Posting that item on Norman Studios and the black cinema of the silent era reminded me of a passage in a book that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to tell someone about. Tom Fletcher’s The Tom Fletcher Story: 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954) is a classic memoir that has been much-plundered by musical theatre historians, but I don’t know how many film historians know of this passage which records the experience of two black actors at the Edison film company in the early 1900s:
When the flickers, or moving pictures, were developed along around 1900, my partner, Al Bailey, and I got leading comedy parts. The studio was on 22nd Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. I was the talent scout for the colored people. There were no “types,” just colored men, women and children. Bailey and I did parts in the pictures that today would pay no less than four figures weekly, but we didn’t take it seriously. To us it was just something that would never get any place.
You never heard the words “lights,” “action,” “camera,” “roll ’em,” or “cut” which are so common today. There were no script writers, no make-up artists, just one man, everybody called him Mr. Porter, and I never took time to find out his first name, who placed you in your positions and gave you your actions, lit the scene and then turned the camera. His assistant was a fellow named Gilroy whom everyone called Gil. When we went on location it was to North Asbury Park, about the best place around New York for the purpose. The trees, gardens and farms gave just the right atmosphere.
At the end of each day Gilroy would hand me the money to pay off. I am not quite sure but I think it was three dollars a day for each of the people. Bailey and I got eight dollars each. We all considered it a lot of fun with pay. Vaudeville, private parties, music and show business kept me too busy to pay any real attention to the moving picture business.
Porter is of course Edwin S. Porter; Gilroy is his assistant William J. Gilroy. Fletcher’s less than awe-struck view of the early film business is illuminating, and shows how for most stage performers the new medium was a minor curiosity with little bearing on their professional lives except that the extra money was welcome. Is this a unique memoir for black performers in film at such an early date? I don’t know.
I first found the passage in Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (1989), which is an excellent, instructive history in itself, with wonderful illustrations.
It doesn’t show Edison films such as Tom Fletcher appeared in, but the Black Film Center/Archive site has some QuickTime clips of African-American performers (and some white actors in blackface) from the 1890s. The Uncle Tom Cabin’s & American Culture site has a huge range of information about the many expressions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, including the history behind the 1903 Edison film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with QuickTime video clips of this and subsequent film versions from the silent era. The lead parts in the 1903 film are played by white actors in black face; the black performers are all extras.