The Silent Film Era Was Anything But

Bellevue Theatre - Home of the Wonderful Echo Organ, 2210 North Front Street, March 14, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bellevue Theatre – Home of the Wonderful Echo Organ, 2210 North Front Street, March 14, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1913, “seventy vaudeville and motion picture theatres were under construction” wrote Irvin Glazer. And “virtually all of them were open by the fall,” providing Philadelphia with about 350 venues theatres that excluded downtown “legitimate theatres.” Each and every one screened silent films.

Viewing options were everywhere. In addition to the Victoria at 913 Market (open since in 1909) was the Ruby Theatre at 618 Market, the Arcadia, at 1529 Chestnut, and the Palace Theatre at 1214 Market. The massive, new, 1400-seat Stanton had opened at 16th and Market, not far from the Regent, a block to the west. But movie goers didn’t have to come to town; they could stay in their own neighborhoods and enjoy films at The Tioga, near 17th Venango or The Apollo at 52nd and Girard, or many, many others theatres—and more were on the way.

By 1915, as one film trade publication put it, “in the district known as Kensington, the home of varied industries and a large, live population” film fans could visit the newly-opened, 830-seat Bellevue Theatre. Front and Susquehanna had become a happening place.

Beyond the Bellevue’s ticket booth “of marble and mahogany” and lobby lined with stone tiles, potted palms, and hung with wall-to-wall movie posters, the Bellevue accommodated nickel-and-dime-paying patrons from after noon to an hour before midnight. They filed past brass railings and opal fixtures, down crimson carpeted aisles to upholstered seats to hear the tones of the echo organ and a five-piece orchestra. They’d take in the latest films—advertised in circulars, the daily papers, on billboards and posters mounted on a wagon that paraded the streets.

With a boom in venues and production burgeoning, the screen was now the place to be and be seen. The “celebrated and pulchritudinous” Kitty Gordon held back as long as she could, but as 1915 came to a close, Gordon gave in to “the green glare of the lights of a motion picture studio.”

“I felt positively tremulous as I made my first scene,” confessed Gordon. “But that feeling soon wore off and by the time the camera man was ready to ‘grind’ I was perfectly cool again. I am quite in love with this wonderful new art that furnishes one with surprises no matter which way one turns.”

In the role of the beautiful, charming, conniving Lena Despard, in an updated version of F. C. Philips’ As in a Looking Glass, Gordon did manage to make “an especially striking and attention-compelling photo drama.” The bar had been set high by stars in the stage versions of the role. Sarah Bernhardt had owned it for a time in Paris, admitting to a reporter that the “frank and easy style” of the story “touched” her “dramatic fibre.” Philadelphia ticket holders had packed The Walnut to witness Lily Langtry as the “soulless adventuress” Despard displayed in one after another glamorous gown, just as Lillian Cleves would at the Girard Avenue Theatre.

Gordon delivered in her debut. “Quite frequently,” observed critic Lynde Denig, she turned “her back to the camera and it generally happened that her gown was pronouncedly—need it be added—becomingly décolleté.” The director “surely bore in mind the probable spirit of the public, how eagerly it would await a convincing display of Miss Gordon’s much advertised back,” and, Denig noted, “how little the story mattered by comparison.” If the script “lacked inspirational qualities” the production “was fortunate in having a star capable of carrying so much responsibility on undraped shoulders.” Denig gave a thumbs up: “nobody is going to be disappointed in Miss Gordon’s beauty from whatever angle it is viewed…”

Motography’s writer agreed, adding a bit of pre-Hollywood snark on Gordon’s gowns, which “began late and ended early.” As it turned out, the anticipated “brilliance” of the her “‘polished shoulders’… had caused widespread halation. . .on the film.” Makeup had to “dull the gleam of that famous back and those celebrated shoulders with whole shaker-fulls of powder” before the camera could refocus “its undazzled eye on the dulled surface.”

But audiences were dazzled by all they saw, which culminated in an updated suicide scene, “a final thrill” of the Thelma and Louise variety, as Gordon and her vehicle are “hurled over a precipice.”

Projectors at the Bellevue clicked on into the 1930s, when the place was brought back to a life, of sorts, as a car parts shop.

Today, the much-compromised building on Front Street barely survives.

[Sources: Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Lynde Denig, “As in a Looking Glass” Kitty Gordon Is Introduced to World Film Audience in Melodrama of Intrigue and Love,” The Moving Picture World, Vol. 27 (World Photographic Publishing Company, 1916); “Notes from all Over,” Motography, Volume 15, No. 1, p. 48, 1916; “Bellevue Theatre Opens in Philadelphia,” Accessory News, Vol. 10, No. 25, (October 1914-Jan 1915), p. 112; and from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Mrs. Langtry at the Walnut,” January 23, 1888; “Mrs. Langtry’s Second Week,” January 24, 1888; “At the Theatres Last Night – The Girard Avenue,” October 27, 1891; “Kitty Gordon is Filmed,”  December 26, 1915.]

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