantascope, had been developed by Charles Jenkins and Thomas Armat in 1895. The machine was subsequently refined by Armat, who receive a U.S. patent in February 1896 for a modified version that he called the vitascope. The vitascope was manufactured under licence by the Edison Company, and marketed as a new Thomas Edison innovation to cash in on the inventor’s reputation. As was the case with the earlier kinetoscope, the Holland brothers purchased the exclusive rights to exhibit the vitascope in Canada.
Working with the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OERC), the firm that operated Ottawa’s trams, the Holland brothers held the first exhibition of the vitascope in Canada on 21 July 1896 at the West End Park, an amusement park owned by the OERC in Hintonberg, then on the outskirts of the city. Located on Holland Avenue, which was named after the brothers, the park had previously been farmland owned by the duo. Later known as Victoria Park, the area is now roughly the site of the Fisher Park Public and Summit Alternative Schools, Fisher Park playground, and the Elmdale Tennis Club. Although this was the inaugural demonstration of the vitascope in Canada, it was not the first time a movie was projected in Canada. A month early, August and Louis Lumière, French competitors of Edison, demonstrated their cinematograph in Montreal.
Tickets to the vitascope screening cost ten cents for adults, and five cents for children. For twenty-five cents, people could buy a package deal from the OERC which included the price of the tram ride out to the West End Park, admission, and a reserved seat. The show also included a live performance by Belsoz, the magician, who warmed up a crowd of several hundred before the actual vitascope exhibition began. The short, silent films, which were projected onto a canvas screen the size of a bedsheet on an outdoor stage, included hand-tinted footage of an exotic dance, a moving train, and an Atlantic City bathing scene. Also featured was the first cinematic kiss—pretty risqué and controversial stuff for the Victoria era. The 47-second clip, widely known as The Kiss, was produced by Edison’s production company, and directed by William Heise. It starred stage and vaudeville actors Canadian-born May Irwin and John Rice. The vitascope exhibition was a great hit with Ottawa viewers. The Citizen newspaper enthused “It is safe to say that nothing has been brought out in the nineteenth century that has created anything like the enthusiasm, caused by Edison’s success in bringing the vitascope to perfection.”
The success of the vitascope helped launched the motion picture industry. To celebrate the centenary of the first projected movies in Ottawa, the Canadian Film Institute held in July 1996, a free public screening of the same four vitascope films at the Astrolabe Theatre at Nepean Point behind the National Gallery of Canada. In July 2014, cinema enthusiasts, in co-operation with Tamarack Homes, again paid homage to the event with a showing of The Kiss. The event, part of “Hintonberg Happenings,” was held on Wellington Street, not far from where the original vitascope films were first shown.
About.com, 2014. “Inventors: Kinetophone,” http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bledison_kinetoscope.htm.
EarlyCinema.com, 2014. An Introduction to Early Cinema, Technology, Kinetoscope, http://www.earlycinema.com/technology/kinetoscope.html.
Gutteridge, Robert, 2005. “The Holland Brothers,” The Photographic Historical Society of Canada, http://phsc.ca/holland-bros.html.
Hum, Peter, 1996. “A hundred years at the movies: You can watch what great-grandad watched,” The Citizen, 21 July.
Kroon, Richard, W. 2010. A/V, A to Z: An Encyclopedia Dictionary of Media, Entertainment and Other Audiovisual Terms, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
McKernan, Luke, 2014. “Andrew M. Holland and George C. Holland,” Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema, http://victorian-cinema.net/holland.
Miguelez, Alain, 2004, A Theatre Near You: 150 Years of Going to the Show in Ottawa-Gatineau, Penumbra Press.
Nyugen, Andrew, 2014. “Movie-lovers look to re-create first Ottawa film screening in Hintonberg,” The Citizen, 11 June.
Russell, Hilary, 2006, “All that Glitters: A Memorial to Ottawa’s Capitol Theatre and its Predecessors,” Canadian Historical Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, No. 13, Parks Canada, http://parkscanadahistory.com/series/chs/13/chs13-1f.htm.
The Evening Journal, 1894. “Kinetoscope Is Here,” 3 November 1894.
The Citizen, 1896. “Edison’s Vitascope,” 20 July.
————–, 1896. Edison’s Vitaschpe (sic),” 21 July.
Holland Brothers, Canadian Film Institute, http://parkscanadahistory.com/series/chs/13/chs13-1f.htm.
The Kiss, The Public Domain Review, http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-kiss-1896/.