FIRST MOVIE THEATER IN AMERICA GETS ITS MARKER ON CANAL STREET
On July 26, 1896, the first movie theater in the United States opened at 623 Canal Street in New Orleans. Admission to the 400-seat theater—basically a showroom fitted with a projector and filled with chairs—was 10 cents. For an additional dime, patrons were afforded a glimpse behind the curtain to see the innovative Edison Vitascope projector that converted still black and white photos into moving images up to a minute long.
Now, over a century later, Vitascope Hall has finally received an historic marker that commemorates the location where American theatre-goers got their first glimpses of the technology that added motion to pictures.
A preliminary unveiling of the marker took place on October 14, 2019, two days prior to the opening of New Orleans Film Festival. However, the permanent installation was unexpectedly delayed when it was determined that additional engineering studies were needed to ensure the integrity of the installation and the infrastructure beneath.
Recognizing the significance of this part of history, Louisiana-based engineer Paul Flower of Woodward Design and Build offered to orchestrate the design and installation of the marker on a pro bono basis. The installation was completed at the corner of Canal St. and Exchange Place on June 15, 2020.
Installation of the marker has been a priority of Ed and Susan Poole, internationally known film historians and archivists, for over 20 years.
“Our original application for the installation of the marker was submitted in 1996, to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of Vitascope Hall,” said Sue. “However, ours was not the first request for such. In our research, we discovered an article in The Times-Picayune calling for an historic marker—that was in 1912. So we’re delighted that this is finally coming to fruition!”
In 2014, the couple met Michael W. Domingue, the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s Recreational Trails Program Administrator, when the two were making a presentation about their book, Hollywood on the Bayou, at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge.
“As soon as Ed shared the story of Vitascope Hall, I knew it was the crowning jewel for New Orleans and Louisiana as an important component of Hollywood South,” said Domingue. “We had to make this historical landmark a reality.”
Unfortunately, the application got stuck in the bureaucratic mire waiting for approval. Momentum picked up when Hollywood veteran and Louisiana author Linda Thurman learned about Vitascope Hall and the stalled application process.
“I met Ed and Sue while researching a book about Louisiana’s film industry,” said Thurman. “When I learned from them that this important piece of history was hiding in plain sight, I wanted to help them in their efforts. It was a story waiting to be told!”
Recognizing the significance of this effort, New Orleans philanthropists Russ and Sandra Herman signed on as sponsors to underwrite the project. With backing Thurman and Domingue got the ball rolling again with the aid of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser. Lynne Coxwell, who oversees the Louisiana Historical Marker Program, helped with the application process.
Approved and purchased in 2016, the marker has been in storage in a City of New Orleans warehouse. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s executive office director Amy Rodenberger brought the project to the attention of the mayor, who quickly appointed director of constituent services Bryon Cornelison to oversee crucial last stages of installation.
“It feels rather fitting that this whole process has been an interesting journey,” said Poole. “In an industry built by storytelling, we feel this is what we could consider the final chapter. And now the story can continue to live on with each visitor who stands alongside that historic marker where it all began.”