This past Saturday (August 13), I took a trip to the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. I've visited here a number of times over the years, and each time I visit I am struck by the sense of wonder I feel at being the very spot where (depending on which version of the history you read) motion pictures were born.
This time, I visited the museum with my friend Jim Gisriel, a fellow film enthusiast who shares my interest in the early years of cinema. We arrived on a scorching hot Saturday morning, right before noon. After checking in at the visitors center, we made our way in to the small theater where a selection of early Edison films were playing on a monitor. After watching a couple minutes of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (we walked in just as the bandits were forcing the passengers to disembark from the train), Jim and I made our way out the back of the theater and over to the Black Maria.
Or rather, a replica of it. Originally built in 1893, the Black Maria is recognized as the world's first dedicated film studio, and although it was torn down only a decade later, this replica was constructed in 1954 by the U.S. National Park Service and stands as a tribute to the place where America's earliest films were made. The Black Maria is quite a striking building -- covered in tarpaper, it got its name from the knickname given to police paddy wagons, which it resembled.
With the scorching hot noonday sun beating down on us, Jim and I observed the Black Maria for about 20 minutes before heading inside for a presentation on Edison's contributions to the motion picture. While we were outside, we took in all the little details of the structure, from its wooden tracks that allowed the studio to turn and face the sun, to its hatch roof that could open to allow the sunlight to shine in. Several bees swarmed around, apparently having nested inside a pipe fixture on the side of the building.
Unfortunately, we were not able to actually go inside the Black Maria, but the side door was open, allowing us a look at a replica of the Chinese Laundry set from Edison's 1895 film of that same name, as well as what appeared to be a replica of an Edison camera, though it was difficult to tell from the angle that it was positioned at. What is most striking about this replica -- which is the same size as the original studio -- is how small it can look from the outside. And yet, the interior was large enough to house not only the performers, technical crew, and equipment, but also a small dressing room on the end for visiting talent. The studio was described by some of those who worked there as hot and cramped, the most uncomfortable building in which to work. On a hot day like this, it was easy to see why they might feel that way...
But imagine the larger-than-life personalities who set foot in this little studio more than a century ago! It gives me chills to stand out there at the site of the original studio, and think of the icons of late 19th/early 20th century American show business -- Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and Sandow, among them -- who stepped before Edison's camera one afternoon and achieved immortality on film. It's thrilling to stand in that spot where they once stood, and realize we are only separated by time.
With the lecture about to start, we headed inside and up to the second floor of the factory, where a tour guide gave a short talk on the invention of the movies. A small but appreciative audience was gathered, and it was fun watching the kids in the group as they looked at photos of the Kinetoscope and small strips of film that were passed around. I couldn't help thinking how excited I would have been, as a budding film enthusiast, to attend a presentation like this at their age!
The second floor of the Edison factory is where W.K.L. Dickson built his first motion picture camera, and also where the very earliest camera tests were shot. In the far corner of the second floor is a wall with a placard that designates it as the spot where Dickson's invention took place. To stand and look at this little corner of an industrial factory in suburban New Jersey, in the exact spot where the art form of motion pictures was born, is a humbling experience. Imagine being able to see the first cave wall where the first painting was created, or to stand in the exact spot where the first musical note was played. And think of all the dreams that sprang forth from Dickson's invention that day...
On display was an original Edison Kinetoscope, though it was not up and running. In a glass case was an early film repair kit consisting of a splicer and glue, used for patching up broken prints. As Jim observed, this little kit represents the birth of film editing. Next to it was a prototype cylinder viewer, one of the methods for playback of moving images that was abandoned early on. This method involved tiny individual frames that would be viewed on a turning cylinder to create the illusion of movement. I peered at the little frames and recognized the image to be from "Monkeyshines", one of the earliest surviving camera tests said to date from 1890, which features an Edison employee waving his arms about before the camera.
Jim and I proceeded to tour the rest of the museum, which includes rooms dedicated to music, sound recording, and photography, as well as Edison's impressive personal library (which takes up three floors). But the highlight of the visit was certainly the chance to spend some time in the place where the motion picture first came to light some 125 or more years ago. I think of those people who were there at the very
moment of the birth of the art form, and wonder whether they had any idea of
the power and the potential of the tool they had created. It is awe-inspiring to
think of the artistic heights the cinema has reached in just its first
century of existence, and what still lies ahead.