|Hollywood of the Rockies||
The life of a traveling vaudeville entertainer was beginning to wear thin for Colonel Selig. Oh sure, life on the stage can seem so romantically picaresque at the start of the venture, but then the grueling insecurity of it all kicks in.
William Selig (pronounced see-lig) was possibly the most interesting and significant film pioneer you’ve never heard of. He looked a little like the character of Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz and lived the life that you’d imagine that character would have lived – magician, itinerate entertainer, salesman. He was no more an actual colonel than was Colonel Sanders, the creator of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the title fit him grandly. Born in 1864 the second generation of Bohemian and Prussian immigrants, he learned magic as a teen in Chicago and was good enough that he was able to eke out a living on the variety circuit. Due to poor health, he traveled westward through Colorado and California to take in the clear air of the West, getting odd jobs here and there and even for a time managing a health resort in northern California (ironically called Chicago Park). But the convalescent life was not for him, and as soon as his health returned, he was back on the road, touring up and down the coast, sometimes performing in dime museums, sometimes managing minstrel shows and sometimes leading wagon shows across the backcountry. Dog acts, olios, musical shticks. Yes, it was time to go home.
And it was while he was trying to work his way back to Chicago that it happened. In the autumn of 1895 in Dallas, William Selig first laid eyes on the machine that would transform his life forever. He wandered into a Kinetoscope Parlor and beheld the flickering, dreamlike movement of the little figures inside the box – the miniature dancers, the diminutive boxers, the tiny men sneezing. Like many others, he immediately imagined the creative and monetary potential to be had in projecting the images on a screen for large audiences.
From that point on, he had a single vision, both as a showman and as a businessman: to create a moving picture projection machine. And once back in Chicago, he rented a small workshop and began drawing up designs for his own projection device. In the tried-and-true method of entrepreneurs, he supported
himself with various day (and sometimes night) jobs and opened a small photography business that shot large panoramic murals for railroad companies. That was going to come in handy for him later. As it happened, at about this time, the Lumiere cinematographe was beginning to make its way across the United States, from vaudeville house to vaudeville house, and one eventually found its way to the Schiller Theater in Chicago. Selig managed to salvage a few scraps of film from the theater to use as a pattern. It was simple, right? You had the film; just design a machine to go around it.
Although handy with tools and an avid tinkerer, Selig was more showman than inventor, and the successful design of a motion picture projector eluded him. And he might never have made it into the world of film production if not for an incredible stroke of good luck.
Copyright 2013 by Michael J. Spencer
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