Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lubin's Nickelodeon

When it comes to the history of motion pictures, few would think of Philadelphia. But like so many other uniquely American innovations, Celluloid's roots are right here.

In the tradition of wealthy eccentrics, Siegmund Lubin died bankrupt, but in 1897, this unassuming optician set out on a cinematic venture that would change the country.

Siegmund Lubin

After immigrating from Prussia in 1876, Lubin's first office was located at 237 N 8th Street in 1885, and in 1890 he moved to 21 S 8th Street. The leap from optician to movie mogul might seem strange, but given the emerging technology at the time, the science of the eye and the camera do have some striking commonalities.

In 1896 Lubin began making his own movies. In 1897 he patented the Cinegraph, an early projector. While other pioneers of the lens fought for exclusive rights to the industry, Lubin was laying the framework for our modern Hollywood studios.

Lubin Films were "Clear as a Bell" and the world's largest film manufacturer. While many of the moving pictures were little more than, well, moving pictures, he capitalized on a new medium that was arguably more influential than the internet.

Lubin Nickelodeon - Chestnut Street

Lubin opened his first theater in 1899, the world's first purpose-built movie theater. He continued making movies and opened a studio on a Tenderloin district rooftop.

Unfortunately Lubin's creativity was limited to products and marketing. Not the most original of writers, most of his content was hijacked from competitors and he spent much of his career caught in litigation, with a notable lawsuit from Thomas Edison severely tarnishing his reputation.

By 1900 Lubin was turning out one movie a day. He found much of his original content in the newspapers and in his personal heritage. Released in 1908, Yiddisher Boy was written to address anti-Semitic views.

Lubinville - 1911

His studio, Lubinville, at 20th and Indiana in North Philadelphia was opened in 1910, though nothing remains today. In 1912 he constructed an even larger studio at Betzwood Estate in Valley Forge, and continued opening studios around the globe. His empire was short lived as an explosion in Lubinville destroyed his archives in 1914, forcing him to close and sell his remaining studios.

Although bankrupt, his optical company remained in his wife's name and was not subject to his debtors. In 1917 Siegmund Lubin was an optician again and died in 1923.

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