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The first moving pictures in the Kootenay

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

I was intrigued to read in John Mackie’s This Week in History column in The Vancouver Sun:

The first films in BC were shown in Victoria on Sept. 28, 1895 on an Edison Kinetoscope. But the Kinetoscope only allowed one person to look at the films through a viewer, like a peep show. The first projected films came along 16 months later.
“The earliest (projected films) I have found in BC (were shown by) a company called the Edison Bioscope Novelty Company that pops up from Spokane into Nelson and then Sandon on Jan. 18, 1897,” said Paul Moore, an associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto.

I looked it up. Indeed, the Nelson Tribune of Jan. 16, 1897 reported that the aforementioned company planned to put on a show in the Nelson fire hall and explained that “The bioscope is an animated picture show. The other half of the entertainment is put up by a number of good vaudeville people who recently played a week’s successful engagement in the Auditorium in Spokane.”


Reserved seats were $1 and general admission was 50 cents.


A week later The Miner reported that the company gave “a very pleasing entertainment to a crowded house … The bioscope pictures were magnificent and evoked much hearty applause although the light used was not as good as it should have been.”


They ran into electrical trouble: the bioscope needed 110 volts, but only 70 volts were available.


Unfortunately, there was no word on what the subject matter of the film was – the newspaper instead described the vaudeville entertainment, which included skirt dancing, rope skipping, and singing.


While a repeat performance was planned, the company’s manager sent a telegram saying it would have to be postponed. But there’s no sign of a make-up date.

This ad appeared in the Nelson Miner of Jan. 23, 1897


The company ran into electrical troubles again in Sandon, where they performed at Spencer’s hall, according to The Paystreak of Jan. 23, 1897. The city’s new power plant wasn’t up and running yet, so the film was not screened.

However, the show, without the bioscope was a strong one and he would did not enjoy himself last night must have been hard to please indeed. The company gives another performance tonight and no one should miss the opportunity of seeing them for they are first-class entertainers.

The Paystreak of May 29, 1897 also reported on the appearance of a different novelty by the same inventor: “The Edison Vitascope was exhibited in Sandon for the first time last Tuesday. As an exhibition of the progress of science and invention it was truly wonderful. A good house was present.” But there was no word on who brought the Vitascope or the film’s subject.


The same day, the Revelstoke Kootenay Mail reported the vitascope was due to show the Corbett-Fitzimmons Fight in Rossland the following week. I haven’t checked to see if it happened. But you can watch a bit of that film below, depicting the March 17, 1897 match between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzimmons. At the time it was the longest film ever released, running over 100 minutes, but this excerpt is a little over three minutes.

The Nelson Tribune of July 10, 1897 reported on a third type of scope coming to town: “A number of people witnessed the magniscope entertainment in the fire hall last evening. The magniscope is a new name for the bioscope, the later name not being very popular in Nelson since the visit of the last set of fakirs. Those who saw last evening’s exhibition express themselves as well pleased. The show will be repeated in the fire hall this evening.”

Fakir, I am guessing, is being used in the sense of imposter or swindler, so The Tribune must not have been impressed with the Edison Bioscope Company.


The Nelson Miner also reported on this show, calling it “very fine. The operator who handled the machine is an artist, for the pictures representing life were produced without the blur and jerking that were so apparent at a similar performance a month previous. Although the audience was not large the enthusiasm was very marked and the management was compelled to repeat a number of the pictures … [T]he most impressive were probably After the Storm, The Hurdle Race, The Fast Mail, and The Great Fire Scene.”


Nanaimo entrepreneur John Mahrer and his company, who produced the shows, also spent a few days in Sandon.


But the real highlight of the tour came a few days later when the company was sailing aboard the SS Nakusp from Trail to Arrowhead and was “prevailed upon by Captain Gore to give an entertainment.” To the delight of all, they fired up the magniscope and presented the show on the ship.


“It speaks well for the completeness of the fitting up of the CPR boats on the Columbia that the electrician of the magniscope company was able to work on the necessary connections with the electric light current on board for the powerful air burner used for projecting the views upon the canvas,” wrote the Revelstoke Herald of July 17, 1897.

After a gap of more than five years, “Edison’s latest improved Bioscope, which shows new and intensely interesting moving pictures” was part of the Weston and Herbert Big Vaudeville Co.’s show at the Nelson Opera House on March 27, 1903 and the Biden Opera House in Grand Forks the following month.


Bioscope pictures returned to the Nelson Opera House that August and finally we were given an idea of their content: “The Durbar at Delhi, the king’s coronation, the Fraser river canyon, scenes in a logging camp, spearing salmon in BC, ‘No bathing allowed,’ Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and voyage to the moon.” The latter was probably Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), which you can watch below.

Updated on July 25, 2021 to add the details about the Corbett-Fitzimmons Fight and the magniscope show aboard the SS Nakusp.

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