The Austin History Center’s exhibit, "The First Picture Shows: Historic Austin Movie Houses," highlights the history of Austin’s film venues, from those that played the first picture screening in 1896 to the rise of multiplex theaters.
So far, the exhibit has generated considerable public interest, said Mike Miller, manager of the Austin History Center.
“I think that film and movies speak to so many different people on so many different levels. We all kind of have memories, whether it’s a movie theater or whether it’s the first movie we saw or our favorite movie, I think in that regard, the topic [for the exhibit] was a very good choice,” Miller said. “People walk in and they say, ‘Oh, I remember that!’ or ‘I worked there!’ A day doesn’t go by that we don’t have people browse into the exhibit, which is really nice.”
Dozens of movie venues were built in Austin in order to meet the demand during Hollywood’s golden age. Many of these theaters went on to become drugstores, coffeehouses or comedy clubs, according to a news release from the History Center. The exhibit showcases the early nickelodeons and storefront theaters that were built on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street through hundreds of historic photographs, documents and architectural drawings that are on display.
“We were able to track down descendants of people who had started some of the theaters and talk to the families, and see what they still had in their possession,” Miller said. “That resulted in three distinct donations of materials from family members that were related to some of the owners and operators of some of the old theaters in Austin.”
The exhibit features a kinetoscope. When movie pictures were first created in the late 19th century, the most common way to view them was through a kinetoscope, Miller said, which was a hand-cranked machine.
Thomas Edison created the machine for individual viewing. He envisioned that moviegoing would be a personal experience. Edison saw moving pictures as a novelty and as something that would accompany his photographs, Miller said, and did not recognize what movies would become.
“We wanted to try to recreate the experience that people had prior to going to a movie theater and seeing it projected onto a big screen, and the only way to see a movie was to go look in this little box, put a penny in the machine and turn a crank, and you would see pictures move for just a few seconds,” Miller said.
The Austin History Center had a machine built that was based on photographs of old kinetoscopes from a kinetoscope parlor in San Francisco. The exterior looks like an old-fashioned kinetoscope from the 19th century, but the inside is completely driven by iPods.
“So it kind of brings it full circle, because now it’s just like Edison envisioned in the 19th century. So many of us have our film experience on our phones and iPads with Netflix, it’s now again almost a uniquely individual experience,” Miller said.
The History Center and the Austin History Center Association held an exhibit reception and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Paramount and State theaters June 16.
A program will be held July 17 as part of the Paramount Summer Film series. It will be held at the State Theater at 7:30 p.m., and will include a viewing of the "First Picture Shows" exhibit and a short silent film about history of movie theaters in Austin, Miller said. The program will close with a screening of a film from the Austin History Center’s film vault called “Austin the Friendly City,” which was created in 1943. The history center had the movie resorted through a grant, and this will be the first indoor theatrical showing of the film since the 1940s. The event is free, and no RSVP is required.
The exhibit will be on display until Aug. 19 at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St.