The Birth of A Nation at Brighton Beach

“When the history of motion pictures is written, ‘The Birth of a Nation‘ must head the chapter of the first great development in film productions” (  The Brooklyn Eagle, July 3, 1915).

In 1915, William H. Kemble, manager of the Brighton Beach Music Hall, bid $65,000 for the “next set of films” of Griffith’s Civil War spectacle, inching out a theatre in Philadelphia  by $2,000. Theatrical circles considered it a coup for Kemble since the  film was still playing to capacity in Manhattan and theatres in all the big cities of America were bidding for it.

When the film made its début as The Clansman at Clune’s Auditorium, in Los Angeles, an “augmented orchestra” of 70 provided accompaniment. William Kemble arranged for a “special orchestra of fifty” led by Louis Reinhard, musical director for B.F. Keith’s Orpheum Theatre. Reinhard, in turn, engaged George May, the musical director of Hammerstein’s Theatre in Manhattan, to assist him.

The Birth of A Nation made its Brooklyn début on the evening of July 2, 1915, with the Twenty-Third Regiment of the Old Guard of the Civil War Veterans and the Officers of the Ninth Coast Artillery marching pass the Brighton Beach Hotel.  Mayor John Mitchell and Borough President Lewis H. Pounds were suppose to review the troops but both failed to show. This left Public Works Commissioner Edmund W. Voorhries to represent the city at the special performance. Setting the martial tone for the evening, the troops filled the Music Hall balcony and marched out in unison at the end. An audience of “considerable distinction” gathered afterwards at the Brighton Beach Hotel for a reception and dance arranged by the Music Hall management.

The Brooklyn Eagle, July 18, 1915The Brooklyn Eagle, July 15, 1915

The Brooklyn Eagle, July 3, 1915, lavish in its praise: “It is the first picture to place the work of the camera on a plane where it commands consideration as a distinct art, combining the essentials of dramatic and pictorial art, and revealing possibilities almost unbelievable a few years ago.”

The racists overtones of the film were not lost on the Eagle, commenting on the Klu Klux  Klansman in their “spotless robes” and spreading the “sins of a portion of blacks over a whole race”. “The ends of civilization and of justice are not to be served by perpetuating ignorance.”

They felt that D.W. Griffith could  “largely be absolved from blame.” The fault rest with the original play by Thomas Dixon and was “impossible to completely overcome.”

The Birth of a Nation played to packed houses that summer, extra trains and free parking added to accommodate a crowd willing to pay up to $2.00 for an evening ticket, an extraordinary  amount at that time.  By mid-July, the Music Hall was selling tickets “four weeks in advance.” Telephone reservations could be made. Tickets ordered through the mail or purchased at several Brooklyn locations. Originally scheduled to end in the beginning of September, it was held over to October 4th. People returning from summer holiday requesting to see the film. The motion picture had moved on beyond the storefront nickelodeons and the one-reeler, in the words of the Brooklyn Eagle “revealing possibilities almost unbelievable a few years ago.”


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