A century ago three young men trekked from Chicago to Waukegan to show off a new gizmo. In a darkened room, in front of a crowd of friends and business associates, they placed the elongated apparatus on beer kegs, hooked it up to an electrical extension from a street lamp, then aimed it at the wall. Illuminated images started to flicker and move across the wall. Was this the debut of the first motion-picture projector?
Carey Williams believes so. The Magniscope now belongs in his extensive collection of movie paraphernalia and memorabilia, which forms the core of the soon-to-open International Cinema Museum. Walking the sprawling three floors of exhibition space–still under renovation–he crouches by the antique contraption and points to the date carved on its side: 2/23/94. “On that very day they unveiled the first projecting machine for motion pictures. But, of course, historians credit [Thomas] Edison with that first too.”
Edison and his assistants, by the early 1890s, had invented the kinetoscope viewer, which one person at a time used by looking through a peephole. “It wasn’t meant for public screening of films,” says Williams. “Edison was a control freak. He thought he could make more money pay-per-view.” The seven pristine kinetoscopes in Williams’s collection were rescued from penny arcades popular around the turn of the century. Another of Edison’s brilliant ideas was to put holes on the borders of 35-millimeter celluloid stock so that the film could be wound through the camera. Williams thinks that Chicago inventor Edward Amet, who had already come up with a slide projector using a sprocket mechanism, “put two and two together” to create the Magniscope he took to Waukegan. Shortly afterward Edison, sensing the commercial potential of public shows, answered with his own version, the Vitascope, which debuted in April of 1896. That, Williams says with dismay, is “the date in the record book.”
Edison was ruthless in protecting his franchise in the infant motion-picture industry. “Edison sued everybody,” Williams continues. “His agents were all over the east coast looking for violators of his licenses. They disrupted movie productions because Edison thought he was the only one entitled to shoot films. Do you wonder why Chicago, then California became industry centers? Entrepreneurs didn’t want to be bothered with the legal mess in the east.”
Indeed, for a long time many movie merchants worked out of headquarters lined up along Film Row, north of Roosevelt on Wabash. Alvin Roebuck was one. “He sold his interest in Sears, Roebuck and put all his money in the projector business. His company made this Motiograph in the teens.” Williams shows off a small trunk neatly packed with components of a projector ready for assembly. “It was designed for the traveling showman to take from small town to small town. He would pitch a tent or rent the front of a store and put up a white sheet before the front row. The projector came in two versions: one used electricity and the other burned lime. Fire hazards were a serious problem in those early days when the film stock was nitrate.”
The other two promoters of the Magniscope achieved modest success in the business. George Spoor opened a studio on Argyle Street where Charlie Chaplin’s early comedies were shot. Donald J. Bell cofounded Bell and Howell, which manufactured cameras and projectors well into the 60s in its plant near Evanston. “But he cashed out too early to make a fortune,” says Williams.
Generations of Bell and Howell equipment are represented in the museum’s collection. Williams tenderly lifts one of the cameras. “Small, compact, precise, and all metal. A beauty,” he marvels.
Williams became fascinated with movie technology 15 years ago when he was attending the University of Illinois in Chicago as a mechanical-engineering major. “I walked into a friend’s basement,” he recalls, “and he put on a 35-millimeter reel of Gone With the Wind. I said, “Wow.’ From that moment on, I wanted to know all about the nuts and bolts of movie exhibition and production. I decided to collect everything related to the technology.” The inventory now holds 200 projectors, 100 projector heads, at least 60 professional cameras and 200 amateurs, a cloud machine, and many other contraptions made in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.
Collecting runs in the family; his mother and sister own the collectible doll and teddy-bear store where Williams now works.
Last year Williams bought the century-old building on Erie Street that originally housed Mother Cabrini’s Assumption School. He’s put up all the money himself so far, including the cost of shipping the entire collection from his Victorian house in Joliet. Some of the museum’s displays are designed to illustrate the technological evolution of the projector and the camera from the earliest inventions by Edison and French pioneer Louis Lumiere to today’s high-tech equipment. “The idea is that the evolution happened in increments,” Williams says. “An alteration to the lens here and there, or a slightly different shutter mechanism, and platters instead of reels, xenon lamps instead of carbon-arc lamps. But the basics, believe it or not, have pretty much been the same since the 30s. In fact, the Fine Arts, the 400, and the Three Penny are still using projectors from that period.”
Williams’s master plan also calls for a “Made in Chicago” exhibit, highlighting significant contributions to the movie industry from local manufacturers and filmmakers, plus dioramas of the interiors of a movie palace, a nickelodeon, and a drive-in. “A research library is high on my list too,” he adds. “I want people to share my passion.”
The official opening of the International Cinema Museum, located at 319 W. Erie, is on Chicago Day, June 19; the event is free to the public. For information call Williams at 654-1426. A preview of the collection will take place next Thursday (100 years after the kinetoscope made its State Street debut) between 6:30 and 9 PM. Admission to this fund-raiser, sponsored by Chicago Women in Film, is $10. For more information call 509-8000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.