Mitchell Mark - Table of Contents ..........Buffalo Movie Theaters - Table of Contents

Buffalo, New York Celebrates 111th Birthday of World's First Movie Theater

By Edward Summer
Director / Founder of the Buffalo International Film Festival


October 19, 2007 is the 111th anniversary of the opening of the first permanent, purpose-built movie theater in the world: the Vitascope Hall which opened on Monday, October 19, 1896 in the Ellicott Square Building on Main Street. It was the brainchild of Mitchell H. Mark, the supreme visionary of the future of motion picture theaters. Mark, a Buffalo-based entrepreneur, together with his brother Moe, would open numerous theaters in this city, New York City, Boston and elsewhere including history's first true "Move Palace," the Mark Strand Theater.
The Buffalo International Film Festival, a 501c3 nonprofit charity, would be pleased to see the Vitascope Hall recognized for its place in history, celebrated and ultimately recreated.
Entered through a store front seen in a newly found photograph of the Ellicott Square Building, the Vitascope Hall, probably located in the basement, thrilled, amazed and confounded audiences with its presentations of a series of brief scenes of about a minute each. Having only seen tiny "peep-show" movies, few people of the time had ever before been able to conceive the idea of larger-than-life moving images let alone see them.
Before Vitascope Hall, projected movies, a brand-new invention, had only been shown as traveling novelties in lecture halls or as attractions at vaudeville theaters. Never before had a structure been conceived by an architect and interior designer and built, from scratch, for the sole purpose of showing movies. From these auspicious beginnings, Mitchell Mark would in less than 20 years graduate to building the world's first movie palace, the million-dollar, 1914 Strand Theater in New York City.
An article from November 1897 found only weeks ago in the collection of Carl Paladino at the Ellicott Square Building quotes Mark as saying that in the first year of operation, the 72 seat theater had seen 200,000 visitors! This caused the Mark Brothers to keep their theater open 13 hours a day, seven days a week.  Mr. Paladino has kindly made his resources available in the quest for this remarkable first movie theater.

The Mark Brothers had begun their career as hatters on Seneca Street in downtown Buffalo. When a California-bound friend needed to sell his Edison phonographs, the Marks purchased them and opened a penny-arcade called the Edisonia Phonograph Parlors at 378 Main Street in 1894 under license to Thomas Edison. Among the other amusements on hand were X-Ray machines. Early the following year they installed Edison's new novelty, the Kinetoscope, an early peep-show movie device.
By 1896 the Marks moved their establishment to a storefront in the new Ellicott Square, which was at the time the world's largest office building. Barely six months after Edison unveiled large-screen movies at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in New York City, the Marks augmented their Edisonia Parlors with the Vitascope Hall, a 72-seat cinema, described by the Buffalo Express as "beautifully decorated in white and gold, with an inclined floor carpeted in Wilton velvet," and having "a handsome stage with an elaborate proscenium arch, lavishly carved and daintily decorated, rich maroon plush hangings, incandescent electric lights flooding the place with radiance, perfect ventilation and all the other accessories of a delightful place of entertainment."
Mitchell Mark was apparently the first person in the United States to contract with the famous Lumière and Pathé Brothers in France to show their movies in this country. Thus, the opening night of the Vitascope Hall may well have included the US premières of the films of the Lumière Frères.

After opening the Empire Theater just down Main Street in 1898 and running the Mutoscope concession at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, the Mark Brothers expanded their operation to New York City where they opened a huge amusement arcade called Automatic Vaudeville. Among those partnering on this venture was a furrier by the name of Adolph Zukor, who realized enough profits from the operation that he pioneered in movie production and went on to co-found Paramount Pictures. Another furrier acquaintance, Marcus Loew, was also excited by the business and, after partnering for a short while, struck out on his own with production ventures and eventually helped found the Loew's Theater chain and Metro Pictures, the precursor to MGM.
Back in Buffalo the Mark Brothers opened the People's Arcade at 263 Main and the Edisonia Penny Arcade at 475 Main. They began to open larger movie theaters with the Victoria at 284 West Ferry Street in 1910. That same year they purchased, rebuilt and reopened the Academy Theater at 247 Main as a vaudeville house, opened the Family Theater (converted from the Buffalo Savings Bank) at 441 Broadway as a combination vaudeville/movie house, and then in 1912 Mitchell began work on a 1200-seat movie theater called the Strand at 355 Main and also rebuilt the 1500-seat Lyric Theater at 449 Broadwayas a vaudeville house. They also built the Regent Theater (still standing) at 1365 Main and the New Victoria Theater at 309 West Ferry. The Regent Theater was where, in 1953, TODD-AO was pioneered by Mike Todd and Buffalo's American Optical Company.
With every venture profitable, the Mark Brothers and their partners planned a 2800-seat theater in Manhattan, which they would call the Strand, a name to which Mitchell Mark had won exclusive US rights. The Strand, the first elaborate theater built for movies only and without a stage, opened in 1914 and was a raging success. It led the movement to build movie palaces in every city in the US. To manage the Strand, Mitchell Mark hired Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothapfel, later to become Broadway's premier movie showman who built Radio City Music Hall.
Mitchell Mark died suddenly of blood poisoning on March 20, 1918, but his brother Moe carried on and became an executive with the Stanley Theater chain and then First National. He died on November 3, 1932.
The Buffalo International Film Festival recognizes the seminal importance of the pioneering ventures of Mitchell and Moe Mark in inventing the movie theater and in converting movies from a disreputable low-class amusement into a respected medium. 
Buffalo International Film Festival, Inc. is a 501c3 not for profit charity founded to emphasize the extraordinary cultural, artistic and scientific contributions of the Western New York region through the medium of world cinema.

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