The earliest motion pictures were silent, short, and shown as a novelty during variety shows. But audiences loved them. If a photograph could actually move, the subject really didn’t matter. It was magic.
In 1899, the Skaneateles Free Press first wrote of a “moving picture entertainment” in Legg Hall, to benefit the Fire Department, a fund-raiser that must have proved successful as it was repeated many times in the next few years.
In May of 1907, the “Skaneateles Amusement Company” announced the impending arrival of a moving picture machine, and promised an hour-long program of moving pictures. Illustrated songs – lantern slides of lyrics shown with a musical accompaniment – provided entertainment during reel changes.
The picture shows continued, but 1911 was not the best of years for them. In March, a show at Legg Hall was broken up by group of boys throwing sneezing powder into the audience. And then in August, sparks from wires carrying electricity to the projector fell into an open canister of nitrate film. Made with nitrocellulose, nitrate film burns hot, fast, and once ignited makes its own oxygen, so it will burn under water.
An instant after the sparks hit, a flare of flame shot out of the makeshift projection booth in the balcony, followed closely by Earl Day, the projectionist, already burnt on the face and hands. The flames shot through the roof and ignited a nearby tank of gasoline. The only thing moving faster than the fire was the audience dashing to two exits, one the main stairway and the other a window leading to a narrow fire escape down which women in full skirts did involuntary cartwheels.
The impresario, Daniel Bedford of Auburn, had planned to give moving picture shows all summer but was now presiding over an entirely different kind of spectacle. As flames lit the night sky, farmers raced into the village in wagons to help three fire companies (ironically, firemen still held the lease on Legg Hall) and other volunteers who had formed a bucket brigade from the lake. The Auburn-to-Syracuse street cars were halted in both directions by the fire hoses draped across Genesee Street. After two hours, the fire was out and the business block was saved. The second floor of Legg Hall was gutted, but insured. No one was killed.
Moving picture shows were again being held in Legg Hall in December of 1914, with a Christmas turkey giveaway enticing patrons, but just around the corner a new age of film was about to dawn in the village.
Charles H. Huxford of Skaneateles Falls leased the Odd Fellows Temple on State Street and obtained, “by express” from New York City, a Power’s No. 6A film projector, “the finest motion picture machine built.” Beginning in January of 1915, he began screening episodes of “The Exploits of Elaine” on Thursday, Friday and/or Saturday evenings (working around those nights when there was a basketball game). His sisters, Nellie and Mabel, played the piano accompaniment.
The sequel to the legendary “Perils of Pauline,” also starring Pearl White, “The Exploits of Elaine” was a cliffhanger serial complete with a villain known as The Clutching Hand. The film thrilled audiences, grossed more than $1,000,000 and spawned two more sequels. In April of 1915, Huxford began screening a new serial at the Odd Fellows Temple, and also leased Legg Hall for a year, for “shows, dances and other amusements.”
On Decoration Day (Memorial Day) of 1915, Huxford began showing movies at Legg Hall. He hired Jessie Thurlow to play the piano and, in 1919, he married her, keeping the music in the family. Alzina Loveless recalled that Jessie’s accompaniment wasn’t always perfect:
“Sometimes she was so carried away by what she was seeing that she forgot to play and there was dead silence except for the whirr of the projector in the rear and the heavy breathing of the audience. Then with a crash of chords the music began again.”
In 1920, Huxford purchased Legg Hall and named his theater “The Huxford Theatre,” and so it would be for the next 20 years. Among the more faithful fans were Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Spearing, who in 1923 claimed to have seen every one of Huxford’s moving picture shows in the past seven years.
In September of 1929, Vitaphone and Movietone equipment were installed for sound pictures and Jessie no longer had to play the piano. In 1940, the Huxford Theater was sold to Reuben C. Canter, remodeled and reopened Christmas week as the Colonial Theatre, and so ended the first golden age of film in Skaneateles.