As the industry gears up to celebrate this year’s centenary of film, the actual 100th anniversary of the first screening for a paying public – May 20 – conveniently falls on the first weekend of the Cannes Film Festival.

Yet the date will go unmarked at the most important film festival in the world because attention in France is focused on Dec. 28, the 100th anniversary of the Lumiere brothers’ first shows for customers at the Grand Cafe in Paris.

Film scholars agree that the first recorded screenings actually occurred in New York seven months before the Lumieres tore their first ticket in half. Nevertheless, most of the world, including many in the film industry, accept the French claim.

The true film pioneers were a former Confederate officer named Woodville Latham and his sons, Gray and Otway. By the time the Lumieres got into the act, Latham films had been seen in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Richmond, Va. thanks partly to France’s inspired boosterism of its own cinematic contributions and partly because Thomas Edison invented a better projector. Then there was the problem of the Lathams themselves, a fast-living bunch (not unlike some current film practitioners) whose irresponsible lifestyles contributed to their demise and obscurity. The Lathams were not only a commercial flash in the pan but a historic meteor whose light was soon eclipsed by the worldwide fame of the Lumieres and Edison.

Open to quibbling

The definition of the cinema’s “birthday” is itself open to quibbling. Edison offered the first commercial showings of films, in a single-viewer peep show format, in early 1894. In March of 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumiere began several months of private projections for civic and professional groups; the Lathams held a similar demonstration the following month.

Yet if the medium can be said to have a moment of birth, it was surely the first time the public bought tickets and beheld films projected on a screen, thus kicking off the communal and commercial experience we call the movies. This is the signal honor, widely credited to the Lumieres, that belongs to three transplanted Virginians.

Edison in fact, gave them the opportunity. Already celebrated as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” he began toying with the idea of motion pictures in the late 1880s. Building on the work of pioneers like Eadweard Muybridge, by the early ’90s he and a top assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, had developed the prototype of every motion picture camera that would come later.

Yet Edison proved curiously myopic to the potential of projecting films. Thinking he could make more money by confining their display to single-viewer machines, he had his company offer franchises on his peep show device, the Kinetoscope, in 1893. Meanwhile at his plant in West Orange, N.J., Dickson constructed the first movie studio, the “Black Maria,” to supply the peep show with film loops, each running about 20 seconds.

The first parlor

The first Kinetoscope Parlor opened on Broadway on April 14,1894. Gray and Otway Latham, ambitious young men then working in the pharmaceutical trade, must have discovered it almost immediately, because by May they and two partners had formed the Kinetoscope Exhibition Co. The firm’s goal was not only to acquire an Edison franchise but to combine the peep show’s appeal with that of another hot ticket of the day: prize fighting.

That decision prompted the embryonic medium’s first technological leap. At the Latham company’s instigation, Edison’s camera and viewer were quickly retooled to nearly triple their film capacity. On June 15, the Latham contingent went to the Black Maria and joined Edison in watching Dickson shoot their first film, six abbreviated rounds between boxers Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing. The event was front page news in New York the next day.

The Lathams’ first Kinetoscope parlor opened at 83 Nassau Street in Manhattan a few weeks later. While Gray and Otway later claimed success with “The Leonard-Cushing Fight,” which was shown on six Kinetoscopes at 10¢s; each, it’s more likely that commercial disappointment led to their next scheme, involving their father’s scientific background.

Woodville Latham Jr. had served the Confederacy as an artillery officer and spent the postwar years as a professor of chemistry at Southern colleges. Moving to New York sometime after his wife’s death in 1890, he was quickly drawn into his sons’ Kinetoscope venture. By early 1895 the team had created a new camera (it used 70 mm stock ordered from Eastman Kodak) and a projector, the Eidoloscope.

The first press screening

On April 21, in what must have been the world’s first press screening, the Lathams invited reporters to view their invention. The next day’s New York Sun carried an illustrated report that described the projection of a short film showing some kids cavorting while Woodville smoked a pipe nearby. Half the article though, was devoted to an interview with Edison.

Undeterred, the Lathams went to Madison Square Garden’s roof on May 4 and filmed the subject of their first commercial display, a match between boxers Young Griffo and Charles Barnett.

It got a rave

The day the movies were born, May 20,1895, came and went without leaving any permanent mark in the media. Presumably patrons came to the Lathams’ theater at 156 Broadway, bought their tickets and watched the four-minute “Griffo-Barnett Fight,” which was offered at 15-minute intervals. On May 28, the New York World carried an article – the first movie review? – that glowed with enthusiasm not only for the film but for the new medium itself.

“Life-size presentations they are and will be, and you won’t have to squint into a little hole to see them,” writer Howard B. Hackett exulted. “You’ll sit comfortably and see fighters hammering each other, circuses, suicides, hangings, electrocutions, shipwrecks, scenes on the exchanges, street scenes, horse-races, football games… just as if you were on the spot during the actual events.”

Moving to exploit their invention, the Lathams opened a second theater and filmed other subjects. In August the Eidoloscope was shown at two Chicago “variety” houses, establishing a connection between vaudeville and the movies that would endure for decades. In Norfolk, Va., its wonders prompted a demand by citizens to stand behind the screen to make sure it wasn’t a hoax.

The enterprise’s decline was inevitable, however, once Edison quietly acquired the rights to a superior projection system developed in late 1895 by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Debuting in New York in April 1896, Edison’s Vitascope soon swept the nation. Awed at the Wizard’s latest stroke of genius, America fell in love with the movies.

Undone by the competition, and by Gray and Otway’s hedonistic excesses, the Lathams were out of the movie game by 1897.

Today every movie shown uses the “Latham Loop,” a device invented in the family’s workshop. While the world may have forgotten the Lathams themselves, it does not contest a claim made for them in 1926. “The opening May 20,1895,” historian Terry Ramsaye, “was the first public showing of motion pictures on a screen in all the world. The pictures flickered and danced and glimmered. It was only the ghost of a show, but it was first.”

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