When the Movies Arrived
Bonham Daily Favorite, March 12, 1995
One of the major gaps in sources of information about Bonham and Fannin County is the almost complete absence of area newspapers from the last decade of the nineteenth century. Only a few scattered editions remain from that era to show us how our citizens reacted to the rapid changes that were taking place as America approached a new century. This gap hinders us from having an accurate picture of the influence, great and small, that were a part of the ordinary fabric of the time.
All the important historic events are remembered and recorded but without the commonality of the weekly or daily newspaper we really know little about the smaller, simpler influences faced by Bonham citizens.
Six years before the end of the decade a new invention, that was to have a decided impact on American culture, emerged from the scientific laboratories of Thomas A. Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison's Kinetoscope, a coin operated crude motion picture machine, was introduced to the American public on April 14, 1894.
The Kinetoscope allowed one viewer at a time to peer into an aperture in a device that presented about fifteen seconds of film showing people and objects in unimagined movement. Within a year and a half the little one-person device had been surpassed by devices that could project on a larger scale the same types of images that Edison's simple machine had presented to a dazzled populace.
Motion picture history tells us that these devices were in such demand that by the end of 1896 hundreds of motion picture projectors were in use all over the United States.
Initially two forms of presentation were evident throughout the country. Enterprising risk takers frequently rented empty buildings in cities, towns, and villages from coast to coast, set up seating as crude as wooden planks laid across the tops of barrels, tacked a white bed sheet to the wall, mounted the projector on a table to the rear of the building and opened the doors to eager crowds of curiosity seekers. Most often these first "movies" were short one reel demonstrations of the art of capturing movement on film and featured such prosaic scenes and persons strolling down the sidewalk, horses racing, or trains steaming along the tracks. Nothing in the way of stories or comedic or dramatic presentations were evident.
The other method of presentation more nearly approached what would become the normal movie theatre before too much time had passed. Theater owners, particularly of those establishments dedicated to the more popular forms of entertainment such as vaudeville, recognizing that this entertainment form was not fated to become a passing fad, joined in satisfying the popular demand.
The motion picture soon became an important part of vaudeville presentations, as preludes and postludes to theatrical presentations, and most importantly as a part of the hundreds of county fair entertainments appearing annually throughout the nation. The theater devoted to strictly the presentation of motion pictures was to wait on the development of movies with a story to tell and recognizable characters to observe. Despite the popular appeal of the motion pictures, traveling theatrical productions were still among the first rank in small town entertainment.
Research has thus far failed to turn up exactly when and where motion pictures first arrived in Bonham. Logically it would seem that the most likely candidates for exhibiting the new phenomena would have been either the Steger Opera on Center Street one block north of the square or the Russell Opera House on the second floor of the Russell building on the northeast corner of the square.
Both facilities would have been equipped with the proper seating and reportedly both were of dimensions to hold a sizeable crowd. The Steger also had a balcony.
Historical footnotes tell us that the motion picture craze began to sweep the country in the closing years of the nineteenth century when such exhibitions were staged in all but the likeliest places. There is a shortage of written accounts during this time which might contain suggestions about the initial appearance of the movies in town.
One fast acting group of entrepreneurs bought up most of the available projection equipment, secured the very limited films available and then fanned out over the country determined to make a quick buck while the mania lasted. Perhaps one of these operators made his way to Bonham rented, the usual store front and set up operations.
With the limited number of films available the exhibitors repertoire would soon be exhausted and faced with declining audiences and revenues he soon would pack his equipment and move on to the next town. Once again the eager audience would have to turn to the live attractions of the traveling theatrical companies and the side show attractions of the traveling circuses and carnivals.
By 1910 Bonham appeared to have two movie houses. The first of these seems to have made more of an impression on the memories of Bonham citizens. The Airdrome Theater reportedly came into being about 1910 and was opened by a Bonham physician on west Fifth Street where the drive-in facility of the bank is presently located.
Descriptions of the theater indicate that the facility was truly "open air." The walls, of canvas, surrounded the seating area on three sides. At the south end a semi-enc1osed wooden stage housed the movie screen recessed a few feet into the housing. Seats were long planks with no backs. A frame-work of sorts was built over the seating area with an arrangement by which canvas could be pulled over in case of inclement weather.
An indistinct photo at the museum seems to show that this roofing area was something like the trusses of a house. The recessed screen area probably enabled the film to be shown even on nights of the full-moon. By 1914 a city directory indicates that this theater was owned by Ray Peeler, Sr. and Rabb Taylor was employed as projectionist.
A 1910 directory shows one other theater in the city. The Crescent Theater located at 507 North Main Street was in operation with Mort Herron as proprietor. Nothing more in known about this establishment. In 1914 at the same location the theater was now called The Mystic and the owner was Ben Halsell.
That same year the Mystic was joined by three other, The Palace, The Queen, and The Best. The Queen was located on the west side of the square and there other two were a few doors apart on the south side of the square.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas