When Valley Forge Had Star Power
How Hollywood glitz—and sleaze—got its start on the banks of the Schuylkill River.
It’s bad enough that Hollywood can sway judgments about toothpaste. But movie stars also stump for political candidates. They pontificate on issues. They mate in public. Which begs the question: What’s a “star”—and how did we get so hooked on these people, anyway?
A leading culprit in this story is film pioneer Siegmund Lubin, who was among the first to notice that filmgoers preferred movies in which certain actors appeared. To his credit, this annoyed him. Lubin, whose studios in Philadelphia and Valley Forge (what remains is pictured above) turned out more than a thousand movies between 1895 and 1917, considered acting less than real work. That he should pay one actor more than another—and any actor more than a set carpenter—offended his egalitarian instincts.
In a 1913 interview, Lubin, a generous employer, described with evident pride the benefits he provided his workers. He paused and then added, “except for the actors, of course. I have no sympathy at all for the actors!”
But he went along when the box office benefits became obvious. In 1909, Lubszynski stole Florence Lawrence—considered Hollywood’s first star—from the studio that owned her contract. She repaid him with tantrums and, eventually, by walking away for a still better deal.
Born in Poland and raised in Berlin, Siegmund Lubszynski came to the United States in 1876. His father had died suddenly in the 1860s, forcing his children to take after-school jobs to complete their educations. Siegmund had ended up in a Berlin chemical factory where an industrial accident blinded him in the right eye. Far from discouraging him, his condition gave the boy a greater appreciation for sight. With money made from manufacturing ink at home, Siegmund earned a degree in ophthalmology from the University of Heidelberg.
Even so, it was difficult for foreign-educated immigrants to enter professions in the United States. With $12 in his pocket, Siegmund went first to New Haven, Conn., lived with a cousin, shortened his name to “Lubin” and sold eyeglasses on the street. In 1882, Siegmund Lubin married Annie Abrams, his landlady’s eldest daughter. Convinced he could sell more glasses at fairs and expositions, Lubin and his wife began traveling the country by train.
There were some highlights: At the Louisville (Ky.) Exposition in 1883, Lubin fitted a pair of spectacles for former President Grant. But income was meager. After the birth of their first child, Annie insisted they settle down. She chose Philadelphia, where they moved into a boardinghouse.
Lubin advertised himself as “Professor S. Lubin, Manufacturing Optician” and catered mostly to the urban poor, offering eyeglasses for $1 a pair. Within a few months, Lubin had enough money to rent a second floor apartment on North 8th Street and set up his first optical shop.
The neighborhood was filled with music halls and vaudeville houses. The young optician advertised in theater programs, extending his hours to 10 p.m. so patrons could stop in after a performance. Soon, Lubin was able to hire employees to take care of day-to-day business while he explored new opportunities.
His first products were “song slides,” sets of glass transparencies that illustrated popular songs and that often included the words as well. Slide demand was so strong that Lubin set up a small factory on South 8th Street. The factory, in turn, allowed the Lubins to move up to fashionable North Philadelphia. They rented a brick townhouse at 1608 N. 15th St. and sent their daughters to Quaker schools.
He Oughta Be in Pictures
Lubin saw his first movie at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Within a couple of years, he’d made a short film of his horse eating hay in the stable behind his house. The movie premiered at the optical shop, using a crude projector Lubin built himself.
Lesser entrepreneurs would’ve been satisfied raking in the nickels customers paid to view short films. Lubin had bigger plans: He bought out the rights of another projector inventor and borrowed ideas from still others, in the process infringing the patents of Thomas Edison, who later sued. In January 1897, he first advertised his “Cineograph” projector—including four films—for $150, soon slashing the price to $75.
Exhibitors quickly learned that audiences would only watch films a few times before demanding something new. But producing films was expensive and slow, so Cineograph owners naturally preferred to buy them. Lubin bought every film he could find and made copies. “The fact that he had not asked permission nor advised his fellow film-makers of his inspired solution does not seem to have concerned him,” wrote Eckhardt.
In May 1897, Lubin claimed an inventory of a thousand films. Soon, though, he stepped up his own production. When a competitor bought the rights to film the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight in Nevada, Lubin reproduced the fight with actors using newspaper accounts and got it to market first.
Another tactic was to recruit traveling theater groups to perform in Lubin’s back yard. Some performers—a dancing transvestite, for instance—horrified the neighbors. “It was fortunate for all concerned that Lubin’s two films of copulating horses had to be filmed on location in the country,” wrote Eckhardt.
In 1898, Lubin used Fairmount Park to re-enact a Spanish-American War cavalry battle with hundreds of local African-Americans as buffalo soldiers. The sight so scared a white family in a carriage that police were called.
Eventually, complaining neighbors put an end to filming on North 15th Street, and officials stopped Lubin’s use of the parks. He bought a building on Arch Street, where he filmed on the roof. In 1908, Lubin built a professional studio at 20th Street and Indiana Avenue before purchasing the 380-acre Betzwood Farm—opposite Port Kennedy near Valley Forge—in 1912. The property had a Pennsylvania Railroad line running through it. So when Lubin made westerns and needed a train for his Indians to attack, he just checked the schedule.
Lubin’s taste in entertainment revealed his background as a burlesque hall patron. He truly liked copulating horses and dancing transvestites. For years, he resisted techniques such as facial close-ups; he didn’t think he was getting his money’s worth unless the entire actor—head to toe—was on film.
Ego Stroking and Lawsuits
The first star to catch Lubin’s eye was Florence Lawrence, who’d begun with Edison’s Biograph Studios, where she worked under D.W. Griffith. In 1909, independent producer Carl Laemmle recruited Lawrence. She made 43 films for Laemmle in 1909 and 1910.
Lubin heard rumors that Lawrence was unhappy. He met the actress and her husband in Berlin and took them sightseeing in his carriage. By the time everyone was back in the States, Lubin had Lawrence’s contract.
Laemmle sued, claiming that her contract ran for two more years. Lubin’s lawyer argued what even Lubin no longer believed—that audiences could barely distinguish between actors. To make the case, Lubin solicited affidavits from major studios, including Biograph, which had a grudge against Laemmle for recruiting Lawrence. It worked: Lawrence’s contract with Laemmle was broken.
Lawrence made a film a week for Lubin. Many weren’t very good, but their financial success made it difficult to convince Lubin he needed better material. High-strung and sensitive, Lawrence became depressed. “One of the extras vividly remembered her tendency to lay down on the set and bang her head and heels against the floor,” wrote Eckhardt.
When Lubin introduced her new leading man, Lawrence abruptly boarded a ship for Europe. There, she promptly boarded another ship and returned, refreshed by two weeks on the North Atlantic. Lawrence quit after a year, but her career declined. After years of ill health and only bit parts, she committed suicide by eating ant paste.
In 1914, an explosion and fire at Lubin’s North Philadelphia plant destroyed nearly his entire archive, his primary asset. After World War I cut off the foreign market for his films, Lubin declared bankruptcy in 1916 and Betzwood was sold.
Movie-making long ago moved to California. But don’t let Hollywood fool you. Its heritage—based largely on vulgarity, artistic theft, spoiled and narcissistic actors, false flattery, perjury, public tantrums, contempt for the audience, and more—is all right here.
And store-brand toothpaste works just fine.
E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at email@example.com.