Times Past

Elmo Theatre was one hot location in the early days of the 20th century

Elmo Theatre photographed shortly after it opened in 1913.
Elmo Theatre photographed shortly after it opened in 1913.

“It felt like being in the crater of Vesuvius!”

When audiences thrilled to the 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery, very few of those early theaters were air conditioned. The temperature in the projection booth made life a living hell for the projectionist.

Young Louis, eldest son of San Luis Obispo pioneer merchant Ah Louis, learned that firsthand. Young Louis’s “volcanic” observations regarding the heat from the carbon arc lights in the projection booth of the Elmo Theater can be affirmed by anyone who worked with the original equipment.

Carbon arc light consists of an arc between carbon electrodes. It was devised in 1809 by Sir Humphrey Davy. It became the first practical electric light and was used on large towers for street lighting in many American cities including San Luis Obispo.

The lights threw off large chunks of red-hot carbon, occasionally setting fire to both vehicles and buildings. Cities like San Jose replaced carbon arcs with incandescent light in the early 20th century.

San Luis Obispo replaced the arc lights with gas lighting at about the same time.

Carbon arc lighting continued to be employed in specialized applications requiring high intensity illumination like searchlights and motion picture projectors. The Xenon arc lamp, invented in Germany in 1957, replaced carbon arc lighting altogether after 1963. It was cooler and lasted much longer.

Young Louis became acquainted with the carbon arc projectors as a teenager, working with “magic lantern” shows. In 1911, he served as the first projectionist at the improvised theater in the County Agricultural Exposition Pavilion at Monterey and Toro.

He told me in 1978 that he also worked in two short-lived local venues, the St. Luis and the Novelty.

On New Year’s Eve, 1911, the first dedicated motion picture theater, El Monterey, opened with seating for 1,000. The new theater caused the closure of the smaller, uncomfortable venues. But competition was quick to challenge El Monterey’s victory.

The following November, the Elks Club replaced its fire-ravaged facility at Marsh and Morro with a large, yellow brick building that included a 1,000-person capacity auditorium. Since the venue could not be regularly filled with club activities, it was leased the next year to impresario Dan Wolf, who christened it the Elmo Theatre. Elmo links “Elk” and “motion picture” into a proper noun.

Wolf kept the theater going with silent films and vaudeville acts. Attendance soared during the economic boom of the First World War. Young recalled how the new operators of the lease had secured a feature film, My Four Years in Germany, based on a book by the former ambassador, James J. Gerard.

Released during the summer of 1918, it was Warner Brother’s first nationally syndicated film. The film was essentially propaganda justifying Woodrow Wilson’s bringing the United States into the war in April 1917. It was filled with “patriotic gore.”

By Labor Day, it was a mega hit. The management at the Elmo added an extra matinee. It was a multi-reel film and Young had to change from one projector to the other and place a new magazine of film in 30 seconds.

He needed to keep the carbon lighting sticks carefully trimmed. He knew that film exposed to the heat for eight seconds would result in the nitro-cellulose burning, just like the smokeless gun powder to which it was related. If the film flared up, he was to switch off the master cord, drop the fireproof shutters and close the booth as tight as a stove’s oven.

On Labor Day, 1918, the temperature in the booth rose to above 110. The relief operator never showed up so Young worked continuously from midmorning through the evening. Then he was told that the operators of El Monterey, envious over the large audience draw at the Elmo, had reported the theater to the fire department. The inspector was on his way.

What more could go wrong?