The story of Canal Street’s Vitascope Hall, the world’s first movie theater
Motion pictures were still a mere novelty at the time, but in June 1896, New Orleanians got an early chance to check out the new technology as part of a temporary exhibition established at the then-popular West End entertainment district by New York businessman William “Pop” Rock. “We packed them in,” Rock was quoted as saying in a 1916 interview. Within a month — and while filmmaking was still in its infancy — Rock and business partner Walter Wainwright decided to open a movie theater downtown, at 623 Canal Street. Their Vitascope Hall, as it was named, is widely recognized as the world’s first permanent, for-profit movie theater.
Vitascope Hall is long gone; today, 623 Canal St. is home to a souvenir and liquor store. The name is still in use, however: About three-quarters of a mile from the site of the original theater, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which is adjacent to the Superdome, operates a third-floor restaurant and bar named after Vitascope Hall. Covering the walls are 25 wide-screen TVs — although today they more often show sporting events than movies.
- Rock “built” his theater in an empty storefront, covering the front windows with black canvas and setting up 400 chairs for patrons. It opened for business on July 26, 1896.
- The theater was named after the Vitascope projector on which it showed its films. That early projector, which was introduced just three months earlier, was invented by Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, who had partnered with Thomas Edison.
- Rock bought the rights to use the Vitascope machine in Louisiana from the Vitascope company for $2,500 — well more than $60,000 in today’s currency — according to a 1916 story in The Moving Picture World, a trade newspaper.
Tickets to movies at Vitascope Hall were a dime, but the films lasted only a few minutes each. Among the first films to play were “Niagara Falls,” “Shooting the Chutes” and a glimpse of the Corbett-Courtney prize fight.
- For an extra dime, patrons could get a peek inside the projection booth.
- Vitascope Hall opened while movies were still very much in their infancy. In fact, it came just seven months after the Lumiere Brothers gave their history-making first-ever paid screening in France.
- The open-air theater at West End that served as the precursor to Vitascope Hall drew its power from two sources. First, the electrical line of a nearby trolley was tapped into, providing power for the projector’s lamp. Then, the film was advanced through the projector by a circus man named Billy Reid, who was hired to crank it.
- Early films at the temporary West End theater included a skirt dance by Cissy Fitzgerald, scenes from the inside of a smithy, a scene of an elevated train in New York City and, in a film that reportedly generated outcry from local clergy, “The Kiss,” which showed a scene from the stage comedy “The Widow Jones” and featured a liplock shared by John Drew and May Irving.
- While clergy disapproved of “The Kiss,” audiences reportedly loved it. “Cissy’s was the only color picture in the lot, and, therefore, was the most real; but the kiss picture pleased the audience the most, and they gave it three or four encores,” The Times-Picayune wrote on June 28, 1896, in what is one of the earliest movie reviews. “The way that Drew goes through the premonitory symptoms and then squares off for action, and finally precipitates himself full upon Miss Irving’s lips, are all shown with startling realism.”
- Rock closed Vitascope Hall in October 1896, although he and Wainwright continued to schedule Vitascope exhibitions in town into 1897. He and Wainwright each made about $2,000 in profits, he estimated. Before heading back for New York in fall 1897, Rock traded the 600 films he had collected to someone in Texas for “a lot of diamonds,” he told The Moving Picture World. He went on to become president of the Vitagraph Company of America, later Vitagraph Studios, which was bought by Warner Bros. in 1925.
Vitagraph Hall came and went relatively quickly, but it started something big, not just in New Orleans — where by the mid-20th century scores of movie theaters dotted the local landscape, serving nearly every neighborhood — but around the world. After all, there would be no Hollywood movie industry if there weren’t theaters in which to show those movies — and it all started on Canal Street.