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Subject: The impresario who invented the movie theatre
From: Mark Schubin <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Mark Schubin <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 18 Nov 2016 11:00:27 -0500

text/plain (77 lines)

A long time ago, I worked on a television show featuring opera star
Luciano Pavarotti singing at the Spectrum arena, home of the
Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.  The concert was performed between
games, so flooring was laid over the ice, and the stage and seats over
that.  It wasn't the first time opera had been performed in a hockey

"Manru," a relatively obscure opera written by the famous Polish
pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, had its world premiere in Germany in
May of 1901.  Less than a year later, it was performed by the
Metropolitan Opera at Pittsburg's Duquesne Garden hockey arena, one of
only eight performances in the company's history [officially,
Pittsburgh had no "h" 1890-1911].  The Met performed five different
operas at the Garden that year and another four the next.  But that
wasn't Pittsburgh's first opera at an indoor hockey arena.

The first indoor ice rink in Pittsburgh was at the Schenley Park
Casino, where the Casino Comic Opera Company performed.  The company
was created by Harry Davis, who had previously hosted the Met at his
Grand Opera House in Pittsburg, one of several theatres he ran in the

In 1896, Davis presented the first projected movies in Pittsburg at
his Avenue Theatre, using the Lumieres' Cinematographe (the same day
movies were projected at the nearby Bijou Theatre using the
Edison-promoted Vitagraph); by the end of the year, Davis had created
his own Zinematographe movie system and used it to shoot a
reentactment in Pittsburg of the boxing match between Peter Maher and
Joe Choynski in New York (the fact that the same contenders were only
acting got around questions of legality of fights).

One of Davis's employees, Richard A. Rowland, who started as an
assistant spotlight operator at age 12, suggested showing movies at
the Grand Opera House, too.  Davis eventually dedicated a room to
projected movies at an arcade he ran next to one of his theatres.
After the arcade burned down, he, and his partner and brother-in-law
John Harris, opened a storefront theatre in 1905, with 96 "opera
seats," dedicated to nothing but projected movies.  The admission fee
was five cents, so it was called the Nickelodeon.

It was neither the first dedicated movie theatre nor the first place
called a nickelodeon, but it was the first long-lasting one, and it
was amazingly successful and influential.  A Polish visitor who saw it
brought the dedicated movie-theatre concept to Europe.  Carl Laemmle,
co-founder of Universal Studios, opened his White Front Theatre in
Chicago based on the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon.  A Pittsburg suit
salesman, Harry Warner, opened a movie theatre in nearby New Castle
with his brothers.  A jeweler across the street, Lewis Seleznick, went
into movie production; his son, David O. Selznick, is probably best
known as the producer of "Gone with the Wind."

Rowland took over his father's theatrical supply company and added a
film exchange.  In 1910, he sold it for "more money than I thought
existed" and went on to found companies that became important parts of
MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. and to run Fox and have executive
positions at such other studios as Republic and RKO.  Inspired by
Rowland's success, the Warner brothers opened their own Pittsburg film
exchange before moving to Hollywood.

As for Davis, Musical America called him the "impresario of the hour"
in 1918 and recommended him for a national "hero medal” for bringing
opera to the masses outside New York, Chicago, and Boston and for
ticket prices starting at 25 cents.  "I believe in opera,” he said.
"Its medium is a great education for the people."

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