Edison's Black Maria: - America's First Movie Studio

America's first motion picture studio was a tiny, ramshackle tar paper shack in East Orange, New Jersey, owned by Thomas Edison.

The first motion picture studio in America opened in December, 1892, and cost $637.67 to build. Thomas Edison, who had built the unwieldy gizmo, called it by the genteel name, the "Kinetographic Theater." 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 fragment of a vaudeville act, a smidgen of a Broadway play, a magician's trick, or the turn of a dancer. 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 color 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 shooting stage was tiny -- barely 12 feet square. Facing the stage was a huge wooden camera -- officially called the "Kinetograph." Edison called it "The Doghouse." And, indeed, it could have served such a purpose if the camera mechanism was removed, and depending on the size of the dog of course. The camera was so large, in fact, that it took two strong 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 Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope were patented in 1891.

The first cinematographers were William Heise and W.K.L. Dickson. Dickson had actually developed the motion picture under Edison's direction. But it was the inventor's practice to assign projects to employees in his West Orange laboratory and, if the scheme worked out, Edison would grab the credit.

Projection of films on a screen, in front of an audience, was the last thing on Edison's mind when he first publicly demonstrated his Kinetoscope, in 1893, at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. He thought movies were just a fad. But the first Kinetoscope parlor opened in New York, followed by similar openings all over the country. The Black Maria suddenly became very busy producing short films for the peep show machines. Every time a new show hit town, Edison representatives were there enticing performers to claim their slice of immortality by appearing before The Doghouse.

The famous and the forgotten did their bit for the camera. Annabelle Whitford performed her famous Butterfly Dance. Circus strong man Eugene Sandow flexed his rippling muscles. Annie Oakley shot it out with some clay plates and glass balls inside the Black Maria, probably requiring Edison's maintenance man to patch up the bullet holes in the wooden sides.

Kinetoscope parlors attracted primarily a male audience, therefore Dickson and Heise accommodated Victorian lust by filming surprisingly adult subjects. Scantily-clad dancers cavorted around and around. Ella Lola performed her Turkish dance complete with bumps and grinds. One dancer offended the censors so badly that offending portions of her shimmying anatomy was blacked out with India ink. But the most infamous film produced in the Black Maria was an 18 second opus known as the "May Irwin Kiss".

May Irwin and John Rice were appearing together in the racy play, "The Widow Jones" on Broadway. Both actors were beefy and clearly past their prime. But that didn't stop them from steaming up the stage. When Heise got the two into the Black Maria, he suggested that they perform the "kiss" from the play. Nothing like that had ever been filmed before. He made matters worse by bringing the two performers closer to The Doghouse, thereby creating a very intimate closeup.

The little film begins with Irwin and Rice whispering sweet nothings to each other. Finally, the time comes for the kiss. Rice rears back like a cat preparing to pounce on a mouse. After straightening his long handlebar mustache, he launches a two-pronged attack on Irwin's upper lip while, at the same time, he nibbles on her lower lip. At that point the film ends, and it was probably none too soon. As it was, the censors went through the roof and the film was actually banned in some localities.

In "Professor Welton's Boxing Cats", we are treated to a 20-second trifle showing two pugnacious felines trying to bat each other's brains out while the good professor, in the background, holds each up on their hind legs with a body harness. For those who prefer more exotic fare, there is the 1895 production of "Princess Ali", a bearded lady from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Accompanied by two attendants pounding large drums, the Princess does a little dance for the delight and edification of the viewer.

And so goes the catalog of movie hits filmed in the confines of the Black Maria. At the time there was no provision to copyright motion pictures, but there was a procedure to copyright individual photographs. Edison hit on the idea to make a paper print of the entire film, and then submit the rolls to the Library of Congress. This practice is probably why we have an almost complete record of the films produced by Dickson and Heise -- and later Edwin S. Porter. Paper is more stable than nitrate film and without the paper, most of the earliest films would probably have crumbled into red dust.

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 Kinetoscopic Record of A Sneeze," or better known as "Fred 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.

A good thing can't last forever. In a few years, the public began tiring of the peep show Kinetoscopes. While Edison was satisfied to reap the benefits from single-viewer showings, other tinkerers were inventing ways to project moving pictures on a screen. They simply took Edison's Kinetoscope films, spliced a half dozen of them together, and showed the result to a paying audience. With projection came the demand for longer and more complex films that were impossible to make in a confined space like the Black Maria.

Edison finally closed the Black Maria in 1901, upon completion of his brand new glass-topped studio in New York City. By then, the Dog House had also been discarded in favor of smaller, more portable cameras. Edwin S. Porter, who was later to produce the landmark western, "The Great Train Robbery," was busy filming "actuality films" -- outdoor events like parades, military exercises and street scenes -- outside the confines of the studio. He needed a light camera that he could carry over his shoulder from place to place.

The Black Maria still stands and The Doghouse remains, but they are now museum pieces -- relics of a new industry being born.

© High Speed Ventures 2011