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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Photo Drama of Creation (1914)


The Bible Students were keenly aware of Jesus Christ’s prophecy: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matt. 24:14, King James Version) So, as that significant year 1914 drew closer, God’s people undertook an all-out campaign of worldwide proportions—a hitherto unparalleled educational and warning work. They employed a bold, new method of declaring the good news.

Say it now is the year 1914. Imagine that you are seated among hundreds of persons in a darkened auditorium. Before you is a large motion-picture screen. To your surprise, a white-haired man in a frock coat appears, and, without a note in hand, he begins to speak. Oh, you have been to the movies before. But this one is different. The man speaks and you hear his words. This is no common silent movie. It is something special, both technically and in the message it conveys, and you are impressed. The man? He is Charles Taze Russell. This production? It is the “Photo-Drama of Creation.”

C. T. Russell recognized that motion pictures were a fine medium for reaching masses of people. In 1912, therefore, he began preparing the Photo-Drama of Creation. It turned out to be an eight-hour-long photographic slide and moving picture production, complete with color and sound. Designed to be shown in four parts, the Photo-Drama carried viewers from creation through human history to the climax of God’s purpose for earth and mankind at the end of Jesus Christ’s thousand-year reign. Pictorial slides and motion pictures were synchronized with phonograph records of talks and music. There had been various experiments with color and sound movies, but years would pass before they would be commercially successful. Not until 1922 did an all-color, feature-length motion picture make an appearance. And film audiences in general had to wait until 1927 to hear both dialogue and music combined in a commercial movie. Yet, the Photo-Drama of Creation was not without the color, the spoken word and the music. It was years ahead of its time, and millions saw it free of charge!

A fortune for those days—some $300,000—was spent by the Society in producing the Photo-Drama. And of the work involved, Russell wrote: “God kindly veiled our eyes as respects the amount of labor connected with the DRAMA. Had we foreknown the cost of time and money and patience necessary for the start we would never have begun it. But neither did we know in advance the great success that would attend the DRAMA.” Choice musical recordings and ninety-six phonograph-record talks were prepared. Stereopticon slides were made of fine art pictures illustrating world history, and it was necessary to make hundreds of new paintings and sketches. All the color slides and films had to be hand painted, some of this work being accomplished in the Society’s own Art Room. And, think of it! This had to be done repeatedly, for there were at least twenty four-part sets prepared, making it possible to show a portion of the Drama in eighty different cities on a given day.

What took place behind the scenes during exhibitions of the Photo-Drama of Creation? “The Drama started with a movie of Brother Russell,” says Alice Hoffman. “As he would appear on the screen and his lips began to move, a phonograph would be started at the precise moment and we would enjoy listening to his voice.”

The unfolding of a flower and the hatching of a chick were among the memorable features of the Photo-Drama movies. These examples of time-lapse photography truly impressed viewers. “At the same time that these pictures were being shown,” comments Karl F. Klein, “there was an accompaniment of very fine music, such gems as Narcissus and Humoreske.”

There were also many other things to remember. “Right now,” says Martha Meredith, “I see Noah and his family walking into the ark with the animals, and the picture of Abraham and Isaac walking to Mount Moriah where Abraham was going to offer his son as a sacrifice. When I saw Abraham put his son on the altar—this son he dearly loved—I shed tears. No wonder Jehovah called Abraham his friend . . . he knew that Abraham would obey his voice at all times.”—Jas. 2:23.

Besides the regular Photo-Drama of Creation, there were “Eureka Drama” outfits. One was made up of the ninety-six recorded lectures, as well as musical recordings. The other consisted of both the records and the slides. Though the latter Eureka Drama lacked motion pictures, it was very successful when shown in less densely populated areas.

During 1914 the Photo-Drama of Creation was shown free throughout the United States. This was very expensive, both for the Society and for the local Bible Students, who contributed money to rent suitable places for its exhibition. And so, in the course of time, it no longer was shown to large audiences. But the Photo-Drama of Creation had done a great work in acquainting persons with God’s Word and purposes.

To illustrate: In a letter to C. T. Russell, one person wrote: “My wife and I truly thank our heavenly Father for the great and priceless blessing which has come to us through your instrumentality. It was your beautiful Photo-Drama which was the cause of our seeing and accepting the truth as our own.” And Lily R. Parnell, tells us: “These pictorial demonstrations of Jehovah’s purposes for mankind aroused the interest of many thinking people so that the congregation [at Greenfield, Massachusetts] grew larger, since they made the Bible a living book and proved to thoughtful ones what precious information our God had provided for salvation to those who would avail themselves of his provision.”

Not without reason, therefore, has it been said by Demetrius Papageorge, long a member of the Society’s headquarters staff: “The Photo-Drama was a masterpiece of a project, when we consider the small number of Bible Students and the proportionately small amount of finances available. It really was Jehovah’s spirit behind it!”

- 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, WTB&TS

As the keenly anticipated year 1914 drew near, the preaching work did not slow down. A tour by Charles T. Russell in the late summer of 1913 embraced conventions in London and Glasgow. Speaking in London on August 4, 1913, he declared: “. . . the Gentile times will close with October, 1914—not a great while in the distance.” He expressed the belief that the ‘burning up’ to which the Bible refers would be “not a literal burning, but a time of trouble—that is the ‘fire’ spoken of by the apostles and prophets as being the feature which will close this present age, and the feature with which the new dispensation will be introduced.”

When the year 1914 broke, it found the Society intensely active and looking far forward. An entirely new project was launched. To drive home in a striking way truths the Bible Students had been proclaiming for forty years, “The Photo-Drama of Creation” entered the field. The first showing in Britain came in July 1914. The Society produced twenty complete outfits, each consisting of projectors, films, slides, screens, gramophones, records and scenarios. The complete program consisted of four two-hour exhibitions followed by a finale consisting of a lecture. Eighty shows could therefore run concurrently. The aim was to show the “Drama” in the best and largest theaters in the leading cities throughout the country. Advance superintendents made contracts with theater managers. A publicity superintendent followed up and made arrangements for an extensive advertising campaign. Then came the opening superintendent. His task was to check arrangements and make sure all operating details were satisfactory. Finally came the operators to carry out the meeting routine, arrange for the distribution of scenarios and free booklets and to plan for follow-up on all turning in their names as being interested.

The usual plan was for Part 1 of the “Drama” to be run for a full week in any given location. Then Part 2 was shown for the second week, and so on for the four. A fifth session was given over to a final lecture. Of course, the time available had much to do with how long each session of the “Photo-Drama” showing would be. Brother Russell was himself present for the start of the showings in London, where packed houses enjoyed the presentation very much. Then Russell and his party traveled to Glasgow and other Scottish cities to start this new work there also.

The London Opera House, Kingsway, was thought to be an ideal place for the series, but it was taken for granted that the cost would place it out of bounds. However, in October 1914 came an offer from the management for a period, October 12-27, for a fee of £100. The Society seized this opportunity. The brothers in London rose to the occasion and, with only a week to go, managed to distribute some four hundred thousand “Drama” tracts before the opening day. These tracts were really small newspapers copiously illustrated with scenes from the particular part of the “Drama” advertised, and they contained a great deal of descriptive and other reading matter. Also used for advertising the occasion were a large number of window cards and circulars. Brothers called on business houses, stores, hotels, hospitals and all places likely to engage a large staff and supplied them with a quantity of show cards and admission tickets.

There were a great number of box seats available at the Opera House. So special invitation cards were sent out to the aristocracy and people of good address in London. As a result, the boxes were nearly always filled by a class of people, including titled people, that the “Drama” had not hitherto reached. Two bishops were known to have attended. Interest continued to mount as the series at the Opera House progressed. The finale came on Tuesday, October 27, when more than one thousand attended in the afternoon. In the evening the Opera House was again packed and hundreds were turned away, unable to gain admission. Later, the Royal Albert Hall in London was also used for “Drama” presentations. The first seven days’ attendance ran up to 24,192. The report of the showing of the “Photo-Drama” in Scotland at this time indicated that forty-five towns were visited, including Glasgow, with an aggregate attendance of three hundred thousand. The number of names of interested persons handed in at final lectures totaled 4,919.

Following tours of England and Scotland, the “Photo-Drama of Creation” was presented to large appreciative audiences in Belfast, Portadown, Ballymena and other centers in Ireland. The Society also provided a shortened version of the “Drama” with no films or moving pictures, but with slides only. That exhibition was known as the Eureka Drama. These showings too drew substantial crowds of interested persons.

By the end of 1914, after six months of showing the “Drama” in the British Isles, 1,226,650 had seen the exhibition in ninety-seven cities besides London. The spread of the Kingdom message by this and by the regular house-to-house visitation by the Bible Students had resulted in a great expansion of the organization in the British Isles. When the first world war broke out, there were 182 congregations, and the attendance at the Memorial that year amounted to 4,100. But drastic developments were imminent, not only in the world situation, but also within the Society.

- 1973 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, WTB&TS

Expanding the Proclamation of the Good News

In 1912, Russell and his associates embarked on a bold educational venture that was far ahead of its time. In fact, it was to reach millions of people worldwide. It was the “Photo-Drama of Creation”—a combination motion picture and slide presentation, synchronized with musical recordings and phonograph-record talks. It was about eight hours in length and was presented in four parts. Besides the regular “Photo-Drama,” the “Eureka Drama,” consisting of either the recorded lectures and musical recordings or the records plus the slides, was also made available. Though it lacked motion pictures, it was successfully presented in less densely populated areas.

Imagine the historic scene: In January 1914, during the era of silent movies, an audience of 5,000 gathered at The Temple, a building on West 63rd Street, in New York City. Many others had to be turned away. The occasion? Why, the premiere in New York of the “Photo-Drama of Creation”! Before the audience was a large motion-picture screen. As they watched—and listened—something truly amazing happened. C. T. Russell, then in his early 60’s, appeared on the screen. His lips began to move, and his words could be heard! As the presentation continued, it took those in attendance—by means of words, color pictures, and music—from earth’s creation to the end of Christ’s Millennial Reign. During the presentation they also saw (by means of time-lapse photography) other things that astounded them—the unfolding of a flower and the hatching of a chick. They were truly impressed!

By the end of 1914, the “Photo-Drama” had been presented before millions of persons in North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. The “Photo-Drama” certainly proved to be an effective means of reaching masses of people in a relatively short period of


The “Photo-Drama of Creation” combined motion pictures and a slide presentation, synchronized with sound. This striking presentation took the audience from the time of creation to the end of the Millennium.

At least 20 four-part sets were prepared, making it possible for a part of the “Photo-Drama” to be shown in 80 different cities each day. It was a real challenge to fill those 80 engagements. Train schedules were not always convenient. Congregations could not always rent exhibition locations on the desired dates. Yet, by the end of 1914, the “Photo-Drama” had been presented to audiences totaling over 9,000,000 in North America, Europe, and Australia.

- Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom (1993), WTB&TS


The Angelophone recordings

With the success of the Photodrama in mind, and the realisation that records were now highly popular, a few Bible Students set up the Angelico Company in 1916. Ostensibly it was to manufacture and sell phonographs, but with each purchase came a set of 50 Angelophone recordings. For some reason they were numbered 49-98, although it is certain that no 1-48 were ever issued. The records were small seven inch discs using the ‘hill and dale’ method to squeeze two minutes on a side at 85 rpm. They were advertised as ‘Old Fireside Hymns’ sung by the celebrated baritone Henry Burr. On the reverse side (also at 85 rpm) were a series of two minute sermons to explain the hymns. These were uncredited, but were Pastor Russell’s own voice. Those who had questions could write to a ‘Free Information Bureau for Angelophone Patrons’. This of course was the Watch Tower Society.

It must have sounded a good idea on paper; reaching people who might be prejudiced by the words Watch Tower. In practice, it was a disaster!

For a start, Henry Burr sounds rather the worse for wear. The hymns contain some high notes that his baritone had considerable difficulty in reaching. Limited to two minutes many hymns were abridged. The reverse side, Pastor Russell’s short sermons – and the only reason the Bible Students would purchase – was even worse! Russell was now in very poor health and died in October 1916. His voice, unsuitable for the Photodrama, was even more unsuitable now. The recordings were very poorly made, and today (without a transcript) much of what is said is indecipherable. It appears to have been the same at the time because complaints flooded in, and the Watch Tower had to announce they had been re-recorded. This time, Harry Humphries was hired again. His voice was slightly slower, so the speed for his recordings was reduced to 80 rpm. There is some improvement, but not a lot, and the records soon ceased production. The Angelophone Hymnal disappeared from the Society’s cost list after 1919.

Note for collectors: there are two issues. The first issue has dark blue paper labels for the ‘Old Fireside Hymns’ and an embossed title for the lectures given (uncredited) by Russell. The second issue has light blue paper labels for the hymns (the words ‘Old Fireside’ are omitted) and off-white paper labels for the lectures given (uncredited) by Humphries.

Taken from “The Watchtower (IBSA) Recordings” published in “The Historic Record” issue 27 (dated April 1993) with kind permission of the author.

- Posted by jerome at Thursday, September 01, 2011 - Watch Tower History @