87 years ago at midnight on July 6th, audiences in New York saw a talkie for the first time in history. “Lights of New York,” which premiered nationwide a few weeks later, was screened at the Strand Theatre in Times Square and was billed as the world’s first ‘all-talking’ motion picture. The film, a pioneer of the 30s-era crime dramas that captivated audiences, nevertheless garnered a lukewarm reception from critics, especially a New York Times review that called the plot “crude in the extreme.”
But, the picture’s gross of $1,000,000, a veritable blockbuster for its time, seems to show that most audiences weren’t there to absorb the plot.
The Strand Theatre, opened in 1914, is rumored to be the first iteration of the many ‘luxury’ movie houses in New York. It stood on the corner of 47th Street and Broadway. It serviced movie-goers for decades before its owners the Mark Brothers sold the land to Warner Brothers. The theater reopened as the Warner Cinerama Theatre, one of the first to use the then-revolutionary ‘Cinerama‘ technology of three projections of an image on a deeply curved screen. The entire building closed and was demolished in the 80s to make way for the new Morgan Stanley building as part of the redevelopment of Times Square.
The New York premier of “Lights of New York” led to an industry revolution, despite the fact that the film’s two stars, Cullen Landis and Helene Costello struggled achieved comparable success after the film’s premier. It was the same problem that plagued many of Hollywood’s most in-demand silent film actors, and their decline was swift. By 1929, almost all films produced by Hollywood were all-sound films, and we never looked back.