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NY Public Library's Technical Assistant Steve Massa on Broadway's First 'Kiss'

pixeltracker continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Steve Massa, Library Technical Asst. III? of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on: Broadway's First "Kiss"

The recent spate of Broadway musicals - The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz, and Grease - done "live" on television is nothing new, it's just a reanimation of the long tradition of bringing Broadway to the big and small screens. For decades there have been film adaptations of shows that include A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The King and I (1956), The Little Foxes (1941), A Few Good Men (1992), and The Music Man (1962), not to mention multiple versions of Show Boat in 1929, 1936 and 1951. Television productions have also been many, ranging from dramas such as The Iceman Cometh (1960) and Death of a Salesman (1966) to Mary Martin's 1960 taping of Peter Pan.

Even more prolific are the tapings being done by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT). Begun by Betty Corwin in 1970, since then over 4,069 Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional productions have been recorded and are available for researchers, students, and theatre professionals to view at the Library. Shot during actual performances, the catalogue includes the famous original productions of A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Equus, Fences, Jelly's Last Jam, Rent, and In the Heights, as well as memorable revivals of Gypsy, The Glass Menagerie, Carousel, Glengarry Glen Ross, and You Can't Take It With You.

But just what was the first "moving image capture" of a Broadway show? The earliest known show to transfer from Broadway to film seems to be the 1895 hit comedy The Widow Jones, or at least about twenty-six seconds of it. The climactic Act One kiss of stars May Irwin and John C. Rice was preserved for posterity by Thomas Edison in 1896. Titled The Kiss it was shown in some of the first Edison exhibitions. Shot in a big close-up, and not from a comfortable stage proscenium distance, the intimacy disturbed the days' Victorian sensibilities and startled audiences that were still ducking at shots of trains coming toward a camera. The Kiss created a sensation and brought up the first censorship issues for the infant industry.

To do their smooch Irwin and Rice had to trek out to the Edison lab in East Orange, NJ. Another stage performer, Cissy Fitzgerald, recalled the experience thirty-one years later in a 1927 Photoplay Magazine:

Mr. Edison was in his laboratory. At one end of the room was this little black box with a handle. It stood on a tripod, just the way it does today. He commenced to crank. It sounded like a Gatling gun. The noise was terrific for such a small black box. It clattered and spluttered and I danced my 'Gayety Girl' dance.

After these initial forays, it took more than fifteen years before Broadway really made an impact on film. Although originally ignoring the "flickers," by the mid-teens stage stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, Frank Keenan, and Sir Herbert Beerbohn Tree swallowed their pride and accepted the large salaries offered by film companies that wanted to bring prestige to what was considered a low-class medium. Lesser known theatre transplants like D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Lillian Gish, and some Brit named Charlie Chaplin made film their home and pushed the limits to turn it into an art form.

Photo Credit: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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