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home : considered comment : a short history of the city's movie theatres May 1, 2016

The movie-going habit began in Rochester 92 years ago

1st in a 2-part series

It wasn't hard to find. As you approached the corner of Main and Pearl Streets (Main and Ninth, north of the new Walgreen Pharmacy), you could hear the voice of Delbert Collins. He was shouting into a megaphone "Just starting! Just commencing!" in a voice loud enough "to be heard at the river bridge."

So you walked into what recently had been the McClure and Wilson hardware store and, for a nickel, bought a ticket from Cecile Brady. Choosing one of the 160 kitchen chairs arranged before a stretched white muslin sheet, you sat down and waited for Fred (Chewy) Shoulders to start the carbon-burning arc light projector.

It was 92 years ago - June 22, 1907 - and that was opening night for the Earle Theatre, Rochester's first motion picture house. That's how long movies have been a part of the local scene, although the first one had been shown a year or so before at the Academy of Music building, Market (Fifth) and Main. It concerned the life of Jesus.

By 1907 motion pictures no longer were considered a novelty; they were becoming entertainment for the masses. Theatres like the Earle, called Nickelodeons because they charged a nickel admission, were springing up all over the country. The movies were silent; sound would not arrive for another 20 years.

Earle Miller, a 22-year-old local newspaper reporter, owned the theatre to which he gave his name and he has left a description of its operation. For their nickel, customers received 20 minutes of the day's best pictures, called silents. The theatre was open six nights a week and changed features daily.

During the show pianist Helen Reiter played popular tunes while behind the sheet Earl Guthrie made sound effects timed to the movie plot, such as a gunshot created by cracking a buggy whip against canvas.

Ruth Grove entertained the crowd with songs between showings of the feature. On Wednesday and Saturday nights these could be shown as many as 10 times to handle the 1,500 or so customers who turned out to enjoy the slapstick antics of comedians John Bunny and Fatty Arbuckle. Management made sure nobody stayed through two shows on one ticket.

(Harry Holden, a Lake Manitou resident when not acting with the touring theatrical company he owned with brother Charley, replaced Bunny upon the latter's death and led a successful movie career.)

The Earle theatre's life was short, about 16 months. It burned on October 15, 1908, and was not reestablished.

Not to worry, though. The Earle had shown the way and by the time it disappeared Rochester's entrepreneurs were getting in on this new business.

In the year of the Earle's demise, 1908, Earl (Red) Jessen opened the Kai-Gee theatre at 716 Main, the west side location today of the Keefer and Company accounting office. The name, pronounced K-G, was chosen from 492 submitted in a contest and presumably meant "awful good" in Chinese. Etta Sullivan, the librarian, suggested it. The Kai-Gee lasted until 1917, four years earlier moving northward to a new building at 710 Main where later the Racket clothing store and then the Coffee Shop held forth. It's now site of the All About Pets store.

There also was the Manitou movie house at 120 East Eighth Street, today's Peterson and Waggoner law office. Previously a popular vaudeville house, in 1909 the Manitou added movie programs of an hour's length.

In 1910 the Star theatre appeared at a location that hasn't been determined, probably on Main Street, and operated for a couple of years. Its movies often featured Bess Emrick, a local girl who was acting regularly in the films of her director husband's production company at Ithaca, N.Y. The Star offered four reels nightly for 10 cents.

In 1915 came the Paramount theatre at 814 Main Street in the north half of today's B&B Store, replacing the My Show theatre. The Paramount was franchised to show the Paramount company's pictures exclusively and it lasted until 1925. Still one more movie house operated briefly in that year of 1915 at 626 Main Street, location of H&R Block today.

When the Earle theatre brought film entertainment to the town, movie showings often were interrupted when the picture faded; the carbon arc had to be retrimmed. Flickering and jumping of the images also were a bother (giving rise to the synonym of flick for a movie). Both of these annoyances had been eliminated by the time the Kai-Gee opened and when it moved into the new building five years later, in 1913, its projector was able to show two reels instead of one without stopping. Also its rows of 300 seats were at last separated widely enough so that nobody had to rise to allow passage.

Vaudeville acts also were presented to Kai-Gee's movie customers. Often appearing were the Ravencroft brothers, Holden, John and Edward, whose singing and comedy routine was performed with their father, Ralph, a longtime professional actor. John became a member of the successful King's Jesters radio singers. Edward remained here and became Rochester postmaster.

In 1915 an experiment with outdoor movies was begun here. Roy Shanks opened what he called the Airdome on a North Main Street vacant lot. It could seat 650, had side walls and a projection room made of concrete blocks. The Airdome's appeal lasted five summers, closing in 1919.

Its location today is that of our cherished Times theatre that began its existence as the Char-Bell. Its singular story is next, to conclude this history of the silver screen in Rochester.

Published Sept. 14, 1999

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