On Tuesday, I got back from my European honeymoon, where my wife and I spent two lovely weeks in Dusseldorf, Paris, and London. In Paris, what I wanted to see the most might not be what you’d expect. I didn’t even think about visiting it at all until we got there. No, it’s not the Eiffel Tower. It was Le Salon Indien du Grand Café. It was at this small but historic building where people were given the chance to participate in the first ever public, commercial movie screening.
It was December 28, 1895. The Lumiere Brothers (Auguste and Louis) had just finished work on their cinematograph, a device that served as a film camera, projector, and printer. It was named and inspired by a machine French inventor Léon Bouly created and patented in1892. Money issues resulted in Bouly not fully realizing his creation. These problems persisted and he later sold the rights to the machine and its name to the Lumiere Brothers. The advantage of the cinematograph over Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, which he premiered in 1895, was not only its ability to project films but its mobility, the Kinetoscope was heavy and bulky.
With the new machine the Lumieres made a slew of short films. Nine or ten of these shorts, which included the films La Sortie des usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon) and L’Arroseur arrosé (where you can see a young man play a trick on a gardener with a hose), were shown at Le Salon, which itself was in the basement of the Grand Cafe.
Sadly, the Grand Cafe and Le Salon are no more, having closed by 1900. At the location of what used to be the Grand Cafe (No. 14 Boulevard des Capucines) is the Hotel Scribe, which contains a restaurant called Café Lumière. The successor to the original cafe is located at No. 4 Boulevard des Capucines and is called appropriately enough The Grand Cafe Capucines.
Whether the building I visited a week ago was the same as the old Grand Cafe, I have no idea. I doubt it was since I wouldn’t think a cafe building would make for a good hotel, but what do I know. If the original structure was torn down, I also don’t know if any remnants of the original, like the basement, survived. Either way, I wanted to see it, and I did.
Our adventure down in that subterranean movie landmark was brief and uneventful. As you go down the basement stairs, there are three glass cases, each containing something related to the Lumieres, on your right.
There was a sign pointing us in the direction of the various rooms. I don’t know the function of them all, whether or not they were all part of Cafe Lumiere, but there was a room for each brother and one called le 1895.
I said in my announcement post a couple weeks ago that I would let you guys know if I visited any cool theaters. I never imagined I would visit the first one. Well, actually, was it the first? Upon doing research for this post, I discovered there may be another building, an actual theater, that may stake the claim as the location of first public screening (it’s certainly the oldest theater in existance today), though this one would not have charged admission.
The premiere movie theater might also have been The Eden Theater in La Ciotat in southeastern France, earlier in 1895. I say may have been because on Wikipedia it says the screening took place on September 28, 1895, in a 2013 Telegraph article and a 2013 France 24 article there are claims of the screening taking place in 1899, France Today states it was for a private audience in 1895, and in a 2013 Guardian publication there is no specific date given but the site says it happened after the 1895 cafe screening. So I have no idea what is true and what isn’t. Obviously, the cafe would be the first screening if film didn’t premiere at The Eden until 1899.
There is a nice blog entry I found at thehistoryblog.com, which goes in-depth about the Lumieres and the first movie screenings. This writer says the first private screening took place on March 22nd, 1895 at the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. After various private screenings in France and Belgium (La Ciotat, where many of the shorts were filmed, being among the cities visited), came the December cafe screening for a paying audience. The famous short of the train arriving at a station was not shown at this event, but a little while later in January 1896. The writer goes on to say the first screening at The Eden took place on March 21, 1899 for an audience of 250. One other interesting bit of information the writer mentions is at the March 1895 screening, whose theme was advances in photography, color photographic film debuted. Apparently, Louis was stunned that his invention was getting so much more attention.
Because of the contradictory claims to the first public motion picture showing, I will have to visit The Eden some day. The theater was built in 1889 and functioned until declining ticket sales and the tragic murder of the 25 year-old manager by robbers necessitated its closing in 1982. It opened once a year for a festival until 1995. Luckily, it reopened in 2013, and, I believe, is still opened to the public. For more details about the theater’s history (it was originally a coffee house and music hall that hosted vaudeville shows), its renovation, and reopening, I urge you to check out the full article here.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to take a trip to The Eden, but for now, I think, despite the conflicting information, I can say I had the pleasure of doing what many film buffs have not. I visited the location of the first ever movie theater. Don’t think I’ll be able to top that for a while.
P.S. If you have any information or experiences you’d like to share about the cafe or The Eden, please let me know in the comment section. Would love to hear your stories.