From Small-Town Exhibitor to Hollywood Cameraman

Dan L. Sharits was an enterprising and ambitious manager of the Star theater (1911-1918) in Medford, Oregon, who leveraged his movie theater experience into a career making pictures in Hollywood.

He recounts his Horatio Alger story in a 1916 piece in Motography, “From Usher to Exhibitor.” In 1906, he started as a humble usher in Memphis, Tennessee, but in no time he became “chief operator.” After touring the country as a vaudeville performer, he landed in southern Oregon to manage the Star. The Star had plenty of competition during Medford’s boom time in the 1910s, so Sharits used several inventive strategies for attracting audiences, including attaching an electric sign on the top of his car and playing orchestra bells while driving around town.

Motography, April 29, 1916, p. 973
Motography, April 29, 1916, p. 973

The “Live Wire Exhibitors” column in Motion Picture News carried the following item about his novel gimmick to promote The Battle Cry of Peace in 1916 by draping all of the city’s streetcars with banners, along with a giant flag across Main Street.

Motion Picture News, April 1, 1916, p. 1885
Motion Picture News, April 1, 1916, p. 1885

Sharits started making local movies as another draw for audiences, who would flock to theaters to see themselves on screen. Among these was a feature length film called “The Stolen Pie,” which he seems to have started making in 1914 in Louisiana and Kansas

Newspapers.com screenshot

Newspapers.com screenshot

Sharits brought the formula to Eugene in the summer of 1915, where it was pitched as an advertising film featuring prominent local citizens. “The Stolen Pie” screened at the Oregon theatre.

Eugene Guard, July 20, 1915, p. 3
Eugene Guard, July 20, 1915, p. 3
Eugene Guard, July 29, 1915, p. 5
Eugene Guard, July 29, 1915, p. 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next summer in 1916 Sharits replicated his success in Klamath Falls and Medford.

Medford Morning Tribune, June 24, 1916, p. 2
Medford Mail Tribune, June 24, 1916, p. 2
Evening Herald, July 20, 1916, p. 1
Evening Herald, July 20, 1916, p. 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He continued his program of self-promotion with an ad for himself in Camera! magazine.

Camera! August 22, 1922, p. 15.
Camera! August 22, 1922, p. 15

By 1922 he was working as a cameraman in Hollywood, and continued as a film editor on several films in the 1920s.

Camera! December 16, 1922, p. 11
Camera! December 16, 1922, p. 11

Alta Theater Promotions

The Alta theater was located in Pendleton, Oregon. The theater was opened on September 6, 1913, and was made to accommodate the needs of viewers in response to those lacking said needs. It came equipped with extra space in the back so that late-comers would not be crowded together and a large number of people could sit comfortably and maneuver the theater with ease. The owner of the venue, C.E. Oliphant, was a civil engineer who had previously owned a successful theater and seemed to know the ins and outs of the business. When researching, I came across a funny, yet understandable move used to promote the theater. Across Pendleton, there were two water fountains that were placed for street dwellers and citizens to consume from. One of which, thanks to Mr. Oliphant, was placed directly in front of the new Alta theater.

Several strategies were used to promote such as the newspaper reviews and so on, but something so small as putting a water fountain in front of the venue seemed to create a bit more fluidity, no pun intended, when attracting viewers. A patron could simply want a cool drink of water and would see the fun and excitement happening at the new playground, as the indigenous citizens put it, and be compelled to enter.

East Oregonian, Sept. 8, 1913, p. 5

This is quite an interesting premise and can show how something so simple can create a greater impact on the popularity of the venue. Unfortunately, this researcher was not able to find specific numbers and statistics on how effective it was, but according to the newspapers, the venue was quite popular during its time of operation. It also goes to show the level of knowledge that the owner or manager had about the business and the small details that go into attracting people to his newly established theater.

The Grand Objectification

The Grand Theatre in Salem, Oregon, was renowned in its size and capability to show a variety of entertainment. Advertised as having a likeness to Portland and Seattle show houses, no other venue could surely compare.

Still, a 1922 issue of the Capital Journal displays a page plastered with advertisements for many different theaters in the area, so how did the Grand stand out from the rest in a time where the Nickelodeon appeared everywhere?

One successful tactic used by the Grand was the proliferation of ads on the newsprint. For example, page ten of the Capital Journal features at least two very large ads for the Grand, while other theaters such as the Bligh and the Liberty theaters only feature one each- at a size much smaller than the Grand. 

Capital journal, December 16, 1922, p. 10

Interesting too, is the switch in advertising style. In this 1922 ad, the list of actors and their respective parts are displayed- a sign the industry was star-studded. Before, ads of the Grand featured its massive stage, plush seats, and its ability to show a multitude of entertainment, from vaudeville to moving pictures. 

The subject of the ads are also of interest. Both ads for the Grand theater feature women, either illustrated or mentioned, as the tactic to get audiences in. One ad reads, “Edna Wallace Hopper makes her final personal appearance tonight. Aged 63 and she looks and acts like she was 24 years old.” Another features a list of actresses that audiences won’t want to miss. While this overt objectification of women was probably prolific for the time, it may also help to determine the audiences these movie houses were trying to obtain. By the ads alone it may be apropos to assume these theaters were advertising to the working class male- able to fit in a show of beautiful women on a day off or between shifts with whatever extra money he may have earned.  

Creating a “Must-See” Film Experience in 1916 Medford, Oregon

An advertisement for the Page Theater, published in the October 14, 1916 edition of the Medford Mail Tribune.

“Last Time Tonight…Thos. H. Ince’s $1,000,000 Mammoth Cinema Spectacle,” reads an October 14, 1916 advertisement for the Page Theater in the Medford Mail Tribune. This advertisement would have likely been quite successful in attracting a crowd for several reasons.

The first major draw is illustrated in that opening excerpt, “Last Time Tonight.” The Oregon Blue Book describes that despite the state of Oregon’s 1913 creation of the State Highway Commission, “the ‘good roads’ campaign took on real life in 1919.” In 1916, traveling outside of Medford would have required quite some effort. Since the planning of drivable roads was still in its infancy, Medford residents would have to embark on a long journey to catch the next showing of Civilization elsewhere. The advertised warning of the show’s final run would instill a sense of immediacy and importance for anybody wishing to see the film.

Another advertising ploy that likely would have been successful is the description of the film’s prior success, calling it “Thos. H. Ince’s $1,000,000 Mammoth Cinema Spectacle.” Adjusted for inflation, that would make Ince’s film a $22,084,424.78 success in 2018. While this is would not place the film in the highest grossing film rank, it would certainly suggest a certain level of popularity.

The Page Theater advertisement also states that the film was “brought direct in its entirety from a four weeks’ engagement at the Heilig, Portland.” According to Shawna Gandy of Archives West, the Heilig Theatre accommodated nearly 1,500 patrons. The fact that the film attracted enough buzz for four entire weeks in Portland was one thing. Another was that the Page would be showing the film “in its entirety,” so Medford residents could expect to see the whole film; this contrasted a showing of short clips.

A final method of drawing in a large crowd comes with the endorsements at the bottom of the advertisement. In large print, the theater boasts, “Splendid Orchestra, Feature Chorus, Wonderful Effects, A Revelation.” Not only would the production feature live musical accompaniment, but it would also provide some sort of “revelation” to viewers. Language like this would likely entice viewers to seek what type of mysterious revelation awaited them. Below these claims, the advertisement quotes the Evening Journal in describing Civilization as the “greatest of all films. Nothing so stupendous ever conceived by the brain of man.”

In compiling each of these pieces of praise and positive descriptions, the Page Theater created an advertisement that would very likely appeal to a large population of residents of Medford, Oregon in 1916.

 

Sources:

Gandy, Shawna. “Heilig Theatre Photographs Collection, 1888-1929.” Archives West: Heilig Theatre Photographs Collection, 1888-1929, Archives West, 2006, archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv49603.

“Oregon History: Mixed Blessings.” Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, 2017, bluebook.state.or.us/cultural/history/history24.htm.

Advertisement in Albany: The Globe Theatre

Located in Albany, Oregon, the Globe Theatre was a movie theatre that operated during the early 20th century. A popular attraction, it maintained a prominent presence throughout various issues of the Albany Daily Democrat. An example of its popularity is shown in an article which highlights the theatre’s ability to attract a variety of well-known films as well as background information regarding the theatre’s manager. Dated January 29, 1922, the article states that the Globe Theatre has acquired four films, The Three Musketeers, Way Down East, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Theodora.

Albany Daily Democrat, January 29, 1922.

Such a feat was viewed as important due to the films being labeled as some of the biggest motion picture features of the previous year, with some not yet premiering in the pacific region. Though the acquisition of these films seems to be the articles main purpose, the decision to focus on the theatre’s manager serves as a unique tactic. Ed. I. Hudson is credited for much of the Globe Theatre’s success due to experience in the motion picture industry as well as dedication to providing the Albany audience with the best possible viewing experience. I believe focusing on the films provided as well as the personnel responsible for the theatre proves to be an interesting story technique, though its execution creates a facade that portrays the article as an advertisement. In order to be viewed as a feature, the article must look past the limited information regarding Hudson and answer questions of substance such as how Ed. I. Hudson came to become the manager of the Globe Theatre? How has the Globe Theatre changed under Hudson’s management? In a way it is as if the article makes a small attempt at offering a behind the scenes glimpse through the mention of Ed. I. Hudson though it quickly diverts back to its original intention of acting as a promotional tool for the Globe Theatre.

In reading The Newspaper, a Cultural Partner of Movies, written by Richard Abel, it becomes apparent that there is a shift in the way individuals viewed cinema during the early 20th century. Across numerous cities, newspapers become a source of information for moviegoers, providing details such as what particular films are being shown at the local theatre as well as what actors may be appearing in these motion pictures. This is shown throughout the Albany Daily Democrat’s article as it is revealed that Douglas Fairbanks will be portraying D’ Artagnan in The Three Musketeers while D.W. Griffith will be directing a film titled Way Down East. The idea that local newspapers sometimes acted as “menus”, sometimes ranging over a weekly or daily variety, highlights the demand for such information and provides reasoning as to why many articles are viewed as an advertisement.

Mrs. George A. Hunt

It’s not often that one can find the image of the “strong, independent woman” anytime before the 1960s. However, the film industry trade magazine Moving Picture World features a Medford woman in September 1921. The feature emphasizes how much work she does, and the fact that she doesn’t need help to do it. She “not only runs the publicity for five theaters in two towns but she does it all ‘on her own’.” The choice of placing the quotations around the phrase “on her own” seems curious and a bit degrading in modernity, but the implication this article held when it was published could easily be completely different. She ran publicity for theaters in both Medford and Grants Pass with those being The Page, Liberty, Rialto, Bedford, and Rivoli. The feature claims her focus is on newspaper advertising, with her preferred journalist being George Bleich.

“Woman Press Agent Rolls All Her Own.” Moving Picture World, vol. 52, Sept. 1921, p. 59. Media History Digital Library.

She is said to be, in some ways, the equal of men in her field, like Amike Vogel, a man featured in multiple newspapers in California at the time. One of the specific achievements noted is that she bartered a deal for the film Brewster’s Millions (1914) that  any male professional would be proud of. Upon researching the film, this story was a book-turned popular Broadway play before it was a film. Then it was remade into several films up until the 1980s, all this implies that the film she bartered for would have been very popular and therefore expensive.

In modernity she would be praised as an independent woman who “don’t need no man,” however that proved difficult as the feature never giver her name. She is known by her husband’s name. While we are not given her name we are given her face. Her photograph is the same size as the text of the feature. While the text builds her up as a hard-working self-taught publicity manager, the poised and styled woman in the photo contradicts that in a way. It seemingly acts as a reminder that this feature is about a woman, who is pretty and feminine.

“Brewster’s Millions (1914 Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Apr. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brewster%27s_Millions_(1914_film).

Local Films, Local Theaters: Oregon on Nitrate

Medford Mail Tribune, April 11, 1910, p. 1

In the April 11, 1910 edition of the Medford Mail Tribune, an article was written about the filmmaker H. Riemers and his tour of Oregon. He filmed several scenic views of Oregon, including landmarks such as Table Rock and Sterling Mine as well as local orchards and farmland. Riemers’ future plans were also added, saying that he was going to film Crater Lake and other natural features. The films were said to have cost upwards of $2000, and according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator today that would be $50,929. This is no insignificant amount of money to spend on films just featuring a state’s natural and man-made wonders, so there must have been a reason.

The last paragraph of the article states that Medford’s own E. C. Hubbard, owner of the Savoy Theater, was responsible (at least in part) for the creation of these local Oregon films. Theater owners and exhibitioners are responsible for providing their audiences with content that they want to see, and in supporting Riemers’ work Hubbard is providing what the moviegoers of Medford want. Much like the spectacle of the Lumière Brothers’ film La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895), the people of Medford found it pleasurable to see places and possibly even people that they recognized on screen, if the large investment placed in these films is anything to go by.

Another interesting aspect of this article is that the films, after being compiled in San Francisco, were to be distributed to several thousand “picture houses” across the country and made available to millions of spectators. Oregon at that time was the mostly untamed frontier, an exotic place filled with wildlife and raw natural beauty. Through these films, people on the East Coast would be able to catch glimpses of a place that they would normally never get to see.

United States, Congress, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “CPI Inflation Calculator.” CPI Inflation Calculator, United States Government. www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.

The Grand Theatre – Salem, Oregon

The Capital Journal, August 12, 1920, pg 8

On August 12, 1920, an article appeared in the Capital Journal, a paper of Salem, Oregon, revealing significant news for the theater-going community of that city. The Grand Opera House, it was announced, had been leased by a Mr. A. E. Lafler and the new proprietor was expending significant resources to re-furnish and re-brand the venue as “a first class combination house,” the Grand Theatre. Quoting Mr. Lafler’s aspirations to bring in “approved legitimate road shows and vaudeville, with super-quality pictures,” the article states the projected opening date of the Grand Theatre as September 1 of that year. On September 4, of the same year, the same journal ran an advertisement for Jesse L. Lasky’s Paramount film Everywoman playing at the Grand Theatre for four days. It is possible that this was the first significant film played at the Grand Theatre.

The Capital Journal, September 14, 1920, p.2

A perfunctory examination of issues of the Capital Journal from 1919 does not reveal advertising of motion pictures being shown in the Grand Opera House during that year, while it does reveal quite a few live acts performing at the venue. Without collecting any more data on the Grand Opera House, the immediate conclusion is that the Grand in its incarnation as the opera house did not show motion pictures, and thus its transformation into the Grand Theatre marked the very beginning of its movie-theater career. The August 12 article touts the Grand Opera House as “an established landmark in this city” and “comparing in [stage capacity] to Seattle and Portland show houses.” One may imagine that the transformation of this venue from strictly live performances to a combination motion picture and vaudeville house was a momentous event in the entertainment life of 1920 Salem. As of this writing, Salem’s Historic Grand Theatre still exists and is a multi-purpose venue available for a variety of events including film showings.

The Roseburg Theater- The Latest Novelty

In these two separate advertisements located next to each other in The Plaindealer’s July 6th, 1905 paper, The Roseburg Theater boasts two shows on the same days: Friday and Saturday, July 7th and 8th. The first advertisement in the paper details the showing of “the latest novelty” Dear Old Stars and Stripes, Goodbye which has prices ranging from 15-25-35 cents. Tickets are available at Bells’ Candy Store, which indicates this showing may be a more family-friendly event than the other advertisement located further down the page. The sale location for tickets indicates there was an intention to attract a younger audience.

The following advertisement differs greatly from the first, despite being placed by the same theater and showing on the same day. “The Groesbacks” are slated to perform in a separate exhibition from the films showing the same day. This advertisement uses an interesting promotional strategy of boasting the technology used to show the moving pictures the Vitagraph showing “…one of the steadiest, clearest, brightest and most perfect moving picture exhibitions ever brought to our city”. This emphasis on clarity of the films and equipment is similar to exhibition practices of today, in which audiences want to see the best, brightest, and clearest films (such as IMAX, 3D, etc). Headlines in this advertisement include The Great Train Robbery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Corbett and McGovern Prize Fight, the latest Spanish Bull Fight, as well as President Roosevelt’s Grand Inaugural Parade. The advertisement states that the film Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes twenty-four scenes, indicating the number of scenes was more than average for the era, proving to be a major selling point.

Further research shows the Uncle Tom’s Cabin was directed by Edwin S. Porter under Thomas Edison and released in 1903; the same year as his film The Great Train Robbery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin included various racist and problematic depictions of slavery and slave auctions, with white actors performing in blackface. The film is also known as Slavery Days and has been preserved by the University of Virginia Department of English (Railton).

Further research could help to decipher who or what “The Groesbacks” are. It seems as if they were traveling entertainers, similar to a modern band, but extensive research in various newspapers across Oregon would be required to discover their identity and touring history.

By Shelby Chapman

Works Cited

Railton, Stephen. “Uncle Toms Cabin & American Culture a Multimedia Archive -University of  Virginia Department of English.” Edison/Porter 1903 Film, The University of Virgina/National Endowment for the Humanities, 1998, utc.iath.virginia.edu/onstage/films/mv03hp.html.

The Roseburg Theater. “The Plaindealer.” The Plaindealer [Roseburg], 6 July 1905.

“The Jazz Singer” at Bligh’s Capitol Theatre

   

Above is an advertisement for the musical program, The Jazz Singer, at Bligh’s Capitol Theatre in Salem Oregon. This advertisement was published in the Statesman Journal on 22 July, 1928.

In relation to other advertisements on the page, this one was the most eye-catching due to its boldness. A disadvantage to this advertisement is it does not have any information about the price and dates of showing. It might have been at the bottom of the advertisement, but overtime and through digitizing it’s no longer there. 

This advertisement is interesting, particularly because of the program. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film with synchronized speech, which explains the use of ‘vitaphone’ and ‘movietone’ across the middle of the advertisement. The exhibitor wanted the focus of the advertisement to be on the brand new kind of program viewing in order to get the maximum amount of viewers. This also attributed to the popularity of the program. The Jazz Singer, was released in October of 1927, which means this program was available in Salem in less than a year. This further illustrates the programs level of popularity, considering the population and Westward location of Salem.

This program also had a big-time entertainer, Al Jolson. While Jolson was extremely popular among program goers, it is also important to acknowledge the racism embedded in the entertainment industry. Al Jolson did the majority of his programs in blackface, and at the time this was not a problem. Jolson used racial stereotypes, and was still considered to be the ‘greatest entertainer’ of the time. While blackface is not encouraged in the entertainment industry anymore, it is still important to recognize how it was sensationalized and welcomed at one point in time.

 

        

For context, Bligh’s Capitol Theatre was located on State Street in Salem Oregon in 1926. It was built in 1926, and burned down in 1935. It was then rebuilt and stayed open until it was closed in the early 1990’s, and eventually torn down in 2000. Throughout its lifespan the Theatre remained in the same location but the street names changed over time. 

 

Cited:

Statesman Journal, 22 July. 1928, pg 2.

Digital Sanborn Maps. Sheet 109. Image

Portland State University and the Oregon Historical Society. “Capitol Theatre (Salem).” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/capitol_theater_salem_/#.WuDvEYjwZm9

“Al Jolson Biography.” Biography, www.biography.com/people/al-jolson-9356888