Silent Movie Capital
San Francisco Examiner, February 16, 1916
G. M. Anderson, known to film-land as “Broncho Billy,” severed connections with the Essanay Company, of which he was secretary, sold his stock in the concern and gone East.
Anderson, who had been with the company since its organization in 1906, was in charge of the Western studio at Niles, where he acted and directed.
Anderson’s stock was purchased by George K. Spoor.1
“‘The Vision,'” a narrative in color, is an exquisite addition to McVicker’s program this week. I wonder if, when the perfect picture comes, it won’t be a combination of natural color, the vitaphone, and the natural vision process being developed by George K. Spoor?“—Mae Tinde, Chicago Tribune, January 8, 1927.
Gloria Swanson tries to operate a Natural Vision camera, a piece of equipment developed by George Spoor (hatless at right)
Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1926
“Third dimension” motion pictures produced by a new light ray invention proved a reality when sample reels were screened for an invited optience at the Essanay Film company studio, 1333 Argyle street, last night.
George K. Spoor, president of the company, who has developed the new lens feature, declared that it had stood the test before the crowd and held that its appearance marked a beginning of a new era in the moving picture industry.
He predicted that Chicago would soon become a film making center through the invention.
Require a Large Screen.
Twice the size of the ordinary picture, the new films require a screen measuring 40 by 20 feet in order to bring out the depth effect. To persons seated on the side and in the first rows of a theater the pictures appear correctly proportioned and without the distortion now existent in all theaters.
Mr. Spoor said;
This achievement alone, in addition to the magnified background, will be an invaluable boon to the public and means millions for theater managers.
The public will have an opportunity to see the new pictures upon the completion of “The Price of the Prairie,” a photoplay soon to be filmed in the Essanay company’s Chicago studios. The picture is taken from Margaret Hill McCarter’s novel, depicting pioneer days in Kansas.
Work on It Nine Years.
News of the Essanay invention recalls the history of the company which at one time was one of the leading producers in the country. In 1916 Mr. Spoor purchased the interest of partner, G. M. Anderson, and ceased production. Working with P. John Berggren, a camera expert, Mr. Spoor devoted his time to producing pictures which would give a double angular reflection of light and attain a double perspective.
LEFT: John Berggren, inventor (left), and George K. Spoor, veteran Chicago movie producer, with new motion picture machine they have perfected, The natural vision camera captures two images and resolves them into a single picture, bringing to the negative the full relative values of the photographed objects. The pictures are projected in lifelike proportions on a screen covering the entire proscenium of a theater.
RIGHT: Advertisement of State-Lake theater showing from November 15, 1930.
New York Times, December 15, 1930
A Railroad Thriller.
By MORDAUNT HALL.
At the Mayfair is “Danger Lights,” a railroad melodrama that was pictured by the Spoor-Berggren wide-film process. It is a triangle romance, with a martinet of a divisional superintendent doing a noble deed during an exciting moment.
There is a good deal to admire about this new wide film, which fills a screen from side to side of the Mayfair stage. It is noticeable, however, that while the persons occupying the centre of the stage are in focus others in the background seem more out of focus than usual. Moreover, the assembling of some of the scenes might be a good deal smoother. But the views depicting a locomotive and one car making a fast run to Chicago are most impressive, for, like other wide-film results in the open, there is an illusion of depth and distance about these stretches.
The story is reminiscent of the good old-fashioned thriller, with a fine realism in the scenery. Steam hisses and locomotives puff, every sound being quite natural. Jean Arthur portrays Mary, and at the showing on Saturday afternoon the microphone was often unkind to her voice. Louis Wolheim impersonates Dan Thorn, the division superintendent, who is in love with Mary. Robert Armstrong officiates as the interloper whose looks put Dan in the shade.
Dan, like the Village Blacksmith, is a mighty man. When he uses his fist the unfortunate victim does not arise for several moments. Dan has a heart of gold. Never for an instant does he think that Larry Doyle is going to steal Mary from him.
For the sake of her dear old father Mary is about to become Dan’s wife, but at the last minute she decides to run away with Larry. It is a wild and stormy night, and in the dash for love and liberty over the railroad tracks Larry’s foot is caught in a switch a few minutes before the limited comes along. Dan comes up to Larry, and after first contemplating thrashing Larry he realizes that his rival’s foot is caught. With a sudden lurch he heaves Larry free and is himself bowled over by the limited as it plunges past.
The race to Chicago aboard the general manager’s car is to take Dan to a specialist. It is presumed at the end that Dan will get well, but in all probability he realizes that looks will count in a romance. Mr. Wolheim gives a thoroughly competent performance, and Robert Armstrong does earnest work.
The Spoor-Berggren wide film is taken on a film 63 millimeters in width. The standard film is 35 millimeters wide. The height of both films is the same. The sound for this Spoor-Berggren process is recorded on a standard width film at the time the pictorial record is made on the wide film.
All copies of the widescreen (62.5mm) version have been destroyed. The standard version exists in its entirety.
November 22, 1930
Official Guide 1933 A Century of Progress
in what is called a Spectaculum, you may see something wholly new in motion pictures “natural vision pictures,” or three-dimensional pictures that give depth to the characters as though they were on the stage.
Motion Picture Herald, July 1, 1933
At the Chicago World’s Fair, among the carnivals of its Midway, George K. Spoor, one of the first men to have faith in any kind of motion picture, is repeating his faith in a motion picture of depth as well as of height and breadth, taking his natural vision pictures directly to the general public in a 1,000-seat theatre imaginatively dubbed the “Spoor Spectaculum.”
The actual production offered is “Niagara Falls,” the scenic which, with “Danger Lights,” a natural vision dramatic feature, was briefly displayed in Chicago and on Broadway in 1930. In those showings, Mr. Spoor was associated with the Radio-Keith-Orpheum interests, which produced “Danger Lights,” in the “natural vision” technique. At the Chicago exposition the indomitable Spoor is “going it alone,” where many thousands from many places, knowing nothing of motion picture precedents, will gather between now and next fall.
To those who pay the 15 or 25 cents charged for admission, a brochure insists, moreover, that this “Spectaculum” thing is not to be the end of it. To quote:
With this new system the production job is to move any theatrical production into the studio, properly prepared with the necessary stage sets, and present the performance before the apparatus for photography and recording of sound, thereby obtaining a permanent record of the performance as done on the stage in a remarkably short time. . . These productions will be presented to the public in the theatres of the legitimate stage, on a screen which receives the play in its normal, full-stage size.
Millions Spent in Experiment
Presumably the revenue from admissions and the sale of the brochures at ten cents a copy at the fair is intended to carry on these subsequent production and theatrical enterprises, for the Spoor faith in quasi-three-dimensional motion pictures, maintained over a period of many years, has been expensive. Up to 1930 this dream, which has tormented many, had taken five million dollars out of that fortune amazingly created by historic Essanay, in a little studio on Chicago’s Argyle street, with one and two-reelers, exploiting the strange arts of Broncho Billy Anderson, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne and Charles Spencer Chaplin. These successes had come but little after the period in which “The Great Train Robbery” was demonstrating pictures- that-move to the public, in black tents at a thousand county fairs. Because George K. Spoor was of that period, too, it is interesting to observe that except for a hokum exhibition of Hollywood movie-making, the most serious demonstration of the motion picture at this 1933 exposition, dedicated to modern technology, is dauntless George Spoor’s “Spectaculum” on the Midway.
The “natural vision” demonstration at the Chicago fair also introduces to the public sound carried on the film in the form of indentations cut in the edge of the film. Called the Spoor-Lindbergh method, it is another result of the goings-on these more recent years at the old Essanay” plant on Argyle street. Essanay itself is to be sucseeded, it seems, by yet another company, Natural Vision Pictures Corporation. States the brochure:
Natural Vision Pictures Corporation will produce an entirely new type of picture entertainment by means of the equipment licensed to it by the Natural Vision Patents Company, the Spoor-Lindbergh corporation, and the Spoor-Thompson Corporation, at its plant here in Chicago or at such other studios that lend to economy in the particular production undertaken. The Natural Vision Pictures system combined with Spoor-Lindbergh sound recording method and Spoor-Thompson processing system make it possible to offer to the public accurate replicas of stage productions as one sees them on the legitimate stage. This type of picture production is entirely new and can only be done with the equipment of the Natural Vision System, as no other method exists.
Augmenting these remarks personally, Mr. Spoor divulges that he is preparing to purchase two plays of distinction which will be produced by the “natural vision” method, and that upon completion of these, five theatres in five key cities will be opened, “beginning a chain of theatres to introduce natural vision pictures throughout the country.”
The present Spoor film is 63 mm., instead of 70 mm., while the screen of the “Spectaculum” measures 63×38 feet.
Variety House Reviews, June 27, 1933
Chicago, June 20.
A big place. Too big. Not less than 1,500 wooden chairs on one cement sloping floor that leads down to an enormous screen, six times ordinary theatre size. And around 30 admissions per performance. Taking a bath in red ink at $200 a day average and with a bond posted to guarantee that it stays open. Reviewed on the day the World’s Fair reached its highest daily attendance figure, 132,000 persons, and at a peak hour.
Many flaws in showmanship can be itemized. In the first place, the name “Spectaculum” conveys nothing and confuses most people without arousing curiosity. A large facade that is imposing and commands an excellent perspective from both the island and the mainland is allowed to go to waste. There isn’t even a hint of salesmanship on the front which simply reads “Spoor’s Spectaculum” with a smaller scroll, a silly boast, “produced at a cost of over $4,000,000” and a line which lies by nine minutes, “Running time, 22 minutes,”
Not only is there no ballyhoo outside but inside the performance is as flat as a pancake. Just one main title, “George K. Spoor presents the Motion Picture Method of the Future” followed by a list of credits on photography. That’s all. No explanation of the difference between standard film, and Spoor “third dimension.” No mention of the technical or entertainment possibilities. Not even a word to direct attention to the “depth” element. Just that one introductory and amazingly laconic main title followed by 13 minutes of Niagara Falls. Then in intermission.
This is part of the demonstration that was made in 1930 at the State-Lake theatre, Chicago, at which time special installations of the necessary equipment were made by the Spoor group at a reported cost of $22,000. At that time a feature photographed for the wide screen was also exhibited. It was not a box-office success and until the building of the Spectaculum at the World’s Fair, the trade heard nothing further of the third dimensional thing. While admittedly achieving its effects of depth and having possibilities for spectacles and musicals, the industry side-stepped the costs of re-machining.
It’s a cinch this show won’t get anywhere as now handled. A handful of idle curiosity-seekers or foot-weary pedestrians is the best they can hope for unless some theatrical brains are called into consultation and something done to impact life and allurement into what is otherwise a large building with a cashier’s box in front of it.
Huge size, a mistake, naturally accentuates the smallness of the crowd. Oceans of empties surrounding a small island of patrons. Seats that will never be occupied between now and Nov. 1, and meanwhile, four union operators in the booth, ushers in military uniforms, ticket-takers and ticket-sellers, and other employes.
Location of Spoor’s Theater at the 1933 A Century of Progress.
Spooor’s “Danger Lights” was the first widescreen feature film. However the 62.5mm widescreen prints, which no longer exist, were exhibited in only two theaters, one at the Mayfair in New York City and the State-Lake in Chicago. It was first released in standard 35mm format on August 31, 1930. The 62.5mm widescreen version opened on November 15, 1930.
The Depression and then World War II halted widescreen development for the time being.
Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1953
George K. Spoor, 81, who as president of the Essanay Film company pioneered the moving picture industry in Chicago, died yesterday in his home at 908 Argyle st.
Spoor and Gilbert M. (Broncho Billy) Anderson founded the company in 1897. Many stars of the silent films got their start in the studio at 1345 Argyle st. The lot there was closed in 1916 when the motion picture industry invaded Hollywood, Cal.
Many Stars Began Here
In pioneer movie days, Essanay and Selig studios made Chicago one of the major motion picture producing centers. Stars who received their start on the Essanay lot included H. B. Walthal, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Francis X. Bushman, and Charles Chaplin.
Spoor was as prominent an inventor of movie equipment as he was a producer. He made one of the first projection machines that enabled filmed pictures to be flashed on a screen.
He worked for years on a three dimension film process, which he called “natural vision.” In 1930 he produced “Danger Lights” under that stereoscopic process. A fortune was lost, however, in attempts to put the three dimensional films on the market.
Lost Money in Crash
Spoor also promoted the construction of an apartment building, on which he lost money in the real estate crash of the late ’20’s at Argyle st. and the present extension of Lincoln Park.
His wife, Ada, a sister-in-law of Billy Sunday, the evangelist, died in 1951. Spoor lived with his daughter, Gertrude, and her husband, Douglas L. Weart, a retired major general who served in the Caribbean and China during World War II.
Services will be held at 2 p. m. Friday in the chapel at 5001 N. Ashland av., with burial in Forest Home cemetery.
1 The actual value of the shares varied between $500,000 to $1,000,000. Anderson left for New York with Charlie Chaplin and form their own company, which never happened.