Star Theatre (1901)

Alternate Title: Demolishing and Building up the Star Theatre

This short from Biograph is a good early example of time-lapse photography and probably fascinated audiences of the day. While we’ve seen the technique often enough now, it’s still interesting to watch and think about its place in history.

Star TheatreThe camera appears to be stationed on the third or fourth floor of a building in New York. It faces an intersection, with a building prominently labeled as “Star Theatre.” At first, the camera runs at normal speed, and we see people walking along, streetcars driving by, etc. Then, the time-lapse begins and everything seems to be moving very quickly. At first, the building seems unchanged, but if you watch the windows, you can see it being gutted of interior materials. After a time, the roof comes off, and we see workers, almost like busy ants, swarming over the building and razing it bit by bit. Occasionally, you can glimpse one of them hitting the walls with a large hammer, but for the most part they blip by too fast to be distinguished. Soon, in place of the building is a large vacant lot. The camera again slows down to normal speed and we see people passing the space where once the Star Theatre stood.

Star Theatre1The Star Theatre was a pretty important location for live theater in New York for many years. It stood at 13th and Broadway from 1861 to 1901 and was involved in the first rise of what we today think of as “Broadway theater.” The center of the theater district, however, began moving north in the 1880s and by 1901, the owner had decided to relocate to 30th Street. Hence, this demolition of the old building, then known among locals as “the old Star Theatre” to distinguish it from the new one. As it happens, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was located at 11 East 14th Street, not at all far from 13th and Broadway. No doubt, the director, F.S. Armitage, saw an opportunity for a movie of local and probably national interest in the demolition of a beloved old landmark. He could have simply shot it a piece at a time, but he was smart enough to think of setting up the camera in a spot where it wouldn’t be disturbed (quite possibly the roof of the Biograph building” and taking a few frames a day over the 30 day demolition period. The result is very good. I found myself wondering whether the people flitting by on the street bemoaned the loss of their long-standing landmark, or whether people worried less about that sort of historic preservation in those days.

Director: F.S. Armitage

Camera: F.S. Armitage

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.