Film firsts from Lake County
Inventor and filmmaker Edward Amet in his back yard in 1898 with the backdrop for “The Battle of Santiago Bay.”
‘Hollywood on the
Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Ave., Highland Park
10:30 a.m. Aug. 15
Admission is free
Call (847) 432-1573 or visit www.hplibrary.org
Updated: August 8, 2012 4:04PM
A few years before the turn of the last century, before the film industry took root in Hollywood, Lake County was the setting for some key developments in movie history.
It’s possible that the concept of movie projection was born here (the first practical 35mm projector certainly was). Also, filmmaking as a crowd-pleasing art form took several steps forward with early innovations in special effects and the creation of Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, a Chicago production company that promoted cowboy star Bronco Billy Anderson and Charlie Chaplin.
All this and more will be discussed when Lake County Discovery Museum historian Diana Dretske presents “Hollywood on the Prairie” Aug. 15 at the Highland Park library.
After Thomas Edison unveiled his Kinetoscope in 1891 there was an immediate reaction around the country — and the world — by entrepreneurs who saw exciting possibilities in the machine that made it possible to watch lifelike moving pictures.
One of them was Edward Amet of Waukegan, an electrical engineer and prolific inventor who saw Edison’s Kinetoscope and films at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
“Unlike Edison, who thought moving pictures was just something kids would enjoy, a lot of other inventors wanted to pursue it further and Amet was one of those,” Dretske said. “The difference is that Amet thought of projecting the films, while only one person at a time could see Edison’s films.”
That was a very big conceptual difference indeed and one that paralleled (and may have preceded) the development in 1893 of the Cinematograph, a device that recorded, developed and projected motion pictures, by the Lumiere brothers of France.
Today, Amet’s contributions are largely forgotten and the world generally credits the Lumieres with the development of the projector and the first public screening of moving pictures for a paying audience in 1895, but it seems clear that their developments were being made almost simultaneously.
It is even possible that Amet may have preceded the Lumiere’s first commercial screening with a program of films projected by his Magniscope projector, immediately following its completion in 1894, in Waukegan’s Phoenix Opera House.
Conclusive proof (such as newspaper advertisement) is unavailable, but Amet’s business partner George Spoor of Highland Park adamantly laid claim to that distinction in later years. And some conspiracy theorists have believed, according to Dretske, surmised that Edison, who sued Amet and other early motion picture inventors for using his patented 35mm film stock, sent operatives to Waukegan to erase evidence of Amet’s accomplishments.
Regardless, Amet manufactured and sold his hand-cranked Magniscopes to film exhibitors from 1895 to 1899, when Edison’s lawsuit ended that business. He also began producing his own short films, since Edison made the only other motion pictures available at the time.
“It was a necessary step,” said Dretske, noting that exhibitors needed something to show audiences with their Magniscope projectors. “He and George Spoor initially started buying discarded films from Edison, but then they realized they needed to create their own.
“Amet’s first films, in the beginning, were just recorded movement: It wasn’t story-telling, it was watching a train coming into the Waukegan depot. Then he got more creative.”
Simple films of Amet’s brothers boxing (also Spoor’s sister Isabelle and Bess Bower Dunn of Waukegan jokingly putting on the gloves for “Morning Exercise”) soon gave way to footage of marionettes (such as a dancing skeleton in “McGinty Under the Sea”) and actors posing in theatrical tableaus on a stage, and then to dramatic recreations of battles currently taking place in the Spanish American War.
The most famous of those, “The Battle of Santiago Bay” (1898) was filmed in a water tank in Amet’s back yard using scale models of warships complete with special-effects cannon fire, shot against a painted backdrop of Cuba.
After settling his lawsuit with Edison, Amet phased out his Waukegan movie business, leading Spoor to co-create the famous Essanay Studios in Chicago with the early western star Anderson.
Anderson was the studio’s main attraction until Chaplin accepted a contract in 1915 for the unprecedented salary of $1,250 per week (and a $10,000 signing bonus) and made a series of 14 short comedies including his classic “The Tramp,”though only one of the films was made in Chicago before the studio relocated to Hollywood.
Amet, whose 59 other patented inventions included a fishing reel, a musical instrument called the “Ethelo” and a torpedo guidance system, also eventually moved to California, where he continued to create devices for the movie industry including a sound movie camera. He was a restless inventor, always involved with some new idea.
“His pattern was to invent something and then move on,” Dretske said. “He wasn’t interested in the business side of things. He was always trying to create something new.”
For more information on Amet, Spoor and the early days of filmmaking in Lake County, visit Dretske’s excellent “Illuminating Lake County” blog at lakecountyhistory.blogspot.com.