This retrospective is prompted by the struggles of our movie theaters to regain their audiences, in the face of pandemic restrictions and competition from streaming sources. Before there were comedy suspense and western films, there were travelogues. Before there were movie theaters, there were Odd Fellow Halls. Before there were film stars, there were … engaging traveling narrators.
North Adams, for example, was introduced to motion pictures by a Pennsylvanian. Lyman Hakes Howe (1856-1923), born in Wilkes Barre, attended business school, worked as a house and sign painter and then became a traveling salesman. After a stint as a railroad brakemen, he partnered in 1883 with Robert M. Colborn to travel with a miniature working coal mine. Howe and a new partner named Haddock purchased a phonograph, which they toured with in 1890, Howe lecturing along with the recorded concerts.
Howe hoped to graduate to picture shows, but he was refused purchase of a Thomas Edison kinetoscope or a Raff & Gammon vitascope. So he devised his own animatiscope, which unlike the other motion picture projectors featured a take-up real. He demonstrated the device in 1896, using a phonograph for sound effects. By 1901, he was filming his own travelogues and newsreels. He frequently filled auditoriums with his portable shows, even as the industry gave rise to the more permanent nickelodeons in 1905.
Howe filmed battle and other scenes during the first World War. He directed his own industrial movies and recorded sports events. He produced Hodge Podge cartoons.
In 1898, 1899 and 1900, Howe’s show came to North Adams, sponsored by Oneco Lodge, I.O.O.F. and held at the Odd Fellows Hall. Howe’s 1902 offering included footage of the railroad to the summit of Mt. Pilatus in the Alps, near Lucerne, Switzerland. Matinee prices were 15 cents and 25 cents, evening shows 25 cents and 35 cents. (A diagram of reserved seating was available at the Wilson House Drug Store.)
“Since his last visit to this city Mr. Howe has procured many new pictures and the exhibitions will be highly meritorious, as all given in this city by Mr. Howe have been,” The Transcript said. By February 1903, Howe put on his 17th biannual program at Odd Fellows Hall, with an improved machine. He also booked the Adams opera house for a benefit for the Ladies Aid Society of the Congregational Church.
The next year, The Transcript proclaimed: “Mr. Howe has achieved such a distinct reputation, that it would be grossly unjust to confound or compare similar entertainments to this one. Mr. Howe presents always a series of motion pictures that in every detail of sound, color and technique are revelation of realism and mechanical perfection.” Yes, he introduced color (via hand-painted cels).
Even the mundane was entertaining. In 1904, his series featured “startling discoveries in a drop of water and other wonders of the microscope,” The Transcript swooned. Howe staff members gradually replaced him at local showings as his viewership widened.
Howe’s enterprise, not surprisingly, drew competitors including a former associate, Edwin J. Hadley, who came to the Odd Fellows Hall in 1904 with his own pictures and a projector said to reduce image flutter. And “color” photography.
Howe’s 1906 appearance — the 24th semiannual tour — featured Lifeorama, “A Bird’s Eyeview of the World Today. Stirring Scenes of Historic Interest of Yesterday.” Travelogues went to Norway, India, Spain, Italy, Greece, England and Sweden. In 1910, Howe was booked at the Empire Theater.
Howe’s programs were shown up and down Berkshire County. They first screened at Great Barrington’s Town Hall in 1902 (scenes of King Edward’s coronation), then, when the Mahaiwe Theatre was completed, at that venue in 1905. They appeared at Pittsfield’s Academy in 1903, for example, featuring magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin.
Howe’s two-hour show at the Drury High School auditorium in 1919 featured aviation stunts, canoeists riding the wild Kaieteur Falls in British Guinea and tours through old Mexico and peaceful Southern France.
After his death, the innovator’s company morphed into a film laboratory, continuing to make short films such as a series about the Great Depression.
Among surviving Howe footage are part of a three-reel documentary, “U.S. Navy of 1915,” archived by the National Film Preservation Foundation of Australia, and the partially animated “Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train,” which thrilled viewers in 1921. The latter may be viewed on YouTube.
Howe’s role in the growth of American cinema is not widely known, though Springfield’s PBS television station in 1984 aired “Lyman H. Howe’s High Class Moving Pictures” and Charles Musser wrote “High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920,” published in 2016. And Hadley has not been overlooked; Edward Lowry wrote a scholarly piece about him for Journal of the University Film Association in 1976.