That Slick Salesman in the Silk Hat
Living in the Gilded Age
Cinema's first historian, Terry Ramsaye, in his 1926 book A Million and One Nights paints a lively picture of the young Charles Urban at the dawn of motion pictures, labelling him "that slick salesman in the silk hat". Before motion pictures existed, Urban had already established himself as a typical go-getting American salesman of the Gilded Age, who brought the same energy and vision to films that he had previously brought to books, typewriters and phonographs.
Charles Urban was born on 15 April 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents were immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Urban was raised among the substantial German community of Cincinnati's 'Over-the-Rhine' district. His was an unhappy, impoverished childhood, owing to his father's business failure, ill temper and vindictive manner. Urban when aged twelve also suffered the loss of the sight in one eye, following a baseball accident. He left school aged fifteen and determined to make his way in the world as soon as possible, and to find the success in business that had eluded his wretched father.
After work in various newspaper and stationery stores, Urban found an occupation conducive to his particular talents. Book agents were familiar figures on the American scene in the late 19th century, at a time when many book sales were secured door-to-door rather than in book stores, and while the work was thankless and unremunerative for most, Urban relished the challenge of persuading someone to buy that which they had no intention of purchasing when they first met him. Urban specialised in selling expensive works with a strong cultural cachet, relishing both the challenge and the association with quality. Among the works he sold were The World's Masterpieces and The Stage and Its Stars, and it was the securing of the subscription for the latter from the Chicago dry goods magnate Marshall Field that Urban remembered as his greatest sales triumph. The full story is told in Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights and in Urban's memoirs, A Yank in Britain.
The Marshall Field coup occurred in 1889, but Urban, by now a married man and seeking a more settled occupation, moved to Detroit and teamed up with a former book store acquaintance John T. Doan to run a stationery goods store at 141 Griswold Street. Here Urban became familiar with selling such products as Densmore typewriters and the Edison mimeograph (a copying machine). However, the product which most attracted Urban's interest was the Edison phonograph. One of Urban's customers for the Densmore typewriter was Robert L. Thomae of the North American Phonograph Company. He was looking for a new local agent for phonograph sales in the Michigan area, and Urban set up his own phonograph agency in 1893.
Electricity in the Ears
The phonograph is known as an entertainment device, but in common with its inventor, Thomas Edison, Urban was most interested in the phonograph as a business dictation machine, and he enjoyed notable success in selling it to local businesses. This was unusual, as generally the phonograph was a failure as a business tool. There was considerable resistance to its introduction from stenographers (Urban recalled that they complained of "electricity in the ears"). The equipment frequently broke down; the stylus points soon blunted; and the cylinders had only a capacity for two minutes, or four hundred words. The battery acid had a disconcerting habit of leaking. Phonographs were returned, and licenses not renewed. Those few phonograph franchises that prospered were those which offered a good repair or support service, which Urban certainly did, and which was probably as much behind his comparative success as his selling technique. But he also covered the entertainment side, making recordings of local musicians, and putting on phonograph concerts.
On 14 April 1894 the Kinetoscope, the Edison peepshow mechanism that first showed motion picture films to the public, opened in New York. It was instantly popular, and many phonograph concessionaries added Kinetoscopes to their businesses. The Kinetoscope first appeared in Detroit in November on the same year, and Urban was naturally attracted to this new phenomenon. The Michigan Electric Company acquired six of these Kinetoscopes, and Urban persuaded them to merge this business with his own, and he opened a combined Kinetoscope and phonograph parlour on Woodward Avenue early in 1895. The parlour is illustrated at the top of this page, and featured the six Kinetoscopes, twenty phonographs, and five special Kinetoscopes synchronised with a phonograph to give a crude approximation of sound pictures, called Kinetophones. Urban recalled the parlour with pride: "It was beautifully decorated and lighted and became very popular. Looking after the automatic coin devices, changing the film and sound records daily and keeping them all in adjustment, was a whole day's job".
The Big Screen
Urban had therefore discovered moving pictures, though at this stage he was like any other phonograph businessman who added the latest toy to his attractions while there was an audience for it. The Edison film subjects, mostly variety acts, would have had little appeal for Urban. What caused the fundamental change in his career, and determined the pattern of his life thereafter, was of course motion pictures on a screen. These he first saw in April or May of 1896, when he was on a business trip to New York and caught the Edison Vitascope and the Lumière Cinématographe shows, and saw how thrilled and astonished audiences were by the overwhelming sense of motion and real life generated by the big screen. "I lost all interest ever after in slot machines", he confessed. Urban, acting for the Michigan Electric Company, succeeded in securing rights to the Edison Vitascope for the Michigan area, and proceeded to tour the region putting on film shows in all manner of towns and communities, but he was now hankering after greater independence, and felt that a very good way to achieve this was to have his own projector. This he arranged, and it was called a Bioscope.