Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States

Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States

Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States

Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States


"See yourself in the movies!"

Prior to the advent of the home movie camera and the ubiquitousness of the camera phone, there was the local film. This cultural phenomenon, produced across the country from the 1890s to the 1950s, gave ordinary people a chance to be on the silver screen without leaving their hometowns. Through these movies, residents could see themselves in the same theaters where they saw major Hollywood motion pictures. Traveling filmmakers plied their trade in small towns and cities, where these films were received by locals as being part of the larger cinema experience. With access to the rare film clips under discussion, Main Street Movies documents the diversity and longevity of local film production and examines how itinerant filmmakers responded to industry changes to keep sponsors and audiences satisfit images of local people and places but also ideas about the function and meaning of cinema that continue to resonate today.


In the beginning, all moving images were local. in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion plates, taken at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1880s, we often see an old man with a long, white beard who was none other than Muybridge himself. in West Orange, New Jersey, Thomas Edison’s technicians cast themselves in their early film experiments. Fred Ott saw his own sneeze.

And soon after Auguste and Louis Lumière first directed their cinematograph toward their employees leaving their factory in Lyon, they projected the results so their subjects could see themselves. the cinema was conceived as a solipsistic enterprise. To make a movie was also to see one, and those who saw movies often saw themselves in them.

But even after these early moving image experiments birthed a new industry, local films remained a central appeal of a movie show. Traveling exhibitors carried movie cameras with them as they went from fairground to amusement hall to tent show, confident that a local film made just hours before that night’s show would be a surer draw than a reel purchased three years ago.

For the first fifteen years of the cinema, 1895 to 1910, local films were a regular feature of the picture show. in this period, the local film was a genre, often identified in newspapers, theater programs, and billboards as “local views,” “topicals,” or “actualities.” Like other early cinema genres, the definition of local film was as much prescriptive as descriptive. Audiences and exhibitors alike recognized local views as motion pictures that were made near the site of their intended exhibition in order to give people the opportunity to see themselves on screen. One could “get in” a local film in much the same manner that one made the decision to go see a picture show—just by showing up. Even if many audiences saw local films in this early period, they were ephemeral experiences, much like the cinema itself.

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