Saturday, October 1, 2016

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2014) by Year # 0028 - STAR THEATRE (Frederick Armitage, 1901, USA, 2m, BW)

STAR THEATRE (Frederick Armitage, 1901, USA, 2m, BW)
Alternate Title: Demolishing and Building up the Star Theatre

STAR THEATRE (Frederick Armitage, 1901, USA, 2m, BW)
Alternate Title: Demolishing and Building up the Star Theatre

Star Theatre 1901
Directed by F.S. Armitage
Produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Cinematography F.S. Armitage
Release dates 1901
Running time: 1 minute 58 seconds
Country     United States
Language Silent

Star Theatre (also known as Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre) is a 1901 short documentary film in which time-lapse photography is used to show the dismantling and demolition of New York City's Star Theatre over a period of about a month. Produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, it was filmed by F.S. Armitage. It made the National Film Registry in 2002. This short from Biograph is a good early example of time-lapse photography and probably fascinated audiences of the day. While we’ve seen the technique often enough now, it’s still interesting to watch and think about its place in history.

Star TheatreThe camera appears to be stationed on the third or fourth floor of a building in New York. It faces an intersection, with a building prominently labeled as “Star Theatre.” At first, the camera runs at normal speed, and we see people walking along, streetcars driving by, etc. Then, the time-lapse begins and everything seems to be moving very quickly. At first, the building seems unchanged, but if you watch the windows, you can see it being gutted of interior materials. After a time, the roof comes off, and we see workers, almost like busy ants, swarming over the building and razing it bit by bit. Occasionally, you can glimpse one of them hitting the walls with a large hammer, but for the most part they blip by too fast to be distinguished. Soon, in place of the building is a large vacant lot. The camera again slows down to normal speed and we see people passing the space where once the Star Theatre stood.

The Star Theatre was a pretty important location for live theater in New York for many years. It stood at 13th and Broadway from 1861 to 1901 and was involved in the first rise of what we today think of as “Broadway theater.” The center of the theater district, however, began moving north in the 1880s and by 1901, the owner had decided to relocate to 30th Street. Hence, this demolition of the old building, then known among locals as “the old Star Theatre” to distinguish it from the new one. As it happens, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was located at 11 East 14th Street, not at all far from 13th and Broadway. No doubt, the director, F.S. Armitage, saw an opportunity for a movie of local and probably national interest in the demolition of a beloved old landmark. He could have simply shot it a piece at a time, but he was smart enough to think of setting up the camera in a spot where it wouldn’t be disturbed (quite possibly the roof of the Biograph building” and taking a few frames a day over the 30 day demolition period. The result is very good. I found myself wondering whether the people flitting by on the street bemoaned the loss of their long-standing landmark, or whether people worried less about that sort of historic preservation in those days.

Frederick S. Armitage

Frederick S. Armitage (Seneca Falls, NY, June 29, 1874 – Ecorse, MI, January 3, 1933) was an early American motion picture cinematographer and director, working primarily for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Often identified as "F.S. Armitage" in AM&B paperwork, Armitage had a hand in creating more than 400 often very short subjects for AM&B in the days where its films were made as much for the hand-crank operated Mutoscope device as for projection. Several of Armitage's subjects stand out from the company's regular routine of actualities and comic skits in their innovative use of camerawork, superimpositions, time-lapse photography and other effects then new to the art of film-making.


Very little is known of Armitage's life, other than he was born in Seneca Falls, New York; his earliest known credits date from 1898. It isn't until 1899 when Armitage begins to collect a substantial number of film credits; he is credited with photographing 188 AM&B subjects in 1899 alone. Several of the actualities Armitage filmed that year had to do with the end of the Spanish–American War, including views of the battleships which fought in it and the welcome home parade thrown for Admiral Dewey in New York City. On June 9, 1899, Armitage was one of three Biograph cameramen to photograph the heavyweight championship bout between Jim Jeffries and Tom Sharkey, the finished film running a then-record time of 135 minutes.

From 1900, Armitage began making a small number of films which utilized what would have then been considered trick effects; in two very similar subjects, The Prince of Darkness and A Terrible Night, Armitage reversed the negative so that the clothes a man removed seemed to be leaping back at him. In A Nymph of the Waves, Armitage combined two previously existing subjects in a printer in order to create a subject in which a dancer appeared to be floating on top of waves from Niagara Falls; Armitage used a similar technique in Davey Jones' Locker (1900). Armitage deliberately projected part of the negative in The Ghost Train (1901) and used time lapse photography—taken over a period of a month—in Demolishing and Building Up The Star Theater (1901). His most astonishing achievement, however, is the time-lapse subject Down the Hudson (1903), in which Armitage and fellow AM&B cinematographer A. E. Weed filmed a voyage down the Hudson River from Haverstraw Bay to Newburgh in single frames, producing a film lasting three minutes.

Among other interesting films that Armitage shot or directed during his AM&B period were some early martial arts films, films of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, actress Anna Held and a silent film of Sousa's Band, short chapters of attempted "story films" on the popular plays Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1901) and The Wages of Sin (1901), a number of subjects of American landmarks for the U.S. Department of the Interior and films of Native American life for the agency then called the U.S. Indian Department.

Armitage's last known work for AM&B was as cinematographer on Wallace McCutcheon, Sr.'s The Nihilists (1905) and Wanted: A Dog (1905). Shortly afterward, he and McCutcheon both defected to the Edison Manufacturing Company. Though McCutcheon would return to AM&B in 1907, Armitage remained at Edison through at least 1910, working as a cinematographer with directors Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. His whereabouts afterward are unclear; Armitage is credited with the cinematography on two obscure states rights features in 1916-1917, and then he vanishes from the historical record completely.


Even a basic understanding of Frederick S. Armitage's contribution to film didn't get underway until the 1980s, with the work of Charles Musser, and a lot remains to be known about what he did and who he was. Nevertheless, interest has steadily grown since then; in 2002 Demolishing and Building Up The Star Theater was named to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, and several of Armitage's films were included on a collection of pre-1943 American experimental films, Unseen Cinema, curated by Bruce Posner of the Anthology Film Archives.

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