Stars shine in basement


During this weekend in 1895 an event took place that forever changed the global entertainment landscape. The setting was a basement room below the Grand Café in Paris — just up the street from the famed Paris Opera House.

Known as the Salon Indien (the Indian Salon), the basement hall had a seating capacity of approximately 100 persons. The assembled crowd of 33 had come together for what would be the inaugural presentation of the Lumière Cinématographe.

Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière staged the event to showcase their invention, the Cinématographe, which they had patented earlier in the year. While other technologies of a similar sort had been developed in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe, the Cinématographe was important because it was the first device capable of showing movies that could be viewed by a large audience.

This afternoon exposition of 10 short films is widely considered the “birth of film” as the Cinematographe was the first advanced commercial projector and the first to be offered for sale.

The Lumière Brothers’ film series lasted 20 minutes. According to thefilmsite.org, these early films were of the so-called “actualités” variety — documentaries featuring scenes of everyday life.

The 10 shorts or “sujets actuels” included the famous first comedy of a gardener with a watering hose (aka The Sprinkler Sprinkled), the factory worker short (La Sortie des Ouviers de L’Usine Lumière à Lyon — Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory), a sequence of a horse-drawn carriage approaching toward the camera, and a scene of a baby being fed.

After the initial screening, the Lumières began showing the films to audiences 20 times each day. Among their most noted early films was a 50-second clip, Arrivee d’un train en gare a La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), of which thefilmsite.org says, “some sources reported (the film) was shocking to its first unsophisticated viewing audience.”

These initial showings were the Lumière Brother’s springboard into a cinema empire. They opened several theatres the following year and sent their film crews all over the globe to exhibit their movies and film new ones.

The year 1896 was also important for the film industry in the United States. New Orleans saw the opening of Vitascope Hall, which is believed to be the first theater in the U.S. devoted to showing movies. Beginning in 1909, another noble tradition was begun when the New York Times published its first movie review — an appraisal of D. W. Griffith’s Pippa Passes.

In just a few years, the first movie stars began to emerge. Soon the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle became household names.

American audiences got their first taste of moving pictures and never looked back. Much in the same way the Internet has transformed the way we consume information today, those short, dim, silent films forever changed how the public viewed the world.

If a picture is, as the saying goes “worth a thousand words,” what then must a moving sequence of thousands of pictures be worth? According to the Motion Picture Association of America domestic movie ticket sales for 2012 will top $10.55 billion. This does not include revenues from DVD sales, rentals, pay-per-view or cable revenues. The MPAA reports that Marvel’s the Avengers alone took in over $623 million in ticket sales.

Apparently, the answer to “what’s it worth” is ‘a whole lot.’ Of course financial gain is but one dimension of the movie industry’s impact on our culture. Some might well argue that it is the least important aspect. Movies entertain. They distract. They amuse and frighten. They inspire romance, empathy and violence. They are the venue for first dates and bucket-sized cokes. They let us forget. They let us remember. They are a flickering mirror of who are or might be.