"As in most cities," writes Roy Rosenzweig in his important Eight Hours For What We Will, "moving pictures first appeared in Worcester in the late 1890s as a sporadic novelty. By 1904, however, they had found a regular spot on the program of two of the city's vaudeville theaters" (192). Yet local newspaper accounts from the period of the Spanish-American War in Worcester do document at least one event from 1898 that is important for my purposes. In fact, Worcester's Bijou Theater, which had been the sole consistent outlet for film exhibition in Worcester through late 1897 and early 1898, was destroyed by a fire on February 18, 1898--just three days after the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor.
The biograph had been enjoying a long run at the Bijou throughout January and into mid-February of 1898 and was consistently presented in advertisements as the featured act. Indeed, the movies seemed on their way to becoming a permanent presence on the vaudeville bill. The January 25, 1898, Worcester Telegram suggested that the movies were so popular that audiences were showing up just to see them as the closing act: "The biograph entered its third week at the Bijou theater yesterday, and its popularity was attested by the crowd at the matinee, which kept increasing until the scenes were thrown on the screen as the last number on the bill. Several new views were shown, including Jumbo, the wreck, [and] McKinley at home. . . ." According to the February 1, 1898 Worcester Telegram, the Bijou "had been drawing large audiences to see "views of the Brooklyn navy yard. . .[and] ships of the United States navy in motion." In addition, "[t]he famous Haverstraw tunnel picture makes the hit which has been usual with its presentation since the pictures were first put on, and the audiences leave the theater with a feeling that they have seen something unusually fine, which really is the case."
Two weeks later, headlines about the Bijou fire in the Worcester Telegram rivaled news of Maine disaster, and the biograph became the prime suspect of an arson investigation, guilty until proven innocent. According to the Telegram, "From the time of [the Chief Engineer's] arrival until able to get into the building he thought that the biograph might have been responsible for the mischief." In the end, "the fire had not damaged the machine. . .and. . .the heat did not even explode or injure the films stored in the box with the biograph," since an earlier order from the license board that the biograph's "inclosure" be metal-lined functioned to keep the fire outside rather than inside the apparatus.
This regional history in which the sole consistent site for the exhibition of movies in Worcester burns down the week of the Maine explosion is significant for the way it underscores the mode of exhibition and reception of representations of war in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, even though the apparatus remained intact, for Worcester residents there would be no more war films until September, when the Worcester Theater offered "Vaudeville, Mystery, and Moving War Pictures!" under the direction of the former Bijou manager Jules Offner--well after a U.S. victory was immanent and the preliminary peace agreement with Spain had been signed. According to newspaper accounts, a disappointingly "fair-sized house" turned out to see "a very good film representing the disembarkation of the mules at Daiquiri, which shows two of the animals swimming in from the transport; the 2nd Massachusetts disembarking from the train at Tampa; the 71st New York on dress parade at Camp Black and a number of views at the transports and in the railroad yards at Tampa."
Although Worcester is only 38 miles from Boston, where Charles Musser notes "war fever [was] less pronounced" than other cities and consequently "the biograph was given little prominence," the Spanish-American war fever ran rampant in the nearby sister city of Worcester. Indeed, after the Maine explosion on February 17, 1898, the Worcester Telegram announced that "Worcester is Full of War. Few People Ready to Give Spain the Benefit of the Doubt. Many Fair Weather Soldiers Stand at Every Corner. Nothing but a Holiday They Say if Trouble Comes":
Worcester was excited yesterday over the destruction of the United States battleship "Maine" in the harbor of Havana, and war talk was all that could be heard in the hotels, theaters, and other places where men congregate. . . . Many people went so far as to say that whether the disaster was due to accident or was caused by the act of some Spanish sympathizer, the United States ought to declare war against Spain, proceed to bombard Havana and the other Cuban ports, shoot Morro castle down even with the earth, and kill all the Spanish soldiers who could be found on the island.The article does add, perhaps sarcastically, that "Just as it was at the beginning of the civil war, however, there were a considerable number who have not yet worked up an appetite for warfare and carnage. . .". In the following weeks, though, there were dozens of other articles testifying to the thousands of Worcester men who were ready, willing, and eager to fight, including one story describing the journey of seven "youthful patriots" who walked forty miles to the sister city of Boston to enlist (Worcester Telegram, February 28, 1898).
Thousands of Worcester young men expressed their willingness and even their eagerness to enlist in the army if war should be declared, and many of the militiamen said they would be only too happy to go to the front if they could only be given the chance. Really it was ludicrous to hear some people tell yesterday what the United States could do to the Spanish if we ever get at them.
Worcester's war euphoria, which the local newspapers had fueled for over a year, helped the Worcester Telegram sell over 190,000 more papers in the first two months of 1898 than the same period in 1897. By the time war was officially declared in April, the Telegram was using four-inch headlines to announce the long anticipated news of the official declaration of war. There were even reports in the Telegram of increased "apparent drunkenness on the streets" of Worcester, with speculation by rum sellers that "the increased amount of drinking [was a result of] the excitement attending the departure of the troops for camp, to celebrating the victory of Commodore Dewey, to grief at parting with friends who are going to the front, [and] to the fact that many of them are getting their courage up to the enlisting point." These and other accounts of Worcester's wartime culture make it difficult to imagine that the additional attraction of wartime pictures could have added to this excitement.
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