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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Lights, Camera, Action! Wisconsin Theaters 100 Years Ago

Yesterday's New York Times reports that phone companies and entertainment giants have begun talks about streaming MTV, Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," and other video content directly to consumers' cell phones. That's just the latest development in a process that began more than a century ago.

In 1908, Milwaukee entrepreneur O.L. Meister decided to take a chance on a new-fangled technology called motion pictures. He remodeled a restaurant at 183 Third St. into the Vaudette, a 225-seat theater where he hoped people would pay to watch something called "movies." His first attraction was a ghoulish silent film called The Glass Coffin, and to attract customers he put a replica of a transparent coffin just inside the lobby, visible from the downtown sidewalk.

"The theater men were scandalized and the public lifted its eyebrows," he recalled. "People would pass and repass the old Vaudette, look at that figure in the coffin... and then they would say, 'Gracious, I hope nobody sees me go in here,' and pay their nickel and keep on coming. We had as many as 2,800 people a day in the old Vaudette." With film operators paid only $12 a week and two or three thousand nickels streaming in on a good day, Meister knew he was onto something big.

"In those days," he continued, "the films were turned and rewound by hand and the seats were, in the last row, directly beneath the machine booth. One night I heard a startled cry from one of the audience, and ran back to find that the film -- the operator had got so interested in the picture, he wasn't watching it -- had leaked through the peep hole and was wound around the customer's neck."

Soon motion pictures were displacing live theater as the most popular form of entertainment. Victorian opera houses and traditional theaters began to convert over to handle the new medium, and innovative facilities such as the 1915 Al Ringling Theater in Sauk City were designed specifically for cinema. In the 1920s, film companies in New York and Los Angeles began to construct local theaters, such as the Sheboygan Theater on North Eighth Street, to handle their content. Read more about early Wisconsin movie theaters in "Picture This, A Moving Picture Show" at our Wisconsin History Explorer pages.

Watching a film on your laptop, handheld, or cell phone is surely a far cry from settling down in the comfort of a 1930s Art Deco movie palace or immersing yourself in quadraphonic surround sound. But despite its tiny form factor, today's entrepreneurs think, like O.L. Meister, that they may be onto something big.

:: Posted in Curiosities on March 5, 2006
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