First moving picture/first full-time movie theater

North side of the 600 block of East Washington Street, location of the Casino Theatre, in 1928, a decade after the theater closed. Numbers along the bottom of the photo are somewhat misleading. The theater building at 621 E. Washington would have been the shorter, light-colored structure partly obscured by the “Billiards” sign. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

It’s impossible to know for sure when Springfield residents saw their first “moving picture,” but the likely dates are Jan. 1-2, 1897, when the Stephenson Post of the Grand Army of the Republic held a fundraiser at the Central Music Hall, a vaudeville venue at Fourth and Jefferson streets.

The show – the “(m)ost wonderful entertainment ever presented in this city” – was to be shown via a Magniscope, invented (according to the Museum of the Moving Image) by Edward Hill Amet of Waukegan.

Newspaper notice, Dec. 27, 1896, for what may have been Springfield’s first moving picture (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

“He began demonstrating his Magniscope projector in 1895, and over the next few years manufactured and sold several hundred to traveling showmen eager to be the first to exhibit moving pictures in towns and villages across the country,” the MOMI said.

The subjects of the GAR film went unreported in a brief newspaper notice.

It didn’t take long for other showmen to add movies to their live productions. The International Vaudeville Company brought a troupe featuring singers, buck dancers, comedians and a “world famous legless acrobatic dancer” to Springfield’s Chatterton Opera House in April 1897. But the company’s headline attraction was “the greatest of all moving picture machines: the Animatescope.”

If newspaper publicity is a reliable indicator, movies were at first a rare attraction locally. A few Chatterton shows included film shorts, and the Central Music Hall brought “the famous Boswell Vitascope … with the latest films” to town in July 1899.

The Chatterton Opera House promised no flickering when it presented the Jeffries-Sharkey boxing match in 1900. (SJ-R)

The Chatterton showed a film of the November 1899 boxing match between Tom Sharkey and James Jeffries in March 1900. In October 1901 – between acts of the live play “The Three Musketeers” – the opera house also showed President William McKinley’s funeral procession; McKinley had died a month earlier. The Gaiety Theatre, another venue usually devoted to vaudeville, presented “The Great Train Robbery,” an innovative 12-minute film that is considered the first Western movie, in 1904.

Within a few years, however, saloons, burlesque houses, pool halls and amusement parks began to acquire projection equipment. Springfield may have had dozens of part-time movie venues by about 1905.

Identifying the first local theater that showed only films, however, is an issue complicated by time, confusion and the chaotic nature of Springfield’s early movie business. For instance, the Illinois State Register tried to recap three decades of Springfield cinema in 1935.

Springfield’s introduction to the movies came in 1906, when M.B. Pletz (Manning B. Pletz [1868-1933] – ed.)started a theater known as the “Vaudette” at 620 East Washington street. Like most movies of the early days, the business was distinctly a gamble and the cheapest room possible was selected. …

The Vaudette operated for a little more than a year, when it came to an untimely end that almost cost a number of residents their lives. Late one Sunday afternoon, as the operator was changing reels, the intense heat from the movie machine set fire to a flimsy curtain and in a few seconds bedlam reigned in the long, narrow house. Flames spread so quickly that an exit from the front door became impossible. The crowd fought its way to the back, where a narrow door and a window opened on the alley. Several score went out through the door, but stopped in the alley to watch the fire, preventing others from escaping. Those trapped broke the window and were pulled through.

It’s a good story. Unfortunately, the Register writer appears to have conflated two different Washington Street theaters. According to the 1906 Springfield city directory, Manning Pletz did manage a theater named the “Vaudett” at 620 E. Washington St. However, the Vaudett was gone by June 1906, when 620 E. Washington housed a furniture store, and we don’t know if it presented films, vaudeville or both. (Just to add to the confusion, showman W.W. Watts opened an unrelated Vaudette on South Fifth Street in 1908.)

The fire described in the 1935 story, meanwhile, clearly took place across the street – at the Casino Theatre, 621 E. Washington St. – on Nov. 2, 1908. Descriptions of the Casino blaze in both the Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register are virtually identical to those ascribed to the Vaudett in the 1935 story.

“Employees of the theatre jumped through windows and small children were trampled on in a mad rush to escape,” the Journal reported Nov. 3. “Many were burned and cut with glass in making their exit.”

At any rate, the main credit for opening Springfield’s first full-time movie theater belongs to John A. Karzin (1882-1956), a Greek immigrant who previously had opened St. Louis’s first all-movie showplace.

The Casino was Karzin’s third try at operating a movie-only venue at 621 E. Washington. The first version opened without a name on Aug. 16, 1907.

The opening day ad promised:

The World’s Greatest Historeograph.
French colored moving pictures and up to date illustrated songs.
High class and refined exhibition for ladies, gentlemen and children.
The best show in the city for the price. Admission only 5c and stay as long as you like.

The theater got a name – the Great Paris Moving Picture Show – within a month, but it lasted only through the end of the year.

John Karzin in a badly reproduced photo (Moving Picture World, June 1925).

Undaunted, Karzin opened a new showplace at 621 E. Washington in April 1908; the World’s Dream Theatre (named after the cinema Karzin ran in St. Louis) apparently was still mainly a movie venue, but this time Karzin hedged his bets; live local performers took the stage on Mondays, amateur nights.

The World’s Dream, once again, lasted just a few months. Finally, in October 1908, Karzin and a new partner, George Mills, found the right combination and yet another name, the Casino Theatre, still at 621 E. Washington St. The Casino, which reopened a month after the November 1908 fire, stayed in business under several different owners until 1916.

A trade magazine, The Moving Picture World, later described how Karzin’s businesses in Springfield and St. Louis worked together.

In 1908 Karzin went to Springfield, Ill., opening that city’s first picture theatre at 621 East Washington street, in connection with his St. Louis houses. In those days film exchanges cared little how often a rented film was shown, as long as it was returned within a reasonable length of time. John Karzin smiles as he claims he had the world’s long-distance “bicycling” championship. The film he showed in the World’s Dream in St. Louis one day was shown in the Casino in Springfield the day following.

Karzin returned to St. Louis in 1912. Before he did so, however, he played a supporting role in the careers of two other Springfield movie entrepreneurs. The success of Karzin’s Casino inspired W.W. Watts to re-enter the fledgling movie business in 1908. And Karzin was Gus Kerasotes’ partner in the 1909 opening of Springfield’s Royal Theatre, the first in what was to become the U.S.’s sixth-largest chain of movie showplaces.

Note: This entry has been edited to clarify Manning Pletz’s role in Springfield movie history. 

More information: See the Sangamon County Historical Society’s PowerPoint presentation, “Springfield’s Movie House History” (1922).

And more yet: This is the second in a three-part series about early movies in Springfield. Click here to see previous entries about local theaters and movie entrepreneurs.

Hat tip: To William Cellini Jr., who pointed SangamonLink to both John Karzin and Manning Pletz.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 



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