Patriotism, Propaganda and Produce: Moving Pictures Hit Rochester, and Rochester Hits Back!

Patriotism, Propaganda and Produce:  Moving Pictures Hit Rochester, and Rochester Hits Back!

[Mt. Hope Cemetery, 6/22/21. Trophy Cannon presented to Monroe County by Hon. O.F. Williams. Marker Inscription.Taken from the Spanish flag-ship Reina Christina at Manila Bay, May 1, 1898. Dedicated November 28, 1902 by L. Bordman Smith Command No. 53, Spanish War Veterans, Memorial to Monroe County Comrades who sacrificed their lives on the altar of their country. On Fame’s eternal camping ground/their silent tents are spread,/And Glory guards with solemn round/the bivouac of the dead. Erected 1902 by L. Bordman Smith Command No. 53, Spanish War Veterans. [Photo: David Kramer, including contemporary Cuban national hat. See On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester.]

Today, Michael J Nighan tells the colorful story of how Rochester responded to early motion pictures of the Spanish-American War (1898). The subject is near and dear to my heart. My doctoral thesis is on literature generated by the War of 1898, whose research was used to create the screenplay Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story which itself is based on the early films of the war. For the moment, Nighan seems to have caught the Spanish War fever.

by Michael J. Nighan

 In 1898 moving pictures were still a novelty, bearing a greater resemblance to very amateur home movies rather than to the slick story-telling productions of later decades.  But with the onset of the Spanish-American War they suddenly evolved from being merely a source of entertainment to becoming a medium for reporting the news and for provoking public reaction, positive and negative, through the use of cinematic patriotism and propaganda.   In Rochester’s case, that public reaction manifested itself in the form of flying farm produce.

Here’s the Picture

The advent of moving pictures as a commercial venture dates to the 1890s when Victorian-era entrepreneurs were developing “high tech” equipment to project silent moving pictures in a box or on a wall.

While Thomas Edison has been generally credited with “inventing” motion pictures in 1889 — with a little help from George Eastman who first marketed his rolled photographic film that year — his work benefited from years of experimentation by many other men who strove to develop a way to photograph multiple sequential images per second on a roll of film and then project it to produce the impression of movement.

Eastman and Edison

The 1890s became a mish-mash of competing French, British and American companies using varying photographic and projection technologies to develop a commercially-viable source of entertainment.  Patent infringement lawsuits and countersuits began to clutter the law courts on two continents.  By mid-decade the Lumiere brothers from France had taken an early commercial lead with their Cinématographe system, becoming an overnight sensation and exhibiting their movies in concert halls and theaters in Europe and New York City.

In a report on the new technology, the New York Times quoted a projectionist of one of the Lumiere offerings: “You had to have lived these moments of collective exaltation, have attended these thrilling screenings in order to understand just how far the excitement of the crowd could go. With the flick of a switch, I plunge several thousand spectators into darkness. Each scene passes, accompanied by tempestuous applause; after the sixth scene, I return the hall to light. The audience is shaking. Cries ring out.”

Within a year, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (Biograph) had entered the field and quickly came to dominate the movie market.  Rather then establishing their own movie houses, Biograph rented their moving pictures to vaudeville theaters as an adjunct to traditional live entertainment, and to itinerant showman who toured the rural America, renting a hall here and an empty storefront there to project their moving pictures on bed sheets to the amazement of entertainment-starved small towns.  Edison, who had already been showing his movies via the Kinetoscope, which required viewers to look through an eye piece and see the film projected inside a large wooden cabinet (the origin of the term “peep show”) also entered the screen-projected movie business.

With few exceptions, these early moving pictures tended to be “actualities”, recordings of simple, everyday events from the arrival of trains, to parades, to athletes in action, to fire engines careening down the street, to dancers, to generic street scenes, to children playing with pets, each movie being less than a minute long.  Ten or more of these short films would be cobbled together to make a program of 15 minutes or so.

Remember the Maine!

Now entering the story, America goes to war!  In this case, the Spanish-American War.

Among the many events that Americans have been called on to remember is the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine, blown up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.

USS Maine Tablet

USS Maine Tablet (1912), old Rochester City Hall, Fitzhugh Street. In Memoriam. USSS Maine Destroyed in Havana Harbor February 15th 1898. This tablet recovered from the USSS Maine. Shield: Patriotism and Devotion [Photo: David Kramer from On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester and Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story.]

Whether the result of Spanish treachery, Cuban rebels acting as agent provocateurs, or defects in the Maine’s coal bunkers, the explosion ignited war fever in the United States, making conflict with Spain inevitable and sending Biograph and Edison movie crews scurrying to record related images.

Although the Maine had been sent to Havana to protect American citizens (and more importantly, American financial interests) and to make clear to the Spanish authorities that the United States was keeping one eye on the Monroe Doctrine and one eye on the efforts of Cuban rebels to achieve independence, in the delicate language of international diplomacy the ship was merely being sent to Cuba on a “friendly call”.

Responding with a particularly ill-timed reciprocal “friendly call”, the Spanish government sent the cruiser Vizcaya to New York City two weeks after the Maine disaster.  While the Edison crew hit the market with a film of the wreckage of the Maine…  (Wreck of the battleship Maine (LOC)

…the Biograph folks provided their viewers with a far more dramatic and ominous shot of the Vizcaya steaming out of New York harbor: (Vizcaya under full headway (LOC)

Rochester in Wonderland

The Wonderland Theatre (renamed The Empire in 1899), at the northeast corner of East Main Street and North Clinton Avenue.

 In 1896, Rochester audiences had first been exposed to the miracle of moving pictures when the Wonderland Theatre, home of “High Class Vaudeville Performances” (located at what today is the site of Sibley Square), had begun adding the films of various suppliers to their live entertainment, eventually settling on Biograph.

Advertising their Biographe movie presentations for the week of March 28, 1898, the Wonderland gave top billing to “AMERICAN AND SPANISH WAR VIEWS”¹ with particular emphasis on the “US BATTLESHIP MAINE”²,  and threw in patriotic views of Old Glory.  Also on the program were Biograph’s images of the Vizcaya silently gliding across the silver screen.  All told over a dozen movies, each approximately a minute in length, were offered to the public in addition to the daily performances by Wonderland’s “Giant Refined Vaudeville Aggregation”.

The Wonderland Program for the week of March 28, 1898

The entertainment section of the next day’s Democrat and Chronicle offered an overview of Wonderland’s cinematic selections, particularly noting that, “Patriotism was at fever heat yesterday at the Wonderland when the moving outlines of the battleship Maine were thrown upon the screen from the magic lens of the Biographe…. and then when the great black hulk of the Spanish Vizcaya appeared as she crossed the bar at Sandy Hook, it was hissed by an angry audience.  The climax was reached however when the last picture was shown, that of Old Glory floating to the breeze, with Professors Monk’s (assumedly the pianist) accompaniment of the Star Spangled Banner”.

 So popular was the selection of Biograph moving pictures that they were held over for a second week.  And as the days progressed, so did public anger at the pictures of the Vizcaya.

At first this disapproval was expressed by scattered groans and hisses,“ reported the Democrat and Chronicle on April 5“Later on, material objection was made from the gallery in the shape of Boston beans (a popular candy at the time) showered upon the stage…and these manifestations of popular disapproval not proving effectual in securing the retirement of the picture, potatoes and other garden truck (i.e. vegetables) were gradually added to the host of missiles…Notwithstanding the season of the year and the consequent high price of horticultural products, the showers continued and were added to by now and then a choice head of Early Flat Dutch, Winstead, and other varieties of cabbage.”

“Rather then be compelled to start a green grocery annex in order to work off the constantly increasing accumulation of vegetables”, the paper concluded, the management of the Wonderland pulled the Vizcaya film and permanently eliminated it from the program.

But Rochester moviegoers WOULD see the Vizcaya again.  On July 3, 1898, hoping to evade an American naval force sent to blockade the Cuban port of Santiago, the Vizcaya and five sister ships of the Royal Spanish Navy sailed into the Caribbean and into a hail of gun fire from the waiting American fleet.  Within three hours every Spanish ship had been sunk or scuttled, with only minor damage to the American vessels, capping one of the most significant battles in US naval history.


In Highland Park on South Avenue, “Trophy Cannon” taken from the Spanish cruiser Castilla, sunk during the battle of Manilla Bay, and in 1902 placed in the park. David Kramer in vintage Spanish-American uniform. Photo from the Brighton Pittsford-Post 2001. Uniform provided by Lynda Howland from her grandfather is now displayed in the Yates County Historical Society. From On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester.  and Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story.

Not surprisingly, movie crews from both Biograph and Edison were soon on hand to film the wreckage.  Within a few weeks Wonderland audiences were viewing images of the blasted and sunken hulk of the Vizcaya.  This time accompanied by cheers and applause, with not a vegetable in sight.  (Wreck of the Viscaya in Santiago, Cuba, 1898 (LOC)

The Stoned Spaniard?

Perhaps vegetables weren’t the only thing flying around Rochester at that time.

On April 20, 1898, following the adoption by Congress of a Joint Resolution for war with Spain, Luis Polo y Bernabé Pilón, the Kingdom of Spain’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States (he’d held that office for less than a month), left Washington by train to sit out the war in Canada.   The next day’s Democrat and Chronicle reported that he would arrive at Rochester’s Central-Hudson Station at 7:45 am for a five minute stop.     Despite rainy weather, a large crowd reportedly was on hand to see the minister pass through town.   But his private car was guarded by Secret Service men and the shades were drawn, so no one caught a glimpse of Polo y Bernabé and reporters were unable to obtain an interview.

Three days later, during a brief interview in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Polo y Bernabé was quoted as saying of his stop in Rochester, “The crowds did attack my train.  The car was stoned at Rochester and at Harrisburg and besides we were insulted…to this time I have said nothing about the things I have endured.”  

The Rochester railroad depot master indignantly responded that the accusation was a lie.  “He was not stoned in Rochester, nor was he insulted.  There were not over a dozen men in the train house when his train passed through.  Before his train came in I had all the gates closed, but that was hardly necessary as no one came to see him…….We could not have taken more care to protect the president then we did the Spanish minister.”

Democrat and Chronicle, Apr 26, 1898 AUTHENTIC DENIAL. Polo y Bernabe Was Not Stoned Either Here or in Harrisburg.

While the discrepancy between the large crowd reported by the newspapers and the small crowd reported by the depot master does not appear to have been resolved, it was subsequently speculated that what Polo y Bernabé  and his traveling companions may have heard was not a shower or rocks thrown by outraged Rochesterians, but simply the sound of maintenance men tapping on the car wheels as part of a general inspection.

Wrapping up their coverage of the contretemps, the Democrat and Chronicle was of the opinion that, “Senor Polo says his train was stoned in Rochester.  If anybody is looking for the champion liar, he will do well to steer in Senor Polo’s direction.”


With crowds of Rochesterians going to see the Biographe, it was only appropriate that Biograph would come to see Rochester.  In cooperation with the motion picture company, a group of local promoters paid $3,200 for two old steam locomotives and had a quarter mile of railroad track laid in Driving Park (today the intersection of Driving Park Avenue and Dewey Avenue).  On July 4, 1900 an extravaganza was scheduled where the two locomotives, running full tilt, would be crashed into one another in a cacophony of tearing metal, hissing steam and flying parts, all taking place in front of Biograph’s movie cameras and before what was hoped would be a crowd of 20,000 cheering (and paying) spectators.

The Crash that Wasn’t

Unfortunately, by the 3:00 pm hour set for the crash, only a few hundred spectators had shown up.  The time was set back and then back again until Biograph, pointing out that the lengthening shadows would make filming extremely difficult, demanded that the show go on.  So at 4:10, with a scant crowd of a couple of thousand in the stands, the locomotives got up steam, the brakes were released, the trains started to roll, and the engineers jump off as planned as the locomotives picked up speed! But according to news reports, the event was “not a stupendous success”.    While the sound of the crash was satisfying, when the dust, smoke and clouds of steam cleared, the two locomotives were found to be still sitting on the rails, mostly intact.  Too short a span of track resulting in too slow a collision speed was identified as the culprit.  Biograph was left without any usable film footage, and the promoters were left with a large financial deficit and an estimated 70 or 80 tons of scrap metal.   __________________________________________________________________


¹ In his book, “Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States” (1992), Douglas Gomery wrote that in 1898 vaudeville houses showing motion pictures discovered that, while patrons had previously been attending to see the variety acts, with moving pictures being considered a novelty of secondary entertainment value, following the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine roles were suddenly reversed and that “No genre of programming could be developed to match the consistent drawing power of the images of the Spanish American War.”

² While motion pictures of the Maine did exist, it was not unusual for companies such as Biograph to use stock footage of other American navy warships and just label them as the Maine, realizing that few in the audience would know the difference.


“Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story:” New and Improved

On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. And remembering the Buffalo Soldiers on Veteran’s Day

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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