In 1914, the fledgling movie “industry” wasn’t so much an industry as it was a motley bunch of entrepreneurs, visionaries, and scammers. What was clear, however, was that people were thrilled with the new medium, and they flocked to the new movie houses in droves.
Keenly aware of this interest, the Albany Evening Journal ran a “scenario contest” in 1914. Such contests served two purposes: first, they actually provided a mountain of new storylines for a business hungry for plotlines; second, they were used by publications to bolster readership with promises of fame and fortune. (Although there is no record of any contestant ever achieving fame or fortune, such “scenario contests” continued to thrive even into the 1950’s.)
A year later, Charles Lewis, chief director of the New York Novelty Moving Picture company (and formerly of the Universal Film publicity department), invented a clever moneymaking scheme: he would team up with newspapers and theaters (mostly in the eastern half of the country) and offer to make a local film, written by and starring locals in each town. Each project was presented as both a popularity contest and a gateway to stardom, with the newspapers, theaters, and film makers cashing in (notably not cashing in were the local “actors”). The film company named the concept, “Who Will Be Flo?”
I’ll jump ahead of the Albany part of this story for a succinct explanation of the endeavor, as staged in Boston after conducted in Albany:
Albany’s contest kicked off on January 17, 1916 with this announcement:
The Evening Journal’s ‘Who Will Be Flo?” photoplay contest offers a wonderful opportunity to every young woman in Albany. Don’t be backward, enter at once. You don’t have to have any experience to be in the movies as you probably know that most of the movie stars were made and not born. It is an entirely different thing to work in the movies than on the stage. On the stage you have to memorize parts and action for the entire play. In the movies it is only necessary to be able to do as the director tells you. He goes through the actions and tells you exactly what to do . There are no hard parts to memorize and all you need is common sense and to be willing.
Remember that the winners of this contest will all have active parts in this production and the showing of it will be at the Colonial Theater, where all their friends can see them.
It is something well worth working for, and remember that the Albany Evening Journal has gone to a big expense in order to make this possible. So get busy and see your friends and neighbors. Tell them to buy the Albany Evening Journal and go to the Colonial Theater and get the votes for you. Ballot boxes are at the Albany Evening Journal office and at the Colonial Theater.
If you have a friend whom you would like to nominate do so at once as the party who nominates the winner will have a private box free at the Colonial for himself or herself and friends for the first showing of the photoplay.
This will be something you have never seen before. Just think of a real dramatic director, camera men, and the company of lucky contestants flying through the streets in autos. They stop: the camera man sets his camera up, the director gets his megaphone and the action starts. Then – well, wait and see – what’s the use of spoiling a good thing by giving it all away beforehand. Suffice it to say you will see something that you never have seen before.
Don’t forget the scenario contest. If you know of any good story that you may have heard, send it in and you may see it on the screen. This will also bring recognition to you, as there is a big market among the film manufacturers for good stories.
The story is to be produced in Albany, so confine it as much as possible to meet local conditions; also have it typewritten or use ink and condense it as much as possible. About 150 words are all you need. If the story is good we send it to the script department of the Novelty Motion Picture Company and there the dramatic editors supply the details and make it into scenario form. Watch to-morrow’s paper for list of candidates. For further particulars see ad on the inside page of to-day’s paper.
Voting was immediate and furious, with only two and a half weeks before a winner was chosen. Upon nomination, each nominee would automatically receive 1,000 points. You could clip a ballot from the daily paper and send it in for ten votes apiece, or you could visit the Colonial Theater and receive one vote for each paid admission. The real voting power, however rested in the paper’s ace in the hole: with a yearly subscription to the Albany Evening Journal, you could cast 6,000 votes for your favorite.
Voting tallies were printed every other day.
The winners were finally announced on February 8.
Miss Lillian Apple was a popular young lady who lived at 337 Delaware Avenue. Ole Olson of 67 North Pine Avenue was an architect for the State of New York. In addition to the two principals, supporting cast included Mildred Schuster, Alma Simon, Hazel Gordon, Martha Axleroad, Marion B. Martin, Mildred Steiett, Julius Brown, Stanley Swartz, William J. Coulson Jr., William Paley and David Patton.
The screenwriters of the Novelty Moving Picture Company were given a few days to flesh out the winning scenario, while the company’s honcho, Charles Lewis, came to Albany to scout locations. A week later, director G. Spencer and cameraman Al Reed arrived to begin filming.
The Albany Evening Journal’s Movie company is to-day working at Washington park, where many important scenes of the photoplay are being taken. Yesterday afternoon the company went to the state street pier and bridge, where many interesting and some thrilling scenes were taken. Mr. Olson, the popular young leading man, enacted a scene that was both thrilling and dramatic in which, according to the plot of the play, having been spurned by his fiancee, Flo, he was supposed to leap from the railing of the bridge. Flo arrived on the scene and seeing him in the act (Miss Lillian Apple taking the part of Flo), did some very clever acting as she realized the situation which confronted her.
Other members of the cast also distinguished themselves. After the company had finished there the director noticed a train which had just arrived at the station. They had but four minutes in which to take a scene of Flo and Jack departing happily on their honeymoon. For this scene, it was necessary to use the rear platform of an observation car. The taking of the scene was just barely finished when the train started from the station, leaving the leading lady and leading man a very short space of time in which to enact their part and alight from the moving train. Afterward a scene was taken in which friends are seen bidding farewell to Flo and Jack as they speed in the distance on their honeymoon. Several more scenes were taken and the company proceeded to the Colonial theater where they dispersed for the day. To-morrow morning, weather permitting, interesting scene will be staged in and around the capitol and education building. It is expected that the company will start work at about 10:15 o’clock. After they have finished the scenes there other scenes will be filmed on North Pearl, South Pearl and State streets. Everybody is invited to watch the Evening Journal’s big home town movie being made, and the spectators will have an opportunity to appear in some of the scenes. All Albany is eagerly watching and enjoying the making of the photoplay, and the members of the cast are all very enthusiastic about their work.
Breathless reports of the film’s progress filled the Journal’s pages, resulting in huge crowd showing up to witness the proceedings.
Rapid progress is being made in producing the Evening Journal’s photoplay, despite unsettled Conditions. Saturday the company went to Washington park and succeeded in securing a number of scenes. The entire company deserved much credit for the splendid way it worked under the trying cold. One scene, which was taken from the bridge across the upper part of the lake, resulted in an exceptionally good photographic effect, and the cast did justice to their respective parts. Al Reed, the camera man of the Novelty Motion Picture company, has succeeded in securing some very clever scenic effects as a background for the plot.
While the members of the cast were at luncheon Saturday, the director and camera man secured a scene of one of the Chalmers cars used by the company going around in a circle without a driver, entirely by itself, in a busy section of the city. The car went around the city eight or ten times at a good speed.
After lunch, scenes were taken in which the leading lady, Lillian Apple, and Ole Olson, the leading man, enacted the parts which were assigned to them in a very efficient manner. Such interest is being shown in the taking of the photoplay that Chief of Police Hyatt sent a detail of reserves to keep back the crowds. The winners of the Journal photoplay contest are enjoying themselves immensely in the r9ole of movie actors and actresses, and are doing surprisingly well for amateurs. The large scenes in which most of the members of the cast appear will probably be finished by Tuesday, and by Wednesday it is expected that the last scenes will be taken. Thousands of people all over the city are anxiously awaiting the time when the finished production will be exhibited at the Colonial theater.
Never missing a political opportunity, both the Governor and Albany’s Mayor made it into the film.
Governor Whitman stands in the center with a cane. At his right is Ole Olson, leading man in the Journal’s photoplay, and at his left is Miss Lillian Apple, leading woman. The others in the picture are: Captain Lorillard Spencer, the governor’s military secretary; Harold J. Hichman, of the state architect’s office; State Architect Pitcher, Charles A. Sussdorf of the state architect’s office, and Mr. Young, the photoplay contest manager. The Journal’s photoplay will be presented at the Colonial Theater in the near future.
A preview showing was made at the Colonial on March 4.
Every one of the 30 members of the cast appears on the screen distinctly. So do thousands of Albanians who, as interested onlookers during the taking of the various scenes, appear in the film. Many Albanians will see themselves in moving pictures at the Colonial next week. Practically every member of the Albany police force is in the picture.
Here is the plot of “The Awakening.” Mind you, subtlety was pretty much an unknown in the early days of motion pictures.
Miss Apple plays the role of Flo and Mr. Olson is known as Jack. The first scene is laid in Washington park. Flo and Jack are talking a walk. Unexpectedly they come upon a number of their friends, and after a few minutes’ talk all decide to go skating on the lake. In the picture some fancy skating on the part of some of the young men is clearly shown. Flo suggests a race, and Jack is declared winner.
While skating around the lake Jack meets one of his old girl friends. She is just about to put on her skates, and, of course, he assists her. Not only does he put on her skates for her, but he takes it upon himself to teach her to skate. Some of the other young men do the same thing, with the result that Flo and the other young women are jealous.
Then follow several other scenes on the principal streets of the city in which the young men are “turned down” by the young women. The boys can’t account for the girls’ actions and decide to form a suicide club. Jack draws the marked ballot, and after saying good bye to the fellows, departs to commit suicide.
He buys a gun and goes to the park with the intention of taking his life. He places the gun to his head and pulls the trigger, but nothing happens because he forgot to buy the bullets. Then Jack returns to the city and supposedly buys some carbolic acid. He returns to the park, but again fails to take his life, because he finds that instead of carbolic acid the clerk in the drug store gave him castor oil. He makes one more attempt to kill himself [see above, where he plans to jump off a bridge], but is saved by Flo, who rushes upon the scene and throws her arms around his neck. The happy couple are then shown departing from Union station on their honeymoon.
The Awakening opened on March 5, as an added feature to the Colonial’s roster of features, which changed daily.
As predicted, Albanians thronged to see themselves and their friends on the big screen. There were three shows daily: 2, 7 and 9.
“The Awakening” had its final performance on March 11, 1916. At that showing, the prizes were awarded to the two leads and the photoplay winner, while everyone else in the movie had to be satisfied with the honor of winning a popularity contest.
Although after 1912, registrants were required to submit both a physical copy and written descriptions of motion picture works to the United States Copyright Office, it’s highly unlikely the Novelty Motion Picture Company considered this one-shot worthy of filing. There is no record anywhere of a print having survived.