George C. Hale in the Salt Lake City Herald, Oct. 20, 1905.
Note: This is an encore post from 2016.
Technology changes often move with the speed of lightning, upending life as it moves hurly burly into a brave new world. The early 1900s saw many new-fangled products introduced such as radio, air conditioning, and vacuum cleaners, while several relatively new inventions such as telephones, automobiles, and electricity moved more into the mainstream.
In the same way, motion pictures began undergoing their own revolution around 1905-1906, when retired Kansas City Fire Chief George C. Hale introduced his Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World to paying audiences. Filmgoing would soon move beyond kinetoscopes into nickelodeons and eventually movie palaces. More importantly, audiences would no longer just view a movie, but experience it as well.
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Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World, Billboard, Feb. 10, 1906.
The world recognized Hale as one of the top experts on firefighting in 1900, thanks to his ingenious work crafting such lifesaving devices as water towers and the spring harness. He trained his firefighters in up-to-date techniques, achieving a disciplined organization that help speed teams to the saving of homes and lives. His automatic devices and training techniques inspired others when his crackerjack crew won virtually all the prizes at an international conclave of firemen at London’s Crystal Palace in 1900. Terry Ramsaye claims in “A Million and One Nights” that Hale learned the importance of thrills and excitement of successful entertainment, which he would employ a few years later in revolutionizing the field of exhibition and moviegoing.
At the St. Louis Exposition, originally scheduled to open in 1903 but delayed until 1904, Hale’s unveiling of his novel attraction drew tremendous crowds looking for thrilling new diversions and spectacle. Ramsaye describes it in his book as a type of sideshow attraction. “A replica of a rail coach, with a man in conductor’s uniform as ticket taker, standing on the rear end, greeted the patron. Inside, the seats also simulated the arrangement of a railway car. When the show started there was a change of bells and the car apparently began to move. At the distant end in front of the audience a motion picture panorama of speeding scenery started. The car swayed on its rockers and wheels spun.”
Hale had successfully updated the the 1895 idea of English inventor and cinematographer Robert W. Paul, who filed an application for “a moving picture journey through time” based on H. G. Wells’ science fiction novella, “The Time Machine.” It also closely mirrored another Exposition concession called “A Trip to Siberia” by the Siberian Railways, in which passengers “boarded” train cars resembling Russian coaches and then “traveling” past real and imaginary objects representing Siberia, as reported in the May 22, 1904 Washington Times. This wasn’t just passively watching a film, but undergoing a sensory experience virtually replicating life. In effect, virtual reality was born.
Hale’s simulated “train” car, Billboard, April 7, 1906.
It appears Hale conceived his invention in 1902, joining with F. W. Gifford in Kansas City to construct two “train” cars with a stucco front at Electric Park for a cost of $7,000. The Times stated the two men registered patents #767281 and #800100 November 11, 1906 on their contraption. The patents called it “an illusion of a ride on any vehicle stationed in a dark place with the combination of a motion picture throws on a screen wall to reproduce the scenes and trip of trip of the country or city represented by the motion picture shown on the screen wall.” Through rear projection, films were displayed on a transparent screen, suggesting views glimpsed along a journey. Once perfecting the idea, he introduced it at the Exposition, quickly winning praise and demands for licensing the device.
Hale’s Tours of the World functioned more than just a creative theatre. It also served as a more visceral form of entertainment, literally putting audiences into the action, as crews manually shook, rolled, and joggled the coaches to simulate the movement of train cars around sharp curves, up steep grades, hurtling down hill, and over bumpy track. The motion pictures displayed footage shot off the backs of train or street cars to replicate actual views, and sound effects like whistles, bells, and whoosh of smoke copied actual sounds of travel.
This simple but revolutionary entertainment spread like wildfire across the country, an instant success wherever introduced. Hale’s Tours allowed audiences the unique opportunity to “tour” sights around the country or world, when the vast majority of people had never ventured more than 20 miles beyond their home towns, providing both education and entertainment. One ad stated, “It teaches and pleases young and old.”
Hale and Gifford basically sold kits, with each car costing $500 each and licensing films of journeys through scenic areas as visuals. They also sold accessories to decorate theaters and to help publicize the venture. Amusement parks around the country purchased Hale’s Tours as thrilling new rides and shows in order to boost attendance.
The entrance to Hale’s “train,” Moving Picture World, July 15, 1916.
The July 11,1914 Moving Picture World stated that Aaron Jones installed one of the first Hale’s Tours on Chicago’s State Street, quickly followed by New York City, where theatre impresario William A. Brady purchased exclusive rights for New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, and other New England states February 2, 1906. Brady would license Hale’s Tours of the World to such parks and places as Coney Island, Atlantic City, and Baltimore’s River View. A young Adolph Zukor worked with Brady in managing the theaters, per the September 18, 1921 New York Herald. Many other individuals found this a quick and easy way to enter the film exhibition business, including the Warner Brothers, who saw their business explode in Pennsylvania.
The April 1906 great San Francisco earthquake spurred ticket sales when Hale provided moving pictures displaying the city’s devastation. Some parks donated these receipts to San Francisco earthquake relief funds to aid those left devastated by the disaster.
Hale provided licensees new titles approximately every week or two, covering literally the world and every type of geography. An ad in the Topeka State Journal on May 8, 1906 states that The Pinewood Park Hale’s Tour displayed fresh films each week, enticing new visitors as well as repeats for those interesting in seeing new sights. These short visceral films included such things as Italy and Mount Vesuvius erupting, climbing the Alps, natural disasters, and other exciting experiences.
After the craze spread across the United States in 1906, it exploded over the world in 1907, including England, South Africa, South America, Hong Kong, and China. As with most fads, Hale’s Tours spread too far too fast, quickly imploding.
Several problems helped lead to its early demise. Demand quickly outgrew supply, with Hale unable to churn out new films fast enough for eager audiences, though he purchased other company’s short motion pictures as well. After seeing a moving picture a couple of times, audiences desired more new and exciting product. Some people grew claustrophobic in the small dark theatres, never returning after their initial visits. Others grew seasick from the jostling motion.
Hale’s Tours also initiated the move to increased showmanship in exhibiting films as well as to the construction of more elaborate and gorgeous theatres, leading the way to the grand movie palaces of the teens and twenties. Moving Picture World in its July 1, 1916 issue called Hale’s Tours the “Kindergarten of the business” in regards to how it helped birth the idea of quality projection, show, and entertainment in exhibiting film.
Though Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World lasted but a short time when first introduced, they helped motivate others to conceive of more visceral and in-your-face filmmaking, leading the way towards 3-D, Imax, and eventually 4-D rides of theme parks combining video, movement, and smell. Hale’s Tours introduced a brave new world of sight and sound combining illusion and reality that continues to thrill audiences.