In the first part of the 20th century, before making the cross-country trek to Hollywood, the motion picture industry settled briefly in our fair city. During the early years of cinema, film companies were based on the east coast, centered in New York City. However, costs began to increase exponentially, due to both organized crime and Thomas Edison’s stranglehold on the industry. The rackets forced producers to pay exorbitant fees for location shooting (this in the days before studio lighting). And Thomas Edison jealously guarded access to his technology and film stock. Any film company wishing to produce nickelodeons in the tri-state area would be forced to make a pilgrimage to New Jersey to pay their respects (and a large monetary offering) to the “Wizard of Menlo Park” before they could begin shooting. Adding to the difficulty, the newly installed elevated subway trains shook the film studios every ten minutes, making steady photography an impossibility.
Frustrated by the costs and difficulties of shooting in New York, independent producers began looking for alternative locations. After scouting several areas, Amalgamated Moving Picture Inc (AMP) and three smaller operators settled on our city. It was considered ideal because of its easy access to the railroad and early adoption of alternating electrical current (AC)— thus removing itself from the iron grasp of Thomas Edison and his direct current (DC) system. In 1914, AMP’s incvestors moved their production offices into the recently vacated Ellsberg Ironworks building (this following Seymour Ellsberg’s disastrous and financially crippling attempt to corner the world supply of aluminum). This proved to be fortuitous timing—the Cinco de Mayo Massacre of 1914 had just eliminated many of the city’s major organized crime players, thus saving the film companies from being fleeced by underworld syndicates.
In 1914, over 400 short films were produced in and around the city for the fast growing motion picture market. Unfortunately, few of these films survive today, due to poor preservation and the Great Flood of 1936, which submerged most of downtown, destroying much of the library’s archives (and washing away Storky, the city’s beloved mascot and the world’s largest free-standing ceramic statue from his perch in Mabel Tripp Gardens. The statue was never recovered). The few films that did survive provide a snapshot of the city on the grow, circa 1914—including the only known existing image of Mayor Jonathan T. Sanders, who still holds the record for shortest stay in office (36 days, 14 hours).
The era also produced the city’s first (and so far, only) cinematic genius, D.W. DeMarkowitz. Little is known about his background, but his quick rise to fame is a legend in film history circles. He began as an actor, with his first known appearance in 1914’s Dolly in Danger as the train conductor, a short that still exists in the Library of Congress archive. He quickly ascended to starring roles, including Richard III and Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, although, sadly, these performances exist only in newspaper reviews from the era. (The Journal-American said of his Hamlet “…for a non-speaking performance, he perfectly captures the infamous Danish ennui”…)
1915 would prove a career defining year for DeMarkowitz. He began his most ambitious undertaking in February—a 1/2 scale replica of the Coliseum, for use in his epic The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he shot in 16 five-minute installments between February and April. Nearly the entire city turned up for the grand opening, during which DeMarkowitz staged an enormous naval battle, depicting the Roman victory over the Persians. Admission was free, but with a catch—all attendees were required to dress in togas and consent to being filmed for part one of the epic. DeMarkowitz himself is said to have played Nero, giving the thumbs-down to the defeated sailors.
The Roman epic proved to be the highpoint for cinema in our city, as the film industry was soon to leave for the warmer climes of Southern California (perhaps also speeded by the fact that hundreds of the actors and sailors in the Roman picture came down with pneumonia due to exposure to the damp and chilly spring weather). D.W. DeMarkowitz was tragically run down by a trolley car only two years later, before finishing his promised masterpiece—a 90-part saga including every story in the Old and New Testament. He remains a footnote in film history, an early genius remembered only by historians. The other producers were soon lured west by the sunny climate and year round shooting available in Los Angeles. Additionally, the temporary vacuum in the criminal underworld was quickly filled by the notorious O’Sullivan brothers and demands for bribes began once again. In the end, it was all too much for Amalgamated Moving Pictures. Having banked a small fortune into DeMarkowitz’s bible epic, and seeing no possibility of a return on its investment, they closed their doors for good in 1917, thus ending an important but little discussed chapter in film history.
The Coliseum remained, however, first used as a venue for Wild Bill’s traveling Wild West show, and other large events. Eventually the interior was converted into a miniature golf course and pizzeria, which it remained until 1968, when it was razed after a young golfer fell through a crumbling windmill into the cages and inner workings of the interior. The child was fine, but the Coliseum was considered too dangerous for future use. One of the columns that supported the structure still exists at the Museum of Furniture and City History on Sycamore Street.
– M. Vermeulen