Movies in Buffalo - Table of Contents

Buffalo’s Film Row

Buffalo’s association with the history the American film industry began in 1896 when Thomas Edison demonstrated his latest invention, the Vitascope, at the Buffalo Public Library (Biddle 2013). The Vitascope was the first commercially-successful celluloid motion picture projector in the country.

In less than six months of Vitascope’s debut in Buffalo, Mitchell H. Mark opened the first specific- use built movie theater in the city; purportedly also the first one in the country (Biddle 2013). Mark opened the 12-by-50-ft Vitascope Theater in the basement of the newly completed Ellicott Square Building at 283 Main Street (Biddle 2013). The theater was also known as the “Edisonia Hall” or “Electric Theater.” For an admission price of ten cents patrons watched imported Pathé-Freres Company films from Europe. By 1906-1907, only a third of the films released were American. The 80-person capacity theater operated for two years and earned $18,000 dollars annually (Biddle 2013).

Mark and his brother Moe opened several other theaters locally and in other locations (Biddle 2013). The short-lived Buffalo Motion Picture Corporation was later a tenant in the Ellicott Square Building.

Edison Company videographers created twenty films at the 1901 Panamerican Exposition. Buffalo and the assassination of President William McKinley were presented on film for the national distribution. By 1911, there were approximately 40 production companies in the United States and more than 10,000 nickelodeons and theatres (Biddle 2013).

To expedite cost- effective film distribution regional film exchanges or “Film Rows” were established in 32 major cities across the United States. Buffalo’s film exchange center distributed films from east of Cleveland to cities as far east as Utica and Binghamton (Biddle 2013). Film exchanges were initially scattered throughout Buffalo’s CBD until the 1920s when distribution was centralized in a “Film Row” near the 200 block of Franklin Street. The 1922 Buffalo City directory listed 15 film exchanges on Franklin Street out of 28 total “moving picture supplies” companies in the city (Biddle 2013). Films were distributed regionally by truck or automobile, as train operators were reluctant to transport flammable nitrate film (Biddle 2013).

Major motion picture companies often invested heavily in their distributors and Buffalo soon became an important regional film exchange. As local extensions of Hollywood studios, film exchanges were often lavishly decorated and well equipped. Specific-use built film exchanges constructed in Buffalo’s Film Row integrated the most modern fire-proof construction materials with popular architectural styles of the period. Film strips were highly flammable which necessitated construction of fireproof vaults for nitrate film storage and installation of sprinkler systems. Architects of film exchange buildings incorporated the safety features required for the storage of film while designing an attractive venue for marketing films for the Hollywood studios. Film exchange buildings identified on Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show footprints of the buildings identified with projection rooms for film exhibitors, poster and shipping rooms, inspection rooms, and film vaults (Figure 4.6). Film exchanges often had prominent signage on their facades and walls signs on the sides of the building.

Buffalo had film exchanges associated with major Hollywood studios such as Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Warner Brothers. The success of the Hollywood film industry during from 1920s through the 1960s is reflected in the number of film exchanges and theaters constructed in Buffalo and other regional film centers such as Chicago, which at the industry’s peak supplied some 1,100 movie theaters. Film exchanges supplied everything for exhibitors who operated movie theaters such as the following: feature films, cartoons, short subjects, and coming-attraction trailers; movie projectors and sound heads; lobby posters, billboards, and still photographs; numbered tickets, popcorn, and candy; and seats, canopies, carpeting, light bulbs for marquees.

Film exchanges became outmoded as studios found less expensive alternatives for film distribution. The 1965 Buffalo City Directory listed 17 film distributors and exchanges and ten years later there were only nine remaining in the city (Biddle 2013). With the advent of videocassettes in the 1970s, it was no longer necessary to screen a film in a screening room, and film exchanges fell out of use. The last major film studio office in the city was Paramount Pictures, which closed its office at 300 Delaware in 1985 (Biddle 2013).

Eight film exchange buildings were identified in Buffalo’s Film Row in the northern portion of CBD on Franklin and Pearl streets (Table 4.6). Two other film exchanges were identified on Franklin Street, just north of the CBD study area in the Allentown Historic District. In 1930, Warner Brothers Pictures built a 4-story Art Deco style film exchange at 470 Franklin Street. Another film exchange was built at 264 Franklin St Franklin Street. A movie theatre supplies store was located at 416 Pearl Street (demolished). Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) operated the largest film exchange in Buffalo’s Film Row at 505-509 Pearl Street (Saturn Building), which is a contributing building in the Certified Local Theater Historic District. A ghost sign for MGM remains on the north side of the building. Twentieth Century Fox’s film exchange at 290 Franklin Street has the most intact exterior with its glazed yellow brick Art Moderne facade with stone banding. Stone reliefs of tragedy and comedy flank the main entrance.

Buffalo’s extant film exchange buildings were constructed in close proximity during a span of just over 25 years. The film exchanges are similar in scale, averaging one to two stories. They share the same types of materials and fire-proof construction. The film exchanges were designed in the popular architectural styles of the period, five which were architect designed. Additional research may uncover the names of architects for the other three film exchanges. Buffalo’s film exchanges served as a local vehicle that was part of a national network used by film production companies and related concession and service companies to distribute and deliver motion pictures. Regional film exchanges enabled the establishment of movie houses and widespread popularity of the Hollywood film industry from the 1920s through 1950s.

During this period, Buffalo had 81 stage and movie theaters within its municipal boundaries (Carl Zoschke n.d.). Collectively, the film exchanges in Buffalo’s Film Row are historically significant for their association with the film industry and film distribution at the national, regional, and local level, but most of the buildings lack integrity with respect to their period of significance and, therefore, are not eligible for NRHP designation with the exception of the former film exchange building at 290 Franklin Street.


Footnotes: Biddle, Mathew.  2013 “The History of the Film Industry Buffalo.” Western New York Heritage Vol. 16 No.2
(Summer 2013), pp.18-25.

See also: Table 4.5 List of Film Exchnges in the CBD on Section 4, p. 24
- 2013 Preservation Ready Survey of Buildings Downtown, Northland and Fougeron/Urban Survey Areas, Section 4, pp. 21-23 (online June 2016)

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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