Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Earliest Years of The Pelham Picture House

The Pelham Picture house is a movie theater located at 175 Wolfs Lane in Pelham.  It opened in 1921 and has been claimed to be the oldest continuously-operating movie theater in Westchester County (although it has been closed temporarily for renovations and for other reasons over the decades).  The Pelham Picture House was named to the National Register of Historic Places on May 28, 2010.    

In the application for inclusion of the structure in the National Register of Historic Places, the Picture House is described as follows:

"The Pelham Picture House is significant in the area of architecture as an intact-representative example of an early-20th century movie theater in Westchester County.  The building typifies early-20th century commercial architecture of New York City commuter suburbs with its eclectic styling reflective of the Mission style.  Its stuccoed facade has angled end bays, a distinctive round-arched entrance, tiled hoods over the large windows on the end bays, and a wood open truss ceiling in the auditorium.  The theater is also significant in the area of entertainment as an important social and cultural resource for residents of the suburban village and town of Pelham.  The Pelham Picture House was built in 1921 by the Pelham Theater Corporation and has been in almost continuous operation since then as a movie theater.  Despite the remodeling of the lobby and minor changes to the auditorium, the theater retains a high level of integrity of location, setting, design, materials, craftsmanship, feeling, and association."

Source:  National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Pelham Picture House, 175 Wolf's Lane, Pelham, New York, Westchester, Code 119, 10803, Section 8, Page 1 ("Narrative Statement of Significance").  

The Picture House held its grand opening on September 10, 1921, featuring the silent film "Passing Thru," a comedy-drama starring Douglas MacLean and Madge Bellamy.  In the film:

"Bank teller Billy Barton shoulders the blame for a cash shortage for which Fred Kingston, a fellow employee, is responsible and is sentenced to prison.  On his way there, the train is wrecked and he escapes.  In the town of Culterton, he meets and falls in love with Mary Spivins, the bank president's daughter, and charms the populace by playing the mouth organ.  He obtains work as a farmhand with Silas Harkins, taking the farm mule as wages.  When Spivins orders Harkins arrested for assault, Billy learns it was a kick from the mule that laid out Spivins.  At the bank he finds Spivins bound while Fred and the clerk are robbing the safe; Billy is locked in the safe, and all efforts to save him prove futile until the wall is kicked out by the mule.  Through the efforts of Willie Spivins, the bank is dynamited, but all ends happily."

Source:  Munden, Kenneth White, ed., The American Film Institute of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States, Part 1, "Passing Thru," p. 592 (Berkeley, CA:  Univ. of California Press, 1997).  

When it first opened, the Picture House was billed as "Pelham's Newest Place of Amusement, Up to Date, Airy and Comfortable."  Only two days after it opened, the first paid advertisement for the Pelham Picture House appeared in the September 23, 1921 issue of the local newspaper, The Pelham Sun.  The theater showed silent films until August, 1929 when it showed "Nothing But the Truth" with Richard Dix and Helen Kane, its first "talkie."  For more about that event (and for information about an earlier movie theater that was the first to serve Pelham even before the Pelham Picture House), see:  Early Films in Pelham at "Happy Land," Then Talkies at Pelham Picture House, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 10, Mar. 5, 2004, p. 12, col. 3.

When the Pelham Picture House faced possible demolition in 2001, it was acquired by Pelham Picture House Restoration, a not-for-profit whose goal is to restore the theater and expand its uses.  After the theater was acquired in 2005, it became The Picture House Regional Film Center and, over time, began to operate as a second-run theater for independent films while also showcasing classic and family films.  The Picture House Regional Film Center since has embraced the mission of providing Westchester residents not only with the opportunity to see such films, but also the opportunity to learn about the filmmaking process.  Additionally, it offers educational courses on such subjects as filmmaking, editing, animation, acting, directing, and screenwriting.

The Picture House in 2004, Shortly Before Restoration Began.

The role of the Picture House has, in effect, come full circle.  Few realize that in its first few years, the Picture House played a role in the education of Westchester residents in addition to its role as a cultural, social and entertainment center.  Indeed, the Picture House received attention less than two years after it opened when it began to show what were considered ground-breaking and awe-inspiring films by a local scientist who used time-lapse techniques and a cutting-edge "microscope camera" to reveal the growth of cells, the growth of chicken embryos inside their eggs, and the like.  That scientist used the Picture House to show his films to other scientists interested in his techniques.

The local scientist was Dr. Charles F. Herm who lived in the Village of North Pelham.  He developed what became known as the Herm Microscope that permitted the creation of time-lapse films that depicted microscopic growth in cell colonies and the like.  Dr. Herm used thd Picture House on occasion to screen his films for other scientists interested in his techniques.  Dr. Herm served for a time as the curator of physiology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. See, generally, First Movies of Nature's Actual Process in Creation of Life, Springfield Missouri Republican, Oct. 21, 1923, p. 23, cols. 1-6.  Herm had been working on his technology since at least 1919.  See Biological Pictures, N.Y. Times, Nov. 23, 1919. 

Below are transcriptions of two articles that appeared in The Pelham Sun describing the films that were shown at the Picture House by local scientist, Dr. C.F. Herm.  The second article has been particularly difficult to transcribe because the very top of the headline and much of the left edge of the article are missing and the quality of the image being transcribed is exceedingly poor.  Every effort has been made to determine what can be determined, however.

"Great Progress of Microscope Camera
Many Close Studies of Nature Revealed in Films Shown to Private Audience Saturday

A small but interested group of scientists and newspaper men attended a private showing of wonders revealed by the Herms' microscopc [sic] camera at Pelham Picture House on Satuorday [sic] afternoon.  Plant life and growth which first taken a single picture every ten minutes and then speeded up to a movie film showed the many phases of development and will be of great aid to botanists.

A film story entitled 'The Life of Robin Hood' showed the nest of a pair of robins with three eggs, from one of which Mr. Robin was industriously picking its way out out [sic] of the shell.  Its growth to a fledgling and final development to maturity was interesting.

A study of the blood circulation, and a closeup of the heart action and its method of blood pumping was weird and uncanny, but its aid to medical research is aparent [sic].

'Life on the Seashore' showed many forms of life invisible to the naked eye but in which a single drop of sea water when enlarged one million times by the microscopic camera became an arena of battle of an army of animalculae which showed amazing rapacity and agility.  

Dr. Herms the North Pelham scientist has been offered a lecture tour of the United States in whcih [sic] to present his microscopic camera revelations, but is understood to be somewhat reluctant to relinquish the scientific studies which he is pursuing."

Source:  Great Progress of Microscope Camera, The Pelham Sun, Nov. 2, 1923, p. 13, col. 2.

"[Illegible] Movies Produced by Dr. C.F. Herm
Pelham Man Gives Exhibition to Group of Scientists at Pelham Picture House Last Saturday--Incubation of Fish Eggs Shown in All Stages--Window in Egg Shell Enables Taking of Picture of Chick Until First Heart Beat Is Shown.

[An inspiring] exhibition of movie films [made] in Pelham at the studio of Dr. Charles F. Herm was given last Saturday afternoon before a group of noted scientists at the Pelham Picture House.  The exhibition was private being principally a demonstration of the marvelous [view] which can be afforded to science now that the new microscopic movie camera which Dr. Herm has perfected at his [?]th Street studios.  Dr. Herm was formerly connected with the American Museum of Natural History but of late [years] has devoted his time to the development of the microscopial movies which have created amazement wherever shown.  The New York Herald contained an interesting account of the exhibition, [a] remarkable film portraying the changes in the contents of an egg during the period of incubation from the start to the first heart beat of the live chicken.  This is accomplished with the use of a time clock which causes the camera to flash a strong light through a glass window inserted in the side of the egg.  The glass window is three quarters of an inch square, sealed in place by paraffin.  A picture is taken every time the light flashes and the [illegible] process of incubation is going on for thirty-three hours, a picture being taken every ten minutes

Taking microscopic pictures automatically, every ten seconds, every two minutes, or at any interval desired, this machine can also record the details of clinical reaction, the action of white corpuscles and the growth of new tissue in the healing of wounds, the building up of fine crystals from solutions, or the gradual changes inside the egg of a fish from the original clear fluid to the fully formed baby fish.  

Operated in an observation night and day for two and even three weeks, this camera has made records of scores of biological and chemical processes hitherto incompletely observed.  

To Film Cancer Action

One of the experiments soon to be tried is that of placing a group of healthy cells and a group of cancer cells together in a solution to show the attack by the malignant bodies.  The camera is a development from an earlier type used by Dr. Herm to assist Dr. Alexis Garrel in studying the protecting and healing action of white corpuscles in wounded tissue.  It is planned to use the instrument for the diagnosis of many obscure plant diseases.

One of the most interesting of these films was a microscopial study of the life cycle of the oyster.  This film is expected to have a practical bearing on the problem of rearing oysters artificially and using their eggs for seed to stock beds from which the oysters have disappeared.  The film was made under the direction of Dr. Wells, who has worked out a system of making oysters lay billions of eggs for the State as a means of restoring the breed in part of the Long Island coast and other places where spells of bad weather, parasites or other enemies have temporarily wiped out the shellfish.

Baby Oyster's Life Perilous

The oyster lays eggs by the thousands and scatters them in an unfertilized condition in the water.  The male oyster [sic - omitted] tion by the microscope.  The chance meeting of the two varieties of cells fertilizes the eggs and starts the young oyster on its career which is ended ninety-nine times out of a hundred by predatory minnows.  Those which escape, however, are still numerous enough to keep the oyster industry flourishing.

Dr. Wells improved on nature by opening the female oyster during the egg season and scooping out the eggs by the million and raising the eggs in water which has been intensively fertilized by the male.  The film showed the process from the beginning.  The floating sperm met the floating egg, attached itself to the egg membrane and finally pierced through to the interior and awakened the vital processes.  

Celia or whiplike processes soon appeared with which the new hatched oyster rowed itself through the water with great speed.  Just how the minute oyster forward propelled itself was not known before.  [Illegible]

Taking the pictures through the microscope at high speed and then showing them at low speed, however, made the rowing motion discernible.  After acquiring the whips which enabled it to charge in all directions for food the oyster gradually acquired one shell, then another, and its after life was uneventful.

Another film taken over a period of weeks by the patient camera was the biological history of an infusion of hay and water.  Bacteria first developed in such quantities as to cloud the water.  The water cleared, as the protozoa, the smallest animals, multiplied and ate up the excess bacteria.  Then appeared the rotifers, a little more highly organized, which live on protozoa.  But the rotifers fattened themselves on the protozoa only to become themselves the prey of various water worms.  Hundreds of amazing feats of gluttony were exhibited with one drop of water for an arena. . . . "

Source:  Movies Produced by Dr. C. F. Herm, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 21, 1923, p. 10, col. 1.  

In addition to the above, below I have included two examples of early advertisements that appeared in the local newspaper, The Pelham Sun, in the first months after the Pelham Picture House first opened in late 1921.  Each is followed by a citation to its source.

Pelham Picture House [Advertisement], The Pelham Sun, Dec. 29, 1922, p. 6, col. 3. 

Pelham Picture House [Advertisement], The Pelham Sun, Nov. 30, 1923, p. 3, col. 2. 

I have written extensively about The Pelham Picture House and its history over the years.  For a two examples, see:  

Wed., Nov. 9, 2005:  The Historic Pelham Picture House at 175 Wolfs Lane in Pelham, New York.  

Wed., Nov. 16, 2005:  New Theory Regarding Identity of the Architect of the Pelham Picture House Built in 1921.

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.

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