“The Great Corbett Fight” at Tally’s theater.
Note: This is an encore post from 2017.
Former Texan T. L. (Thomas) Tally pioneered early film exhibition practices in the film metropolis of Los Angeles, catering to the needs of his audiences. Always enamored with technology, he seemed to anticipate and lead trends in advancing both the presentation of films as well as their selling and distribution. Though Tally was recognized as an innovator, his history has been promulgated with repeated errors that distort history.
In my first post, I presented the first part of the factual history regarding Tally’s life. Born in Rockport, Texas in 1862, he established his first phonograph parlor in San Antonio in 1890 and first visited Los Angeles that year. Fascinated with engineering and mechanical marvels that produced sound and images, he began seeking out these products.
T.L. Tally in “Moving Picture World”
Tally established his first phonograph and kinetoscope parlors in Santa Monica and Los Angeles in 1895, a full year before any other historian puts him in Los Angeles, announcing on October 8, 1895, that he had purchased Peter Bacigalupi’s downtown parlor and was continuing the exhibition of the Corbett fight. On July 25, 1896, he announced his acquisition of a Vitascope and exhibition of films in the Los Angeles Herald, and later caused the first nitrate fire that September.
Leading the way for other exhibitors, Tally took over the Electric Theatre at 262 S. Main Street and turned it into the city’s first film-only theatre, opening on May 10, 1902, with an ad in the Los Angeles Times, not in April as other historians claim. One of his later advertisements that month stated, “a vaudeville of moving pictures lasting one hour,” thereby elevating film to the realm of theatre. Tally promoted his business with side screenings in Oxnard, per the Oxnard Courier. The savvy businessman attracted big crowds, advertising off and on in the newspaper through the summer of 1903, never going out of business and never going on the road. In fact, Tally first exhibited Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” at the Electric Theatre on June 17, 1903, per an ad in the Los Angeles Times that day.
On July 19, 1903, Tally elevated his program, refining it for a better class of patrons. The Los Angeles Times ad revealed a new name for the Theatre, the Lyric, featuring “refined vaudeville, and will still continue to keep the lead of all other show houses with our fine programme of moving pictures.” Admission remained 10 cents with continuous performances. Perhaps his screening of better pictures rubbed off on the newspaper, for it gave its first review of the motion picture “Fairyland” playing at his theatre on October 11 of that year, going on for nine paragraphs about its wonders.
As moving pictures improved and grew more popular, exhibition grew more profitable and advanced as well. Seeing a steady rise in attendance, Tally soon realized he needed a larger space to accommodate higher-class patrons and to put on a more elaborate show. He acquired 554 S. Broadway, the Broadway Theatre, which possessed 500 seats. Tally renamed it the New Broadway Theatre and upgraded his presentations. By 1909, moving pictures were becoming a growing business not only in Los Angeles, but in towns large and small throughout California. Seizing on opportunity, Tally established a film exchange on the upper floor of his theatre, selling all manner of product to other exhibitors, growing his business and his acumen.
Staying ahead of the curve, he spent $600,000 to purchase a 50-year lease on land at South Broadway and Eighth Street between Hamburger’s Department Store and the Majestic Theatre on which to construct an even more elaborate theatre, and one to hold 900 patrons. The March 16, 1910, Los Angeles Times reported that Odemer and Homeyer would construct the two-story $25,000 theatre designed by Train and Williams, a lass-A building constructed of steel and concrete.
Located at 831-835 S. Broadway, the theatre originally had been conceived as an eight- to ten-story building, with mostly offices on upper floors, but only the two-story theatre was constructed. It featured marble corridors, mahogany paneling, two high-speed elevators and one freight elevator. Tally went high-tech, adding the first electrical orchestra pit, which lifted the group from the basement to stage level at the start of the show, called a “disappearing orchestra.” The September 1, 1910, issue of Nickelodeon magazine also noted his elaborate program,” five reels of licensed pictures, two illustrated songs, and either vocal or instrumental specialties… .”
Smart and observant, Tally catered to the wants and desires of his patrons. Once he discovered their interests, he focused on films to continue luring them in. He screened early Biographs and other major companies’ product, and on September 18, 1913, signed a contract giving him exclusive rights to exhibit Famous Players Film Co.’s moving pictures in his theatres. On August 20, 1914, Tally consolidated his power and position by inking a deal to control the booking of most big features in Los Angeles and the Southwest, looking for ways to make more money.
When Famous Players merged with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. and formed the distribution arm Paramount Pictures, Tally negotiated a contract on September 5, 1914 giving him the exclusive right to exhibit their films. To fill out his schedule throughout the year, he also booked Selznick, Goldwyn, Fox, Metro, and Hodkinson pictures. Refusing to raise prices, Tally hosted eight shows a day featuring musical accompaniment, with 22 employees serving the needs of the public.
Always looking for ever more elaborate ways to upgrade presentations, Tally enhanced his theatre’s musical capabilities by installing what some call the first moving picture theatre organ. The July 10, 1915, Moving Picture World stated that Tally paid $17,000 to the Johnston Organ and Piano Music Co. for a four manual echo organ, the largest of its kind in the world, for his house. Built in Los Angeles, it consisted of a swell organ, great organ, choir organ, and echo organ, housed all around the building. Jean de Chauvenet served as the first organist, with special concerts on Sunday. Besides the magnificent organ, the theatre featured four stained glass panels in the ceiling, large windows flanking the screen, and green plush curtains framing the screen.
By 1917, Tally and other major exhibitors across the country chafed at the idea of paying studios for a program of pictures in order to get the few blockbusters starring mega stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. On April 20, 1917, he joined with J. D. Williams and others to form the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, buying films outright from major producers to distribute on their own, cutting out the middlemen. The group met in New York on May 12, 1917, electing S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel president and Tally as vice president. First National’s Los Angeles office was housed in Tally’s theatre.
Tally took an active role, negotiating on his own with Sydney and Charlie Chaplin for exclusive right to Chaplin films, finally signing Chaplin to a $1-million contract for eight pictures plus a $75,000 bonus after cigars and coffee at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, per the August 1, 1917 New York Clipper. Members would pay a pro-rata share of Chaplin’s contract. The paper reported that Tally had never shown a Chaplin film in his theatres and failed to find him funny, but realized his enormous popularity with audiences. Tally pursued talks with Mary Pickford as well, arranging an exclusive deal with her in September 1918 in which she would make four films for $250,000 each. At the same time, Tally purchased the Kinema Theatre on Grand Avenue in September 1919 for an additional outlet.
First National was none too thrilled when Chaplin, Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists in 1919, requiring Pickford and Chaplin to fulfill their contracts with the company. Pickford completed her films but Chaplin failed to deliver the vast majority of his product.
By 1920, Tally yearned to return to his first love, exhibition. He resigned from First National and sold off his interests in the company. He also joined with Sol Lesser and the Gore Brothers in exhibition in a company called Fox West Coast. He turned the Broadway over to them for several months, before taking it back in 1922 and turning it into a second-run house.
Tally continued in the exhibition business until he sold the Broadway Theatre to the May Co. in 1929, which demolished it in May to construct a 10-story addition. The smart businessman began looking for new challenges, helping finance the creation of a Three Dimensional film camera by a Mr. De La Garde in 1931. He took over the Criterion Theatre and operated its house for several years after Fox West Coast went through reorganization. By the mid-1930s, Tally was suing multiple people for bankruptcy, and financing deals gone bad, though he needed no money.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1945, Tally passed away at his Beverly Hills home at 703 N. Palm Drive, gaining mention in the papers as the founder of Los Angeles first exclusive film theatre. As early as the late 1910s, film trades played up Tally’s background in exhibition, recognizing the wrong dates he entered the business and founded the first film theatre, errors passed on by newer researchers who failed to check facts.
Thomas Tally stands as one of the pioneers of film exhibition in the United States, establishing ever improved theatres and presentations to lure customers and provide outstanding entertainment. He organized practices trying to establish some separation between producers, distributors, and exhibitors, giving major stars opportunities to establish their own production companies and to control their own destinies. Virtually forgotten today, Tally helped lead the way to make film screenings a magical night out, where the “show” starts on the sidewalk.