New Orleans had been home to the first purpose built cinema in America. Vitascope Hall, on Canal and Exchange, was built in 1896 and opened for just four months before closing. The business of moving pictures was slow getting going. In 1916, at a convention in the Monteleone Hotel, attended by William Fox and Charles Pathe amongst others, J. Eugene Pearce told of the ‘dark days’ of the movies when he and Herman Fichtenberg owned the only moving picture houses in the Crescent City. Pearce claimed his Electric Theatre (926 Canal Street) that opened in 1905 was ‘the first moving picture show in New Orleans.’
At the time of Pearce’s speech, the movie industry in New Orleans was a fast growing business. Many theaters at the time were being repurposed. The Market Theater in Algiers in 1915 became a cinema called Foto’s Folly Theatre. The Crescent theater converted for showing movies around 1916. As well as the Electric, J. Euguene Pearce owned the Bijou Dream and the Tudor. His major competitors were Herman Lichtenberg, Ernest Boehringer, and the Saenger brothers who in 1916 were engaged in building the Strand.
The Saenger brothers’ Strand opened in 1917 with a speech from mayor Martin Behrman. The Strand seated around a thousand and had a full symphony orchestra led by Don Philippini. By 1920 New Orleans was littered with cinemas. Other than those mentioned above, there was the Plaza and the Alamo (both owned by Fichtenberg), the New Carrollton Theatre, the Prytania, Loew’s Crescent Theatre, the Nemo (on Opelousas), the Washington, the Liberty and Globe (Saenger brothers), the Hippodrome, the Poplar, the Empire, Wonderland, the Napoleon, the Lafayette, the H.N.G.C., the Isis, the Portola, the Elysium and many many more.
New Orleans proved to be a popular setting for movies. Before WW1, the Crescent City with its ‘quaint’ French Quarter was becoming a popular tourist destination. Package tours were regularly advertised in the national newspapers. The Folly of Revenge (1916), if any footage exists, reflects this American interest in exotic New Orleans. The film is a tale of art, ‘degenerate’ patrons, beautiful models, unexpected love, loss, fights to the death, and gypsies. Then there was Rex Beach’s Crimson Gardenia (1919) with its Mardi Gras setting. Like many films set in New Orleans it was actually shot in Los Angeles.
Lambert Hillyer’s John Petticoats (1919) was an exception to Los Angeles location shooting. It is an action movie starring William S. Hart as a lumberjack who returns to manage his inheritance, a ladies fashion boutique. Strange premise. The film was set and shot mostly in New Orleans. It was shown in all four of the Saenger brothers cinemas and was promoted by a pamphlet detailing the locations used in filming. The Modiste Shop is really Sschiro’s Shoe Store on Canal and Rampart. The home of Judge Meredith in the film was really the home of Aristide Hopkins who lived at 730 Esplanade Avenue. There are also scenes in the French Quarter.
New Orleans also contributed its share of silent movie stars. Ben Turpin, Marguerite Clark, and Leatrice Joy (right) all came from the Crescent City. Maguerite Clark notably played both Eva St Clair and Topsy in the 1918 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And Leatrice Joy became a firm favorite with female cinema-goers with her short hair and boyish characters. She first starred in pictures by the NOLA film company, appearing in The Folly of Revenge (1916), before signing for Goldwyn studios in 1917. By 1920, she was a leading actress appearing in six feature length movies.
So in 1920, with the multitude of cinemas that New Orleans offered, and innumerable film companies attempting to produce the next blockbuster, you were spoiled for choice. If action serials were your thing, you could try The Trail of the Octopus starring Ben Wilson and Neva Gerber. It was playing at Foto’s Folly Theatre. There was also the $1,000,000 Vitagraph serial The Silent Avenger starring William Duncan. That was playing out weekly at the H.N.G.C. Then there were all the six reel flicks starring all the biggest stars. You could go see the beautiful Corrine Griffiths in Deadline at Eleven (1920), or Douglas Fairbanks in The Mollycoddle (1920.) Then there’s our own Leatrice Joy in Blind Youth (1920) playing at the Strand. But be quick, despite its local attraction John Petticoats only played four days, for, as the trade noted, New Orleans suffered the peculiar notion that no movie was good for more than four days.