September 2, 2000


Two film pioneers came out of Kansas City in the first decade of the twentieth century. One was a Missouri farm boy turned cartoonist, who shared a studio with a semi-tame mouse. The other was the chief of the city's Fire Department. And since no one ever wins a Super Bowl and announces he intends to go to Hale World, this might be the more interesting track to follow, so to speak.

George C. Hale was born in New York's St. Lawrence County in 1849. In 1864 he came to KC and found work as a shop boy, later becoming interested in firefighting. By the early 1880s he was chief of John Campbell Engine No. 1 Company, a position he held until retiring in 1902. Like many contemporaries he was a tinkerer and inventor. He devised an electric wire cutter, a tool for cutting through tin roofs, and a rotary steam engine, as well as other devices. He apparently had his greatest inspiration on two trips to Europe for firefighting expositions, in 1893 and 1900. A number of people over there, including H. G. Wells, were involved in experimentation with the new moving pictures, trying ways to involve viewers viscerally with the unknown medium. A 360° projection system had been devised to give crowds the illusion of being atop a ship's mast or in a balloon. Ways were tried to continually move the seats and to blow air over the passengers, all to aid the illusion. Hale came back home and began tinkering. When the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened in St. Louis, Hale was ready. He tried out a prototype, evaluated its impact, then went back and made improvements. The following year his "Pleasure Railway" was ready.

Patrons visiting Kansas City's Electric Park would board a railroad car at the entrance to a tunnel. A short ride in the dark and the car would couple with a second one. Riders would move forward into the other car and conductors would show them to their seats. The car was an exact replica of the train coaches of the period. With one exception. At the front end, toward the top, was a large projection screen. It would flicker to life and suddenly, film would roll. The cameraman had been perched on the cowcatcher of a locomotive, or on a flatcar pushed by the train. The passengers were made to feel they were looking out a front window as the life-sized scenery rushed at them, then flowed past at the sides. An endless belt beneath the car moved with varying speeds to vibrate it, and operators of the contraption could throw a lever and pivot the car, making it sway, as rounded projections on the belt hit a piece of metal, creating the clackety-clack of a real train. Audiences were enchanted, even with just black-and-white film. They got so caught up in the illusion that they hollered for the acetate pedestrians on the screen to get out of the way. It's been said that one elderly viewer kept coming back repeatedly, figuring that maybe, just once, the engineer would slip up and wreck his train.

Now, we're approaching the end of our line. We at Hale's Tours hope you've enjoyed your trip and will ride with us and George Hale again next week, as we grow a show business.

And, for Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor


© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte