September 16, 2000

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Those of us old enough to remember Mission Impossible, back in the days when Tom Cruise could barely say "motorcycle", let alone fly one through the air, may remember an episode hinging on having the bad guys believe they were on a train so they would spill their plot in front of microphones and cameras. Placed in a semi-stationary railroad car mounted in a warehouse; a car that rocked, flashed and screeched, they were completely bamboozled by the M. I. team. Perhaps a scriptwriter had heard tales of the Hale's Tours.

Silent film star Mary Pickford saw her first motion picture film aboard one of Charles C. Hale's simulated train rides. Hale had not been slow to capitalize on the success of his St. Louis novelty. Soon there was an installation in Kansas City's Electric Park, followed by others in Chicago and New York. (The latter was run by an enterprising young furrier named Adolph Zukor, later co-founder of Paramount Pictures). At the height of their popularity Hale's Tours were to be found in over 500 U. S. locations, as well as in Europe, South America, Mexico, South Africa and Hong Kong. In London's Hammersmith Theatre silk-hatted swells could be found sitting next to parlour maids and dustmen, each there for the price of sixpence. And The Empire didn't crumble. Because the films ran an average of ten minutes each, cameramen like Norman Dawn and T. K. Peters found active employment, touring the globe to gather new footage, feeding the seemingly insatiable hunger for the new medium. Hale and his partners William Keefe (who had actually devised the railroad cars) and Judge Fred W. Gifford, were enabling tour operators to trade films, leading to the first film exchanges. Distributors included summaries of the various locales in their catalogues, detailing sequences of Pike's Peak, the Columbia River, Chicago, Lookout Mountain, Argentina, Borneo, Ireland and Ceylon.

Journeys inevitably come to an end. You can show your travel videos a limited number of times (one time can sometimes be too many). The novelty began wearing off; audiences began demanding new thrills. When Zukor's Union Square location began losing money, he took to splicing dramatic films, such as The Great Train Robbery, into the middle of the footage. Others stuck in comic vignettes, like passengers coping with dressing in sleeping berths. Zukor converted his operation into a regular nickelodeon after about four months. By 1906 the show business publication Variety was writing the epitaph for Hale's Tours, explaining that the films weren't changed often enough, the customers often felt claustrophobic and that women often were bothered viscerally by the constant rocking of the cars.

The phenomenon remained alive for another half-dozen years or so. Soon the nickelodeons took over, followed by today's projected films. It's been estimated that when Charles Hale died in 1923 he had made a half-million dollars. Not bad for an after-retirement income.

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

 

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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