Originally published in MCHS Newsletter Vol. 36 No. 1
I love movies. I can be a bit of a film snob at times, going on and on about the narrative complexities of Robert Eggers’ 2019 film The Lighthouse or Expressionist classics like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while in the same breath trying to convince you that, yes, the Austin Powers series actually is deeper than you originally thought (The existential horror of being a man lost in time is very unshagadelic indeed, baby).
The first movie that I saw in theaters was Toy Story 2 in 1999, at our very own Falls Cinema. I was 3 years old. Naturally I don’t remember anything about the experience but it must have had some subconscious impact on me, because now going to the movies is still one of my favorite things to do.
Recent renovations on the Falls Cinema, now the Falls Theatre, (something the town has needed for ages, and I’m so glad to see!) have got me wondering about cinema in Little Falls. As long as I’ve been alive, there have been movie theaters. But there was a time before all that, not too long ago in the relative scope of history. At some point, the first movie was shown in town.
The first public movie theater to open in the United States was the Nickelodeon, opening in Pittsburgh in 1905. The first film shown? A 10-minute thriller called The Great Train Robbery.
I had a feeling that our dear, emphasis on the “Little” Falls wouldn’t have gotten such monumental new technology that early, so finding the first theater and first film would be easy. And I thought it was! Originally, I had found references to movies being shown at the Harwha theater in 1920, and that sounded about right to me. Hollywood was really taking off, movies were becoming more accessible, but the more I dug the more I found that by 1920, films were sort of old hat for Little Falls residents.
It would seem (as far as my digging can find) that the first theater fitted with film projection equipment was the old Germania Hall Opera House, renamed to The New Family Electric Theatre in November of 1906! Just a year after the Nickelodeon! I clearly wasn’t giving our little town enough credit.
The Little Falls Daily Transcript was all a-buzz with information on the new technology in town. A November 5th article after the incredibly successful grand opening boasts: “The moving picture machine used is known as the Kinodrome, and is under the direct supervision of H. Rundy, an expert from Chicago. This is said to be one of the best make of machines in use today. In fact, these machines cannot be purchased by anyone, but must be taken under lease and always accompanied by an expert.”
Unfortunately, early advertisements for the New Family Electric Theatre are vague, simply stating that they have new new offerings, and what times to see them—very much a “you had to be there” sort of thing. They also still had live performances, so I had to look carefully at any advertisements that showed actual titles. This means I cannot tell you, dear reader, what exactly the very first movie shown in town was, but I can get us pretty close.
In the November 15, 1906 edition of the Transcript, I found it. There, at the very bottom right corner of the page, was an advertisement for the theater. It had titles listed and as I focused in on them, I crossed every finger and toe I had hoping to find anything that could tell me they were movies: “A street scene…” “hand colored…” That’s a bingo (Inglourious Basterds, anyone?).
While these may not have been the very first movies shown in Little Falls, within a month of the theater’s opening is pretty good! They’re not titles you or I would easily recognize, either. The first title, A street scene in Agra, India, is vague enough that I couldn’t find anything online. I found a video taken around that time of a street in India, but further research found that it was filmed in Madurai, on the opposite side of the country entirely from Agra.
I had more luck with The Captain’s Inspection, but not by much. I was able to find an IMDb listing for the film, and its genre being listed as comedy told me this was the right one. Produced in 1905 by the French company Pathé-Frères and originally published under the title L’inspection du capitaine, this short follows sailors as they try progressively more and more ridiculous plans to get a drunkard out of their quarters, only for their plans to backfire and the captain becomes the victim of their plans.
While I couldn’t find a video of The Captain’s Inspection, I struck proverbial gold with The Hen that laid the Golden Eggs. I was most intrigued by this title, as the description mentions that it was hand-colored, and thankfully due to the British Film Institute’s efforts, I was able to find the video on YouTube.
Originally titled La Poule aux Œufs d’Or, this film follows the Aesop’s fable we all grew up reading. The film doesn’t start off vibrant, but as the story goes on and gets more elaborate, the hand-painting truly starts to shine: vibrant golds, rich greens, soft pinks, all to accent the otherwise colorless backdrop.
The next film on the list, The Illustrated Song, was incredibly vague, and even moreso was Tragedy on a Train. Train films were a dime a dozen, even in the early days of cinema. Just look at the very first film at the very first movie theater. This could have been one of many similar films.
Last, but certainly not least, I was able to find Those Terrible Kids, a 1906 film produced by The Edison Manufacturing Company and directed by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter. The plot follows exactly what the title states: two boys and their dog cause chaos on the streets (stealing a woman’s purse, assaulting a Chinese immigrant, ruining the work of a poster-hanger, and more). In the end, everyone they’ve attacked gangs up against them, and the boys are sent off to jail with their dog trailing behind.
The New Family Electric Theatre didn’t remain open for very long. By December of 1906, it had already been sold to new owners. After that, details are incredibly foggy. It was nowhere to be seen in the 1916-17 Little Falls City Directory. That isn’t to say Little Falls was without access to movies after The Family Electric Theatre, in fact it was the opposite.
Little Falls experienced a massive cinema boom in the following years. The Bijou opened in 1907, the Milo following in 1909 (where the Falls Theatre, built in 1933, now stands), the Victor (later the aforementioned Harwha and even later, the Lindy) in 1913, and the Ripley in the 1930s. The town even housed the Airport Drive-in, which many residents still remember fondly. And that’s just Little Falls! Randall had the Randall Theater in the 1940s, and Pierz had the Star Theatre in the 1950s!
The scope of cinema has grown exponentially since those early days: new movies come out daily, blockbusters keep getting bigger and bigger, and even more unnecessary sequels are pushed out than you can keep up with. That just means there’s something out there for everybody.
The joy is in the search for that favorite, in grabbing a snack and a pop and sitting down in the cold, dark theater for a couple hours of escapism. And as soon as the Falls Theatre is up and running again, you can bet I’ll be there.
By Grace Duxbury
Copyright 2023, Morrison County Historical Society
“Behind the Curtain at the Nickelodeon: America’s First Movie Theatre.” Theatre Historical Society of America. https://historictheatres.org/blog/2016/11/14/behind-the-curtain-at-the-nickelodeon-americas-first-movie-theatre/.
“La Poule Aux Œufs D’or (1905) the Hen That Laid the Golden Eggs.” A Cinema History. http://www.acinemahistory.com/2021/07/la-poule-aux-ufs-dor-1905-hen-that-laid.html.
L’Inspection du Capitaine. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé. http://filmographie.fondation-jeromeseydoux-pathe.com/5741-l.
“Captain’s Inspection.” The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1767328/.