(written by Bill Petersen, Archives Staff)
On November 14, 1915, America’s first epic motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation,” came to the Majestic Theater at 514 Main St. in La Crosse. The Civil War-era saga played twice a day for one week at the thousand-seat theater.
The motion picture came on 12 reels of film but was also accompanied by an entourage of 22 musicians for the orchestra as well as the mechanics, electricians and laborers that operated the sound effects equipment. Remember, this was a “silent” movie, so all the music and sound effects had to be produced separately and synchronized perfectly with the movie as it played.
The sound effects equipment, which arrived by rail in a 70-foot-long box car, was placed behind the screen in the theater. While the movie played, a man in the theater operating a panel with electric buttons would indicate to the orchestra or the sound effects supervisors when certain sounds or music were needed by pressing the appropriate button. Behind the screen, a force of thirty men operated the machines that simulated the sound of cannon fire, or horses thundering down a road, or the general pandemonium of battle.
The admission price for the movie reflected all the extra expense of showing the movie. Normally in La Crosse in 1915, admission prices for movies were five or ten cents. For “The Birth of a Nation,” the Majestic charged between 50 cents and $1.50, a huge mark-up equivalent to $11.00-$32.00 in today’s economy.
“The Birth of a Nation” was a very controversial film for its portrayal of southern Blacks and the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. The film was later banned in several cities.