A night out at the cinema is nothing new, as people have been going to the movies for more than 120 years. The world’s first cinema opened in 1895, when the Berlin Wintergarten in Germany screened a silent film by the Skladanowsky brothers.
Of course, back in the 19th century, a film was a revolutionary invention that left cinema-goers in awe. Moving pictures were in their infancy and this was prior to the days of Hollywood’s golden era of silent films.
The Berlin Wintergarten was a large variety theatre more used to live acts. It opened in 1880 as part of the new Central Hotel at Friedrichstrasse.
One of its main attractions was the Jardin de Plaisanterie or Wintergarten – a luxurious glass venue for hotel guests. It was an indoor garden room with an area of around 2,000 square metres, decorated with evergreen shrubs, palm trees, grottos and fountains and providing an area where guests could dine, go for a stroll and watch a concert. The first concerts took place in 1880, soon after it opened.
In 1884, it became a “wine and dine” theatre and four years later, the first variety performance was staged, featuring acts such as acrobats and magicians. By 1889, it was well-established on the variety circuit and was attracting the major stars of the day.
Among the international artists who appeared there in the late 1880s were the Australian-born dancer Saharet, the French actress and singer Mistinguett and the French cabaret singer and actress Yvette Guilbert. As Germany’s most famous variety theatre, it was no surprise that moving pictures made their debut there.
First film show
The Skladanowsky brothers, Max and Emil, were the pioneers of cinema. Max, born in Pankow, near Berlin, in 1863, invented the Bioscop – an early movie projector. He had completed an apprenticeship in photography and glass painting, which led to an interest in magic lanterns.
These were the earliest film shows that began in the 1890s – a combination of projected images, live narration and live music. They have been recognised as the forerunner to modern films and were usually factual shows about topics such as art, travel and science.
Max, his older brother Emil and their father Carl began to make a living presenting magic lantern shows, touring Germany and Europe with their act. The shows were presented using photographic slides – an innovation that thrilled audiences in the early 1890s.
The Bioscop was inspired by the technology used for the magic lantern. Two loops of 54mm film were used in the Bioscop, with one frame from each being projected alternately. This made it possible to project at 16 frames per second, creating an illusion of movement.
The first demonstration took place at the Berlin Wintergarten in July 1895, in front of the directors of the venue. They had heard about the Skladanowsky brothers’ invention and contacted them to ask if they would show a film as the finale to a variety performance on the 1st November.
The demonstration pleased the directors and they paid the brothers 2,500 Goldmark to present their show, which was billed as the “most interesting invention of the modern age”. Cinema-goers were delighted at the Bioscop show and the Skladanowskys played to packed houses for four weeks.
Consisting of several short films that were rear-projected, the silent movies were played to a live musical accompaniment that had been specially composed.
Birth of the Cinématographe
After their success at the Berlin Wintergarten, the Skladanowskys were booked to play at the Folies Bergère in Paris in January 1896. However, the booking was cancelled after rival inventors, the Lumière Brothers, Auguste and Louis, revealed their Cinématographe show in December 1895.
The motion picture camera was technically superior to the Bioscop, as it produced better illumination and sharper images – plus it weighed only 16lbs, so it was easy to transport and set up. It was operated manually by a hand-crank.
This led to the Skladanowsky’s invention winding down and despite touring Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands during 1896, while making technical improvements to the Bioscop, their last performance took place in March 1897.
The Berlin Wintergarten continued to be a popular entertainment venue. At the turn of the century, it was refurbished and received its trademark indoor artificial starry sky.
It continued to host live performances in the early 20th century, such as trapeze act The Codonas, escape artist Harry Houdini and the magical juggler Rastelli.
Sadly, the Berlin Wintergarten’s reign as one of Germany’s top entertainment venues came to an end in June 1944 – after a performance on 21st June, the venue was destroyed by a bomb attack. Its spectacular auditorium was reduced to rubble and only its name, Wintergarten Varieté, remained.
In 1992, the famous Wintergarten Varieté reopened on 25th September on Potsdamer Straße. It was decorated nostalgically with dark wood, red velvet and gold, with the artificial stars sparkling on the ceiling again. It seats up to 500 guests. A glittering premiere was held in tribute to the old venue and the stars of yesteryear, under the artistic direction of André Heller and Bernhard Paul.
More than two million visitors saw the lavishly-produced shows during the first few years of its relaunch and the media introduced the venue to a wide international audience. It was even recommended as a culture tip for Europe by Time Magazine.
Although silent movies are a thing of the past, our craving for a quiet and peaceful life is still very much alive! If you live near a live entertainment venue, even if the shows are world class, loud music can be considered a noise nuisance – and it’s often reported to environmental health inspectors. Continued exposure to excess noise can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing.
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