#183) Star Theatre (1901)

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#183) Star Theatre (1901)

OR “Breaking the Fourth Wall (And the Other Three)”

Directed by F.S. Armitage

Class of 2002

The Plot: Time-lapse photography shows us the demolition of New York City’s Star Theatre. The real event occurred over the course of 30 days from April to May of 1901, but thanks to the geniuses at Biograph, you can see the whole thing in less than two minutes!

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief summary, plus some backstory on the project.

But Does It Really?: I’ll say sure, because time-lapse photography is neat, and someone had to introduce it to the American mainstream. Plus this is one of the few films that remotely cares about the death of the American Theater. Where’s this guy’s Isabelle Stevenson Award?

Everybody Gets One: F.S. Armitage did most of his groundbreaking camera work for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (later shortened to Biograph Company). Time-lapse photography was his main trick with this short, but he also experimented with film reversal and image superimpositions. Virtually nothing is known about Armitage outside of a six-year period with Biograph, and most of that information is his filmography.

Wow, That’s Dated: Literal horsepower. That’s the main one.

Other notes

  • Despite what the internet claims, this is not the first film to utilize time-lapse photography. French film pioneer George Méliès beat this film to the punch in the late 1890s. This may, however, be the first American film to do so, or at least the earliest surviving one.
  • The film’s timelapse consisted of one frame every four minutes. At approximately two minutes in length, this film covers 192 hours of the theatre’s destruction.
  • This film was a pretty easy set-up for Armitage: the theatre was located across the street from the Biograph studio. They just put a camera by one of their windows and let the thing run.
  • Among the actors that performed on the stage of the Star over the years were the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, and most notably, Edwin Booth, a celebrated Shakespearean actor in his day, but perhaps best known today as being the brother of that other actor named Booth.
  • The final show that performed at the Star Theatre was something called “The Convict’s Daughter” by J.A. Fraser. You now know as much as I do about that play.
  • This film is referred to by the NFR as “Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre”. The actual footage is just the demolition, but Biograph sent out prints with the suggestion that when shown in reverse, “the effect is very extraordinary”. (The title on the actual film is simply “Star Theatre”, hence its naming on this post).

Legacy

  • The Biography Company folded in 1916, but not before launching the careers of Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and D.W. Griffith.
  • The former site of the Star Theatre is currently the home of several businesses including, appropriately enough, a movie theater.

Only tangentially related to this film, I’ve always enjoyed this photo of Gloria Swanson posing amongst the rubble of the former Roxy Theater movie palace in 1960. The main lobby area is currently home to a T.G.I. Friday’s. What’s playing at the Roxy? Steak and ribs, mostly.

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