Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In Philipsburg, the summer of 1914 ended with a crash that could be heard for miles and seen around the world. On the slopes of Centre County’s Collision Field, a stadium formed by nature, five thousand festive, flag-waving spectators gathered to watch the wrecking of two great Pittsburgh & Susquehanna Railroad locomotives. Bands entertained the Labor Day celebrants with musical selections while fifteen cameramen positioned themselves behind protective armor-plate shields along the trains’ horseshoe-curved route and waited for just the right light. Finally, the sun blazed through the clouds. The director gave the word. As both trains appeared around their curves, the crowd rose to its feel. “Like two huge horses in battle,” wrote an Altoona Mirror reporter, the crashing locomo­tives reared high into the air before crumpling in on each other in an agony of twisted iron, dust, smoke and steam. All agreed it was a spectacular show.

At a cost of more than twenty-five thousand dollars, this scene for A Partner To Providence – episode eight in the popular serial The Beloved Adventurer – was also in its time one of the most expensive single scenes ever photographed for a motion picture. It was but one of nearly five thousand films produced between 1897 and 1916 by the Philadelphia-based Lubin Film Company, a company whose chief, Siegmund Lubin, was one of the early motion picture industry’s most important and colorful pioneers.

Today, Siegmund Lubin is remembered, when at all, as the enigmatic film mogul who saved the careers of Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky, later the founders of Paramount Pictures. To his contemporaries, however, he was “Pop” Lubin, “the Rockefeller of the Movies,” “the man who combined dramatic power with the wizardry of finance and made it possible to commercialize the movies.” Marie Dressler, Molly Picon, matinee idols Florence Lawrence and Arthur Johnson, the celebrated Jacob Adler, the notorious Evelyn Nesbit Thaw and the then unknown Oliver “Babe” Hardy were a few of the many personalities featured in the films bearing Lubin’s famous Liberty Bell trademark.

Lubin’s story was the stuff of which dime novelists would weave their versions of the American Dream. Tn 1876, the nation was celebrating its Centennial and reveling in innocent antici­pation of the continuing peace and prosperity the machine age promised when Lubin, a twenty-five year old German-Jewish immigrant from Berlin, disembarked in New York. “When I came here I was like all young fellows, out to get my fortune. I heard there was gold in the West, and so I took a little jewelry to sell to the Indians and went to California,” he would later recall, laughing at his own naivety. “Instead, the Indians got what little I had and I came quick back to New York.” Lubin spent his next years traveling to numerous fairs and expositions peddling a variety of optical wares and a metal polish he concocted and impishly labeled “Putzpommade.” It was an odd occupation for a man possessing a Heidelberg degree and an extensive knowl­edge of chemistry, physics and optics, but his crash course in American life would serve him well.

In 1882, at the urging of his travel-weary wife Annie, Lubin finally settled in Philadelphia and opened his first optical shop at 237 North Eighth Street. There, the proud peddler-optician (who once fit Ulysses S. Grant with a pair of spectacles) established himself as one of America’s first full-service opticians by combining the traditionally separate services of refracting, manufacturing and dispensing custom-made eyewear. Soon, he was able to move to 21 South Eighth Street, an address that was about to become famous as the headquarters of “Lubin, World’s Largest Manufacturer of Life Motion Picture Machines and Films.”

In late nineteenth century Philadelphia, it was almost inevita­ble for Lubin’s knowledge of optics to develop into a fascination with photography. The city was a major center for technical, aesthetic and commercial advancements in photography. The Langenheim brothers’ introduction of the stereopticon slide to the United States opened the way for Philadelphia to become a leading manufacturing center for stereopticon as well as magic lantern slides. Internationally renowned William Rau, the only photographer to whom Admiral Peary would entrust the precious negatives of his Arctic explorations, was only a few blocks from Lubin’s shop. And so by 1894, “S. Lubin, Manufac­turing Optician,” also began advertising himself as “S. Lubin, Photographer.” His specialty was stereopticon slides and, perhaps owing to his proximity to the theater district, he produced the hand-colored song slides being used by spotlight singers in vaudeville houses to promote the popular ballads of the day. From here, moving pictures were just a step away.

For Lubin, the catalyst was Eadweard Muybridge. During his tenure as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, from 1885 to 1893, Muybridge continued to conduct and hold demonstrations of his remarkable animal locomotion studies. “He showed a horse walking by stereopticon pictures, shown rapidly one after the other. I started to experiment then,” Lubin recalled. “It was in the ’90s.” In December 1895, the Franklin Institute hosted C. Francis Jenkins’ screening of the first motion picture on flexible film shown before a scientific organization. Lubin immediately purchased a machine from Jenkins and soon, the basement of his optical shop took on the aspect of an alche­mist’s laboratory as he began to experiment in earnest. By 1896, he had built his first projector, the “Cineograph,” and produced his first film, Horse Eating Hay. It was primitive fare, but his private audience gasped and marveled. His next opus was a pillow fight between his two daughters and their friends. Remembering back more than eighty-five years to Saturdays at Lubin’s optical shop, one of those friends, Marguerite Sessler Goldsmith, said, “We would be taken to the second floor where he had those old-fashioned Chinese screens, the bamboo that wiggled, and of course being kids, we loved that. And then we would sit down and he had the screen and the machine and we would see ourselves flickering all over the place with the pillow feathers. They were the ‘flickers,’ he called them, and they flicked all right!”

From the optical shop, Lubin’s “Life Motion Picture” enter­prise quickly invaded his home in a proper Victorian neighbor­hood at 1608 North Fifteenth Street. There, in the backyard, he built a stage. Scandalized by the sight of vaudeville dancers undulating before his camera in filmy costumes and prizefight­ers in revealing tights, the neighbors closed their shutters in horror – and then peeked from behind. The Lubin residence soon became a waystation and dressing room for the motley assortment of performers, both animal and human, that populated his early pictures.

Anne Lubin grew tired of the greasepaint in her bathroom. Distressed by the near asphyxiation of her family when some trained monkeys tethered to the stove turned on the gas jets in their escape, she rebelled. Lubin moved his studio to the rooftop of 912 Arch Street, a location convenient to Philadelphia’s famous Trocadero Theater, a burlesque house affectionately known as the “Troc,” where he recruited much of the talent for his early Life Motion Pictures. Among his Troc recruits was “Mlle. Fifi,” a Philadelphia policeman’s daughter who later created quite a sensation as the subject of the legendary raid on Minsky’s.

The backyard and Arch Street productions did quite well. An avid prizefight fan himself, Lubin scored his first big success in 1897 with a filmed reenactment of the epic bout between “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons. Two local freight-handlers donned false mustaches and followed Pop’s spirited rendering of the blow-by-blow newspaper account that served as their script. Pop’s cleverly worded advertisements put little emphasis on the fact that his Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was a re-creation, misleading most fans to believe they were watching the real thing. This became the first of many classic prizefights Lubin would recreate – sometimes with the actual combatants themselves – before the camera on his Arch Street roof. A stickler for realistic detail, he was known to pass out one-dollar bills for his “spectators” to bet at “ringside.” With as many as 200 screaming spectators jamming Lubin’s and adjacent rooftops, the fire department, fearing the worst, usually added to the considerable excitement by staging a raid.

For more genteel audiences, Lubin filmed The Passion Play. At a time when the average length of a motion picture was only fifty to one hundred feet (or spanning one to two minutes), the production of a five thousand foot Passion Play film was a monumental undertaking and, sometimes, an ordeal. The scenery, painted vistas of Galilee strung across Lubin’s backyard, flapped in the breeze. The actors were even less impressive. The disciples included several gamblers whose absence was assured whenever a hot crap game could be found. Cast for his striking physical resemblance to popular images of his heavenly counterpart, Lubin’s “Christ” was quite a tippler. When the dissipated thespian failed to report for his big scene after another binge, Pop advised the assembled cast: “Please you shall go home. We cannot crucify Christ today. He is too drunk.”

Besides raids and unreliable actors, early film production was fraught with other difficulties. Photographic emulsions were unpredictable and apt to flake. Processing was an art, hardly a science. The look of things changed dramatically. Red photo­graphed black. White fluoresced. Blue eyes did not photograph at all. Cameras were bulky and heavy and had to be hefted onto freight wagons for transportation to outdoor locations. Exhibi­tors had their problems, too. It was a lucky projectionist, indeed, who could laboriously crank one hundred feet of film through his machine without seeing the evenings’ program scratch, peel, break or explode in flames. New film titles were scarce and flickering, out-of-focus images only added to the audience’s disenchantment. Making matters worse, these visual assaults were generally shown in rented halls by itinerant showmen or projected on spittle and fly-specked bedsheets in dingy and cramped little storefronts.

Lubin’s dedication to such a dubious endeavor was cause for wonder, but as Pop recalled, “I told my theatrical friends they had no idea of the future of motion pictures. Long before the days of the nickel houses, I saw them coming.” One of the first to see motion pictures not only for what they were but for what they could become, Lubin, with his unique combination of technical and marketing skills, played a leading role in the creation of one of the nation’s largest industries and most popular art forms from what had promised to be merely another short-lived novelty.

In 1897, amid advertisements for “Buffalo Foot Cycles” and “circus animals for hire,” readers of the New York Clipper began to see weekly notices for Lubin’s Cineograph, “the most perfect of all projecting machines.” Although he was not the only one to manufacture and market projectors, Lubin’s enticements to “Make a Small Fortune” and his comparatively inexpensive equipment quickly made motion picture exhibition appealing and affordable to thousands of small entrepreneurs. By 1899, he was offering a special “Showman’s Package” that included a Cineograph, films, stereopticon slides, records and a Victor Talking Machine – everything needed to present a film program with musical accompaniment – for ninety-nine dollars. Superior lenses produced a sharper image, smoother gear trains cut down on film breakage and, by 1902, Lubin was proudly announcing “No More Flicker!” His “Marvel of the Century” was still far from perfect, but its ruggedness, light weight and portability made it a favorite with barnstorming showmen. “I think this machine was about the first one used throughout this section of the country for putting on professional exhibitions,” recalled veteran showman George W. Dawson, whose reliable Cineograph was used to project the films when the Nickelod­eon, popularly regarded as the world’s first movie theater, opened in Pittsburgh on June 19, 1905.

In addition to sturdy projection equipment, exhibitors needed films in greater variety and quantity, a need Lubin rapidly satisfied by increasing production. To his popular reper­tory of pugilism and piety, he added patriotism. The Battleship Maine was sunk in a water tank while the major engagements of the Spanish-American War were reenacted in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Real or re-created, Lubin films of important political and cultural events – the Paris Exposition, the Olympics in Greece, the Boxer Rebellion, the Pan-American Exposition, President McKinley’s assassination – provided immigrant audiences with a news source requiring little or no knowledge of the English language and, for rural audiences, brought the outside world to their little towns. Using trick photography, Pop entertained children with films of A Trip To The Moon and other fabulous tales. For “gentlemen only,” there were “smokers.”

By the turn of the century, Lubin was able to supply well over five thousand different films, including little comic episodes, disaster scenes and, or course, every variation of the ever-popular “chase.” Most he produced himself, but many were films by other producers which he simply processed through his optical printer and duplicated. It was a common practice, but Lubin’s superior skill quickly earned him the reputation as the early film trade’s most notorious pirate.

Thomas Edison had never cared for the movies he is unjustly credited with inventing, but Siegmund Lubin’s sudden rise to prominence in the moving picture field did not escape the dour Wizard of Menlo Park, who claimed the exclusive right to manufacture and sell motion picture films and equipment in the United States. Edison warned, threatened and then, on January 10, 1898, filed suit against Lubin for patent infringement. It marked the beginning of a ten-year legal and commercial battle during which Lubin continued to prosper in puckish defiance of Edison Company court injunctions, detectives and hired thugs.

Seeking to broaden the largely rural and lower class urban audience for moving pictures, Lubin built what was probably the world’s first theater expressly for movies in 1899 on the midway of the National Export Exposition in West Philadelphia. The prizefight announcer Pop had hired as a barker exhorted wary, middle-class fairgoers to peek inside and the Cineograph Theater soon became the expo’s most popular attraction. Lubin’s first upscale moving picture theater, the Victoria at 926-28 Market Street in Philadelphia, followed in 1902. Designed by architect Franz Koenig in a style best described as early cinema gothic, the Victoria marked a significant improvement in movie­going comfort; it became the first of a chain of more than one hundred theaters, including the world’s first triple cinema in Baltimore, that Lubin opened in Philadelphia, Reading, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre and cities along the east coast.

Unfazed by the ongoing Edison Company harassment, Lubin also continued to produce hundreds of popular farces, melodramas, westerns and thrillers which occasionally paled beside the behind-the-scenes adventures of his “outlaw” film crews. The cunning producer frequently evaded his pursuers by dispatching a decoy crew to lure the detectives on wild goose chases through Fairmount Park while his genuine cast and crew embarked on a full day’s filming in one of several clandestine locations.

Eastern Delaware County, along Darby Creek, was a favorite location. “Here comes Lubie!” schoolchildren clamored as his film crew made its way up Baltimore Pike towards sanctuary in Lansdowne, Yeadon, Upper Darby, Cardington and Addingham (now part of Drexel Hill) where the Lubin Company continued to film until 1910. Fascinated local residents provided a pool of willing extras and Shoemaker’s livery stable supplied horses needed in filming outlaw thrillers. Using expertly chosen camera angles, Lubin’s cameramen transformed the Addingham hills into the High Sierras and nearby quarries into perilously steep cliffs, thus providing the origin, many old timers claim, of the popular term “cliffhanger.” Cowboy and pioneer pictures usually featured scenes taken at a log cabin occupied by Lansdowne’s mysterious “Dandelion Liz” or at the seventeenth century Swede’s Cabin in Addingham, lending these early films a rugged authenticity impossible to duplicate on any Hollywood backlot.

By 1908, “nickel madness” was sweeping the country and, according to Moving Picture World, Lubin and New York’s Biograph films were the decided favorites of patrons flocking to the new Bijou Dreams theaters opening everywhere. Realizing the futility of continuing to fight them, the Edison Company arranged a truce with its leading competitors, Lubin, Biograph, Vitagraph, Selig, Essanay, Kalem, Kleine, Pa the and Melies. On December 18, 1908, Edison and these producers formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, a film trust that would virtually monopolize the industry for the next five years. With the stroke of a pen, Lubin – once the “outlaw” – achieved recog­nition as a motion picture patriarch. Siegmund Lubin and the film industry now entered a period of phenomenal growth.

With his Patents Company profits, Pop built a new studio at Twentieth Street and Indiana Avenue in Philadelphia. At its opening in 1911, the complex occupied an entire city block and boasted laboratories and a studio which were among the largest, most technically sophisticated in the world. “Lubinville,” as it came to be commonly called, presented a study in contrasts. In the largely immigrant neighborhood known as Stifftown because of the number of corpses once left there as gruesome calling cards by the dreaded Black Hand, cowboys galloped down the street for a day’s filming in Fairmount Park and movie-struck mothers and children watched for glimpses of their glamorous photoplay favorites. Crowds of would-be performers – some seeking adventure, others desperate for a way out of poverty – gathered in the street and inside the court­yard, slowing Lubin’s glamorous Lozier touring car as it entered the studio gate.

Inside, the advanced processing technology of Lubin’s labs added lustre to the company motto, “Clear As A Bell,” and to his films’ longstanding reputation as the sharpest, clearest images on the screen. The first floor of the large glass and brick studio was capable of accommodating up to five sets and separate crews filming at once. A cavernous loft area above was used for the biggest, most ambitious productions. Liberated from total dependence on the sun, Lubin directors could film indoor scenes under the studio’s powerful banks of Cooper-Hewitt tubes and Aristo arc lamps that snapped night into day.

Lubinville’s technical efficiency co-existed with creative anarchy. Carpenters hammered and sawed new sets into position. Lights sputtered. Cameras clattered. Directors shouted instructions to the four of five companies of actors taking pratfalls, shooting up a saloon, fighting or making love. Only the pictures were silent. Scenario editor Lillian Rubenstein remembered, “It was not unusual to receive letters from fans with lip reading ability, complaining that Florence Lawrence had jabbered about her hairdresser during a tense love scene, while in another, Arthur Johnson had lamented the state in which his dress-suit had come from the presser’s!”

Siegmund Lubin, a man as complex as the intricate workings of his studio, presided over his operation like an eccentric papa. A six foot, three inch giant of a man, he was known for his business acumen and particularly keen sense of humor. A penchant for recounting amusing personal anecdotes in his inimitable German accent prompted reporters to describe him as “a regular Lew Fields.” He drank only the finest champagne and always kept his office fuUy stocked. Pop’s reputation as a ladies’ man was well-known and his weekends were usually spent in Manhattan where he surrounded himself with beautiful women. “Each of these girls would, generally, be promised a part in his forthcoming opus,” recalled Rubenstein. “Invariably, his return to his office after a New York sabbath found the long benches that flanked the anteroom filled with lovely examples of feminine beauty … all drawn by the common bond of glittering promises extended by the movie magnate. All day Monday they came, and Tuesday as well, but by Wednesday, the first group would slowly evaporate … However, as sure as clockwork, on the following Monday after Lubin’s weekend sojourn, the benches would be crowded once more.”

Lubin’s genuine concern for his rapidly increasing family of employees was as legendary as his weakness for beautiful women. In an era of generally appalling working conditions, Lubinville provided a congenial working environment, good pay by contemporary standards, and full medical benefits in the event of illness or injury. A studio dining room serving free lunches prepared by the Lubin chef was another fringe benefit cited by the newly founded United Labor Journal in singling out Lubin for special commendation in 1915. “I have myself risen from the depths of poverty,” Pop once said in attempting to explain. “I can feel just as they feel and I know the bond of loyalty between us will last while I live. I want them to feel we are one family.”

Although Lubin built his fortune – estimated at eleven million dollars! – on commercial releases, he was perhaps the first film pioneer to recognize the educational potential of motion pictures. As early as 1906, he believed that, “the day is not far distant when the moving picture film will be delivered at the home as is the morning newspaper of today and that the written description of the events of the day before will be augmented by the realistic portrayal of the happening.”

Shortly after opening at Twentieth and Indiana Streets, he placed the studio and his own considerable technical skills at the disposal of some of the nation’s most prominent physicians. By 1911, Lubin was making filmed studies of patients afflicted with nervous disorders to assist Dr. Francis X. Dercum in continuing work he had begun with Muybridge at the University of Pennsylvania. With Lubin’s help, physicians Theodore H. Weisenberg and Charles D. Mills conducted similar studies and lectured widely on their findings. By filming through a micro­scope to take some of the world’s first films of the movement of microbes in milk and changes in nerve cells, Lubin also helped pioneer the field of cinephotomicrography. In addition to taking early time-lapse films of plant growth, Lubin also developed the working prototype of a motion picture X-ray camera, a forerun­ner of fluoroscopy.

Lubin films were being enjoyed in theaters around the world and, to satisfy the growing demand here and abroad, Pop and his talented stable of producer-directors opened additional studios throughout the country. In Jacksonville, Florida, Oliver Hardy made his motion picture debut with the Lubin comedy company. The Jacksonville studio also produced the first series of films to feature a cast of black actors instead of the customary white actors in blackface. Sadly, the titles of these films alone, Rastus Among The Zulus and Coontown Suffragettes, speak for themselves. Society pictures and naval adventures starring “Opulent Ormi” Hawley and Earl Metcalfe were filmed in Newport, Rhode Island, while Mexican westerns were a popular staple of Lubin West in Los Angeles. Romaine Fielding, who helped engineer the dramatic train wreck sequence at Phillips­burg, took charge of Lubin’s Southwest studio and wrote, produced, directed and starred in some of the first realistic westerns to be filmed on location throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado. Using the industry’s first portable lighting system, which he designed, Fielding also shot the first feature film, The Great Divide, ever taken in the Grand Canyon.

In addition to commercial successes, roving cameramen captured actual documentary footage of contemporary events ranging from the Dayton, Ohio, flood to the opening battles of World War I. During the first three days of July in 1913, Lubin crews traveled to the battlefield at Gettysburg to film the Civil War veterans gathering to commemorate that tragic conflict. The finished one thousand foot, approximately twelve minute, film Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Battle of Gettysburg, was intended as a comprehensive record of “the greatest of all reunions.” Begin­ning with the arrival of the fifty-five thousand veterans, the film, proceeded to show the vast encampment before focusing in on the individuals – Yankees and Rebels shaking hands, high­-ranking officers and old nurses who had seen service on the field. Lubin flyers described it as a film “which will be preserved for all time for its historical value.”

Not satisfied with his accomplishments, Lubin still dreamed of better. To supplement Lubinville, he purchased the estate of brewer John Betz in 1912 and embarked on a plan to create “The Utopian Moving Picture Plant of the World,” a self-suffi­cient industrial village. Part of his land would be farmed to feed the nearly seven hundred employees eventually expected to live and work on the estate in comfort and harmony. His grand notion was never realized, but Lubin did succeed in spending an estimated two million dollars to purchase and transform his five hundred acre estate across the Schuylkill River from Valley Forge into the most elaborate, extensive and expensive motion picture setting in the world. With nearly two miles of property fronting the Schuylkill, a boathouse on the water, fields and quarries, farms, forests and a deerpark, the vast studio-estate that took a day’s ride to cover lived up to its description as “a director’s paradise.” Overlooking it all was Lubin’s grand Betzwood mansion, an English Gothic manor house as palatial as the great showplaces of P.A.B. Widener, Edward Stotesbury and other Pennsylvania magnates of the gilded age.

Thanks to Lubin Company engineer Edward L. Simons, Betzwood’s scenic resources were soon matched by its state-of­-the-art technology. The laboratory was seventy-five percent automated and, to remove all particles that might blemish the final prints, outside air was passed through an “air washer.” Betzwood was the world’s first fully air-conditioned film lab and Simons also designed and oversaw the installation of the first continuous film printing machine and the first large-scale automatic time and temperature film development process, with a capacity to process more than eight million feet of film each week!

The story of Lubin’s expertise and Betzwood’s technology saving the careers of Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille has entered the annals of motion picture mythology. When the fledgling producers tried to project their first film, The Squaw Man performed a virtual war dance on the screen. Fearing ruin, the desperate trio brought their film to Pop, whose reputation as a technical wizard and as the maverick of the despised Patents Company offered hope to these beleaguered fugitives from the Film Trust. Lubin easily diagnosed the problem as improperly spaced sprocket holes and the film, repaired and processed at Betzwood, went on to make motion picture history as the first Hollywood feature production and the film whose success laid the foundation for Paramount Pictures.

Filming at Betzwood got off to an exciting start in the spring of 1913 with Lubin’s epic production, The Battle of Shiloh, one of the first big budget pictures to feature the proverbial cast of thousands. Making up this huge cast were the State Constabu­lary doubling as cavalrymen and five thousand Slavic coal miners borrowed from the mines for two dollars each per day to play Southern infantrymen.

One battle scene had an unexpected outcome. Smokepots simulating cannon fire were placed in a long buckthorn hedge. The miners, very few of whom spoke English, were positioned behind the hedge and supposed to retreat when the advancing Blues reached it. “But it didn’t happen that way,” Harry Webb, a former Lubin horse trainer and stuntman, recalled. “Those Slavs thought it was for real and came through that pall of smoke bayoneting the Blues and the scene was a wrong-sided route with many Blues being wounded before directors’ shouts stopped the carnage. ‘We no whipped,’ a Slav spokesman said. ‘We lick them bastards any place you say!'” With that scene reshot according to history, The Battle of Shiloh proved a success and became the first of many Civil War pictures filmed at Betzwood.

After Shiloh, Lubin directors returned to English-speaking extras and, to the delight of local Norristown residents, “Every time Pop Lubin was ready to film a Civil War thriller, he would send in a call to Carney’s Pool Room in Norristown for men to don a Union or Confederate uniform and report at Betzwood to film the scenes,” a former Norristown resident recalled. Soon dubbed “Camey’s Brigade,” this reliable company of mercenar­ies gladly acted for sandwiches and a dollar to two a day. Brigade members were part of the encampment on the Betzwood grounds when Lubin cameramen and technicians achieved a breakthrough in capturing some of the industry’s first successful night-time scenes for Stonewall Jackson’s Way.

Ever since Stetson began manufacturing the hats and Owen Wister’s The Virginian defined the legend, Pennsylvanians have carried on a love affair with the West and adopted Pennsylvan­ian Siegmund Lubin was no exception.

To Pop’s surprise, Betzwood came complete with its own resident cowboy in the person of Buck Taylor – hero of Buffalo Bill’s first Wild West Show and immortalized in the dime novels of Prentiss Ingraham – who had a ninety-nine year lease on the estate at one dollar a year. Harry Webb, a former Buffalo Bill Show rider himself, was given the job of breaking the one hundred and twenty-five green broncs being shipped in by railcar from Arizona and soon, the white water rapids at Butter­milk Falls gave way to Betzwood as the production center for Lubin’s “eastern westerns.” Actor Edgar Jones was hired as the star, not for his riding or acting ability but, oldtimers swear, for his resemblance to the cowboy in the Frederick Remington picture hanging in Pop’s office. Jones was supported by the Lubin rough riders, a wild bunch who looked the part but could not distinguish a cow from a calf. Most were local boys with the exception of Webb and Smokey Warner who had left the Cody troupe in 1911 for better pay with Lubin.

As a stand-in for the real West, Betzwood could be very convincing. For A Waif of the Desert, its open “prairies” were covered with tons of lime and dotted with fake cactus to create the illusion of sprawling Arizona desert. Webb, who was leading a Conestoga yoked with six oxen and a Jersey cow tied behind the wagon, had vivid memories of one of the film’s unintentionally exciting scenes. “I, ‘ragged and weary,’ was plodding alongside my oxen when a footman, just ahead, flushed a ‘planted’ rabbit from a ‘planted’ bush. His blunder­buss stampeded my oxen and as I ran panting,’Whoa, Buck! Whoa, Paint!,’ the Jersey was being dragged on her side and my ‘family’ was screaming at me to ‘Stop those silly, bellowing cows!’ As the runaway disappeared over the horizon a whisk­ered jayhawker yelled, ‘California here we come!'”

An Arizona desert one day and the Russian steppes the next, Betzwood was capable of being made to look like virtually any place in the world. Taking full advantage of this asset, Siegmund Lubin produced dozens of ambitious and costly features starring famous personalities in popular Broadway plays or tailor-made original scripts between 1913 and 1916. Zany Marie Dressler inspired the mirth of her Betzwood crew and moviegoers alike in her feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Tomato Surprise. In Michael Strogoff, Betzwood became a Russian nobleman’s estate. Longtime area residents still remember the Schuylkill River being set ablaze for the film’s climactic scene in which the world-renowned Jacob Adler, as Strogoff, made his thrilling escape from a Moscow in flames. With the possible exception of Prince Henry of Prussia and Mary Pickford, Betzwood’s most famous guest was Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, once the focus of the ragtime era’s juiciest scandal. In her role as a woman who has known both great luxury and persecution in Lubin’s Threads of Destiny, Nesbit was able to draw on her concern with social causes as well as her better-known identification with the good life for her performance.

Some of Lubin’s most popular and prestigious films were his spectacular and expensive disaster epics. For Through Fire to Fortune or The Sunken Village, about a small town threatened by an underground mine fire, an entire village was constructed on scaffolding over a quarry at Betzwood. At the director’s word, the scaffolding was dynamited away to create the image of a village being engulfed by earth and flame. A year after Europe’s guns of August had fired, Lubin film crews in Newport burned and dynamited another specially built town and enlisted the cooperation of the navy’s Atlantic Squadron to depict an imagi­nary invasion of America in A Nation’s Peril. “Lubin Burns Money” shouted the headline on a story detailing the burning of the abandoned Tacony Iron Works (the foundry where the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia’s City Hall had been cast) for a scene in The Gods of Fate, a film delineating industrialism’s tragic human toll. A growing preoccupation with social problems and disaster films may have reflected the distant rumblings of a way of life about to change dramatically for Lubin and the world he so loved. The trainwreck footage for A Partner to Providence became a recurring image in films ominously titled The Valley of Lost Hope, In the Hour of Disaster, and The Gods of Fate.

Paralleling Lubin’s cinematic disasters were a rapid series of personal disasters. On June 13, 1914, the film vault at Lubinville exploded, destroying the negatives of every one of the thousands of Lubin pictures produced. The outbreak of World War I proved an equally serious blow to Lubin who still had family in Germany and was heavily dependent on foreign markets for his films. Poor health and the enormous financial burden of legal fees and judgments incurred as a result of the court-ordered dissolution of the Film Trust delivered the final blows. On September 1, 1916, the cameras stopped, the studios were shuttered and the Lubin Film Company disappeared from motion picture history. Of the nearly five thousand films Lubin produced, less than two hundred are known to survive. Printed on highly volatile nitrocellulose stock, those not lost in the Lubinville explosion fell prey to the ravages of nitrate decompo­sition or were heedlessly scrapped as worthless relics of a sophisticated industry’s child-like beginnings.

Lubin returned to the optical shop where it all began. He died at his home in Ventnor, New Jersey, on September 11, 1923.

To Pop, the final chapter of his story was hardly a sad one. Secure in his belief that films were a universal language and, looking forward to the future of the influential industry he had helped create, he assured an interviewer in 1917, “The camera is dispensing more happiness than guns, and will be an institution when the Krupp is silenced and the ships of the nations are free to dance over the waters again.” Lubin spent his final years entertaining a special audience – his grandchildren – and tinker­ing with radios. Pointing to a box of wire coils and vacuum tubes, he told his wife, “Annie, I’m going to make that box talk.” “You’ll never stop,” was her reply.


For Further Reading

Eckhardt, Joseph P. and Linda Kowall. “The Movies’ First Mogul.” In Jewish Life In Philadelphia, edited by Dr. Murray Friedman. Phila­delphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1983.

____. Peddler of Dreams: Siegmund Lubin and the Creation of the Motion Picture Industry. Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1984.

Kowall, Linda. “Lights! Camera! Fire!” Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. October 12, 1980.

Smith, Thomas Roy. Drexel Hill, 1875-1912: Life in Addingham and Garrettford. Privately printed, 1980.


Linda Kowall is a freelance writer and film historian whose articles have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, American Film and numer­ous other local and national publications. “Clear As A Bell,” a Lubin documentary she scripted, recently aired on the PRISM cable network and on public television. Together with Joseph P. Eckhardt, she served as guest curator of the National Museum of American Jewish History’s exhibition, Peddler of Dreams: Siegmund Lubin and the Creation of the Motion Picture Industry; co-authored an essay, “The Movies’ First Mogul,” for Jewish Life In Philadelphia: 1830-1940; and wrote and served as associate producer of a documentary on Lubin for WPVI-TV’s Prime Time series.