The First Movie Theatre in Chicago

The 1893 World’s Fair introduced a lot of things to Chicago, and acted as a sort of preview for the 20th century. Many attendees had never actually seen a light bulb before.

But a debate rages as to whether the world was introduced to movies at the fair.

There had been sporadic demonstrations of moving pictures before, but Thomas Edison planned to use the fair to introduce a new machine that he considered a novelty: the kinetoscope.

The kinetoscope was also called “peep show,” because to see the moving picture inside of it, one had to peep through a whole in a box. Inside, one would see a “movie” ranging in length from about 15 seconds to about a minute. The early hit was a short entitled “Fred Ott’s Sneeze.”

Edison intended for 25 of them to be on display in the fair, but there was a bit of a setback: WK Dickson, the staff member who was responsible for most of the actual work, suffered a nervous breakdown some months before the fair began, and Edison had to scrap the display.

However, it has long been rumored – and the evidence suggests it may be true – that one single kinetoscope was on display on the fair. The main evidence against it are an advertisement from their introduction in London in 1894 (which may have been simple hype) and a conversation Edison had with a patron of the fair talking about the kinetoscope as a new project, not one that was on display. However, reminisces of fair goers and a couple of mentions in Scientific American seem to back the idea that one was there.

The first official “kinetescope parlour” (an early movie theate, of sorts) hit Chicago in May of 1894 in the Masonic Building at State and Randolph – right across the street from the current location of the Siskel Center (next door to the Chicago theatre, in the exact spot where that Walgreens used to be). 10 different kinetoscopes were on display – one could see half of them for a quarter, or all of them for fifty cents. Gross receipts for the first month surpassed $7000.

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