First Night at the Movies in Hawaii

“It produces life!” “It baffles analysis!” “It amazes all!” The advertisement announces the “modern miracle,” Thomas Edison’s veriscope, as it would show the first motion pictures screening in Hawaii at the Opera House on February 5, 1897.

The Hawaiian Star says the screening “promised to be one of the most interesting sights ever seen in Honolulu.”

The first motion pictures included “A Watermelon Contest,” “Arrival of the Empire State Express,” “The Great McKinley Parade,” and “New York Fire Department on Active Duty.” The audience watched the flickering black and white films with no sound.

Each of the film’s duration was less than a minute and had very simple plots. For example, in “A Watermelon Contest,” two men in overalls race to see who can finish eating his large watermelon slice first, continually biting the watermelon, chewing, and spitting out the seeds for the film’s entire nineteen-seconds-long run.

The first movie reviews in Hawaii raved about the performance. Titling its review “Wonderful Contrivance,” the Hawaiian Star says the performance was “as realistic as in real life” so good that the audience repeatedly requested for encores. The Hawaiian Gazette says the scenes were realistic “as if the audience had been looking through a mammoth glass window at the events taking place”:

“There was everything but the sound of voices, and in the bull fight it required no stretch of the imagination for one to think the battle itself was taking place a few feet away. The scene was almost indescribable. The great fire scene was a wonderful sight, for everything in the pictures was as it appears on such occasions in a large city, the very breathing of the horses could be noticed, as they stand facing the audience after the run to the scene of the fire.”

A smaller audience than expected watched the performance, probably because not everyone knew what a veriscope was. However, a week later, the Veriscope performed to “crowded houses” in Hilo.

Apparently, this screening was only the tip of the movie craze to come. Only twelve years afterwards, in 1909, eleven movie houses showed movies, including the Empire Theater with 930 seats.

– Alice Kim


Veriscope ad
Evening bulletin., February 04, 1897, Image 5

“The Modern Miracle: The Veriscope to Be Placed on Exhibition”
The Hawaiian star., February 04, 1897, Image 1

“Wonderful Contrivance: Veriscope Presented in Honolulu for First Time”
The Hawaiian star., February 06, 1897, Image 1

“Wonderful Sights: The Veriscope Exhibition Surpasses Greatest Expectations”
The Hawaiian gazette., February 09, 1897, Page 6, Image 6

“Mr. Wight says the Veriscope was exhibited to crowded houses in Hilo.”

“Local and General”
Evening bulletin., February 20, 1897, Page 5, Image 5


4 Comments on “First Night at the Movies in Hawaii”

  1. Tiki808 says:

    I liked the article. February 5, 1897. I will write it down somewhere. Remember reading about the shorter stories of sugar workers and plantations starting on Kaua’i, Alexander & Baldwin. C. Faye 1932 opening up a sugar plantation in Waimea town, Kaua’i. There are bon dances held today at that location in the housing camp area in Waimea town today. Always fun to read some history.

  2. Tiki808 says:

    Loved it. Thanks. I will remember the time, February 5, 1897. Loved the insight.

  3. […] Today in history — February 5, 1897 — the first motion pictures were shown for the first time in Hawaii at the Opera house. Advertisements proclaimed, “It produces life!” “It baffles analysis!” and “It amazes all!” Read more about it in “First Night at the Movies.” […]

  4. […] Read more about it in “First Night at the Movies in Hawaii.” […]

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