Monday, January 7, 2019

Moving Picture Health Car
Every County Had One

In 1916, movies rattled into rural North Carolina communities in the back of a souped-up Studebaker “auto-truck” called the Moving Picture Health Car.

Warren Booker, working for the Health Department, and W. C. Crosby, working for the Education Department, had created an all-in-one vehicle that could deliver lights and movies to any location, and the Moving Picture Health Car was born. Their goal was to bring health education and entertainment to poor, isolated farm families in North Carolina.

The truck was outfitted with a movie projector and a canvas screen. A gasoline engine coupled with a generator provided sufficient power for lights and the “moving picture machine.”  A Victrola offered a musical interlude to begin the entertainment and supplied suitable dramatic accompaniment to the silent films. Black-out curtains darkened the hall. A switchboard allowed the show to be run from a central location, and there was a fire extinguisher. Camping and cooking equipment were included for roughing it.

Taken from The Health Bulletin, Vol. XXXI, No. 2; May 1916
The car had a two-man staff. H. E. Hamilton, a “mechanician,” took care of maintenance and kept the Health Department up to date.  Roy Tatum, knowledgeable about medicine, instructed the audiences in good health practices.

In the November 27, 1916 News and Observer, Booker reported that it took  twenty to thirty minutes to set up for a program.  This included hanging the screen and running the cable through a door or window to the motion picture machine in the hall.

It was a big deal when the car rumbled into small out-of-the-way crossroads communities bringing “real” motion pictures and offering “intensely interesting” health information. The promise of dazzling lights and moving pictures flickering across a canvas screen inevitably drew a crowd. It was magical for isolated people, some of whom would have no electricity until after World War II.

Fairview, a tiny Wake County community, got an early look at the Health Car show. According to the April 3, 1916 Greensboro News, it was the “first moving picture show ever given in the country in this State.” The show ran for over two hours.

Each show featured five or six reels of film—about sixteen to twenty minutes each. An opener might be an uproarious slapstick comedy, a film depicting a scenic landscape in a faraway land, or perhaps a western with fast riding cowboys and lots of action. This was followed by several movies offerings health information. The conclusion was usually a comedy—maybe Charlie Chaplin in The Tramp or Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Butcher Boy.

The purpose of the Health Car was to teach disease prevention, sanitation and hygiene. Programs highlighted topics like tuberculosis, typhoid fever, venereal disease, oral hygiene, and cleanliness. One film focused on a campaign against flies and included directions for making a fly trap that were distributed to the audience.

The lessons were embedded in dramatic action stories. One popular show was The Man Who Learned.  The herky-jerky, black and white, silent film projected onto canvas with scratchy Victrola music as the background taught a lesson about typhoid prevention through sanitary milk production. The story was gripping and the Victrola played music appropriate to the scene—intense, foreboding, or jubilant as needed.

The audience is enthralled by the action. Hearts are thumping. Eyes are wide. At the end, the important lesson has been learned.

The shows were a rousing success. Care-worn farm women in faded dresses, men in shabby bib overalls, and children bouncing with excitement and anticipation arrived at places like Pikeville (Wayne County), Mount Mourne (Iredell County), or Lemon Springs (Lee County) on movie night. They came in wagons hauled by mules or worn-out horses. One man declared it was better than a Methodist camp meeting.

The car circulated around the state visiting each of the 45 counties that existed at that time. It remained in one area for three weeks, visiting up to twelve locations each week. The vehicle carried enough films to present a fresh line-up for each return visit.

The price of the truck was $750; its extra engine and generator went for $360. It cost $90 a week to operate the car, which was paid for by the communities hosting the exhibit—usually by the local government or generous donors.

 People turned out in huge numbers. One report placed daily attendance from 450 to 900. There were times when the evening productions were moved outside because no venue of adequate size was available.          

In 1917, the state legislature appropriated $25,000 to provide a Moving Picture Health Car for each county. The cars would turn rural schools into community centers, provide health information, and bring communities together in ways they had never been before.
The cost of an outfitted car was $3,000 with $2,000 paid by the county. By late 1920, every county had a movie car.
African Americans had little access to modern innovations like movie cars. However, in 1919, black teachers joined the North Carolina Tuberculosis Association in the sale of Tuberculosis Christmas Seals to finance a movie car. Every county had a quota, and, in almost every county, the quota was met. Over $5,000 was raised; this was used to purchase a Dodge panel truck, a Delco lighting system, and an Atlas projector. A new movie truck hit the road.

Dr. E. T. Ransom operated the car on a circuit of one week visits around the state. Each week, he presented six to ten programs. In addition, local doctors were sometimes brought in to treat people who came to the show. In some instances, Dr. Ransom also made home visits.

During the first six months, Dr. Ransom visited twenty-five counties and recorded an attendance of 34,148. The car met with such enthusiasm that a second car was added the next year.
A hundred years ago, it took a vehicle loaded with equipment, driven miles over terrible roads, with electricity furnished via generator, for a farm family to see a movie. Today, we can watch whatever we want, in real time, on devices we hold in the palms of our hands. We’ve come a long way since days of the Motion Picture Health Car!

No comments:

Post a Comment