Nickelodeons were once as common as coffee shops, and the nickel-a-pop silent films they showed were as disposable as YouTube videos. That made for a lot of competition in the early days of the movie business — competition that fueled the rise of an indie-films culture as early as 1909.
Not that you'd know it from the history books.
"We don't know 90 percent of the history yet," says Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, who teaches film history at Georgia State University. Then as now, she says, the dominant movie studios hogged the limelight, and most of the era's chroniclers overlooked the little guys.
"Edison and Biograph and Vitagraph had tried to completely dominate film production" in the industry's early years, Fuller-Seeley says. "But the demand for new motion pictures from these thousands of little nickelodeon theaters that were spreading across the country — the demand was so great that these few studios who tried to lock up the American market couldn't satisfy all their needs."
One man who saw opportunity in that picture was Edwin Thanhouser, who ran a theater company in Milwaukee, Wis. The new medium promised to become a money machine at a time when theater attendance was declining, and Thanhouser saw the writing on the wall.
"The entertainment industry went from live performers on stage — [who] were sometimes unreliable in terms of showing up, or being sober — to being able to capture it on film once and then project it many times," says Ned Thanhouser, Edwin's grandson.
Needing a studio to make his movies, Edwin Thanhouser looked East. (Hollywood was barely a dot on the map, but Thomas Edison's company had been making pictures for years in New York and New Jersey.) Thanhouser wanted to be where the action was, so he leased a roller-skating rink in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle — "the fashionable place for Broadway producers, successful actors and actresses, and others in the entertainment business to live," as one industry history puts it. The company took off: By 1912, the Thanhouser Co. was distributing its pictures globally.
The going wasn't all easy, though. In the early days, "motion-picture film didn't come perforated," as Ned's father, Lloyd Thanhouser, recalled in a 1980 interview. "You had to perforate it yourself."
And the movies' nitrate negatives were highly flammable and expensive to store. Eventually, Edwin decided that maintaining his archive was too much trouble.
"Edwin was storing the nitrate negatives in a vault," Ned Thanhouser says. "And he determined, in the '20s, that these films ... were really worthless. They were like pulp fiction; they were read and thrown away."
So Edwin, as Lloyd Thanhouser always told the story, piled those nitrate negatives up and put the torch to them.
Rediscovering A Lost Trove Of Film Treasures
What Lloyd Thanhouser never told his son Ned was that for every negative that was burned, there were 30 or 40 prints made — and some of them ended up in film archives. Ned learned of their existence through a public television show. Then he discovered that a wealthy New Hampshire collector had written a manuscript about his grandfather's company.
"The Thanhouser Films encyclopedia by David Bowers has 3,000 articles about the [company's] history from beginning to end — transcriptions of all of the reviews, from every film that was made," Ned Thanhouser says. "He paid researchers to dig through publications, newspapers, fan magazines, [and] he transcribed all of that information onto computer disc — and then I converted it onto a CD-ROM."
These days, Ned sells that CD-ROM — not to mention a 12-volume collection of rediscovered rarities — through a nonprofit called Thanhouser Co. Film Preservation. Ned, who works by day at the high-tech giant Intel, founded the outfit to help share what he'd learned about his grandfather's family business.
"Ned Thanhouser's efforts are truly changing the way we understand this film history," says Kathy Fuller-Seeley, the film-studies professor.
'Higher Aspirations' In An Infant Industry
Thanhouser films, Fuller-Seeley explains, were different from the beginning.
"They really stand out as trying to attract middle-class movie viewers, who had been suspicious of the sort of low-class, pie-in-the-face, slightly tacky nature of some early films," she says. "They really wanted to bring ... higher aspirations to this new and developing media."
The Thanhouser Co. made literary adaptations of classics such as Cinderella and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They made a serial thriller called The Million Dollar Mystery — which earned more than that for the studio and launched the career of its star, James Cruze. (He went on to direct one of Hollywood's first major Westerns.)
But Edwin Thanhouser's company didn't make it.
"Like many other of the small independent studios of the day, they end up getting subsumed, bought out, shutting down," Fuller-Seeley says. A new generation of movie studios — Fox and Universal, Warner Bros. and what would become MGM — were growing out on the West Coast, she explains.
"It's not his fault; he did the best he could," Fuller-Seeley says. "But boy, the industry was changing rapidly."
The Thanhouser Co. closed down in 1918.
A Fourth Generation Takes Up The Family Torch
At the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore., one recent week, Ned Thanhouser's son Ed Jr. — the great-grandson of studio founder Edwin Thanhouser — is helping his dad get the word out. He says he and his brothers used to roll their eyes at their father's obsession with the old films. But he too caught the bug.
"You can see this industry in its first baby steps — like how did they figure out all of these complicated techniques that we take for granted today?" he says. "So in one sense it's a history lesson. ... The independent film movement in the early industry is really, really overlooked."
And the best of the Thanhouser films, Ed Jr. says, are simply fun to watch: "They're still fascinating. They still tell a good story."
The Thanhouser clan has located nearly 200 of the company's movies so far. And they continue to search for artifacts and prints related to the more than 800 Thanhouser films they know were made — but haven't seen yet.
Bellamy Pailthorp reports from member station KPLU in Portland.