The Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival returns for its seventh season to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates on November 1, 2013 and Edison State College (n/k/a Florida South Western State College) on November 2.
The Black Maria Film Festival is an international, award-winning festival showcasing independent and experimental film and video. Hosted by museums and colleges throughout the country, it has toured the nation for 32 years. Its films include a variety of contemporary works drawn from the annual juried selection of award winning films and videos.
At Florida South Western, the festival takes place in the plush Rush Library auditorium. But at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, the films air under the stars shining down on the riverside lawn of The Mangoes, Henry and Clara Ford's Fort Myers home adjoining friend Thomas Edison's rambling winter estate. It's a romantic, garden setting that serves as a perfect backdrop for a film festival that bears the name of the inventor and the studio where his team made the first commercially-exhibited motion pictures.
Seeking to design "an instrument that does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear," Edison and experimental staff member W.K.L. Dickson invented a motion picture camera and a peephole viewing device called the Kinetoscope in 1892. The devices were shown publicly for the first time in 1893, with the first Edison films being exhibited commercially a year later. Those films were made in the Black Maria, a tar-paper shack at Edison's West Orange Laboratory.
The roof of the Black Maria lifted up to let sunlight in because early films required a tremendous amount of bright light. The studio was built on a turntable so the window could rotate toward the sun throughout the day, supplying natural light for hundreds of Edison movie productions over its eight year lifespan. But the facility was so cramped and uncomfortable that it reminded Dickson and fellow Edison employee Jonathan Campbell of Black Marias (police vans that were also called "paddywagons" at the time), which were notoriously cramped, stuffy and a similar black color. While Dickson, Campbell and the rest of Edison's staff wryly called the studio the Black Maria, Edison simply referred to it as "The Doghouse."
One of the first films that Dickson made in the Black Maria was Fred Ott's Sneeze (The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze). Made to accompany an article in Harper's Weekly for publicity purposes, the film consists of a series of still photographs of Dickson's colleague, Fred Ott, sneezing comically for the camera. It became one of the earliest motion pictures to receive a copyright.
When word spread about the new invention, performers flocked to the Black Maria from all over the country in order to be in the films. The silent movies that Dickson and his cohorts subsequently made featured dancers, boxers, magicians, vaudeville performers and even acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The performers' appearances at the studio were used as publicity opportunities by Edison, who would often pose with the actors for newspaper articles.
The studio was closed in 1901 after Edison built a glass-enclosed rooftop movie studio in New York City. Two years later, Edison had the building demolished, but the U. S. National Park Service maintains a reproduction of the Black Maria that was built in 1954 at what is now the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange.
Tickets for the Seventh Annual Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival are available at the Edison Ford ticket office located at 2350 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers. Cost: November 1 - Edison Ford Members and Students $5, non-members $8; November 2 - General Public $8, Edison State College Students free; $15 for both nights. For more information and updates visit the Edison & Ford Winter Estates website at www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.
The Edison Ford is open daily from 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. The Edison Ford is the winner of the 2009 National Stewardship Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is an official project of “Save America’s Treasures” at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Florida Historic Landmark and a National Register Historic Site. For additional information call 239-334-7419 or visit the web site at www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.