The World's First Motion Picture Studio, the Black Maria, Celebrates Grand Re-Opening in West Orange, BJ

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West Orange, New Jersey

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Michelle Salazar

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West Orange, NJ – April 10, 2024 – Join Thomas Edison National Historical Park (NHP) staff at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 20 for the official re-opening of the Black Maria, a replica of the world’s first motion picture studio. Immediately following the ribbon cutting, Barnard College senior Caroline Itzkoff will speak on “Thomas Edison: America’s First Mass Media Mogul.”

As part of National Park Week, Thomas Edison NHP will be fee-free on Saturday, April 20.

A National Park Service (NPS) preservation crew has been rehabilitating the Black Maria over the past two years. Funded by the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) at a cost of $161,218.03, the work performed by a maintenance action team (MAT) included floor, window, and door repairs, new exterior sheathing, electrical upgrades, and a ramp for universal access.

GAOA is part of a concerted effort to address extensive deferred maintenance and repair needs in national parks. Supported by revenue from energy development, GAOA provides the NPS with up to $1.3 billion per year for five years to make significant enhancements in national parks to ensure their preservation and provide opportunities for recreation, education, and enjoyment for current and future visitors. Several geographically based MATs of skilled NPS craftspeople travel to national parks to train and work alongside park staff to complete maintenance rehabilitation and repair projects on historic structures. The park’s partner, Edison Innovation Foundation, generously supported the electrical upgrades and public access ramp.

Completed in February 1893, the original Black Maria included a pivot that allowed the building to revolve around a circular track and a roof that could be raised and lowered – features that allowed maximum sunlight exposure to the scenes filmed inside. The staff nicknamed the studio the “Black Maria” because it resembled prison wagons of the day which had the same nickname.

Edison’s motion picture experimenters William K.L. Dickson and William Heise produced between 200 and 300 films in the studio, including the first recorded sneeze, the first kiss, and the first dance. When film production shifted to studios in New York, the Black Maria fell into disuse, and the company dismantled it in 1903. The Thomas Alva Edison Foundation constructed the current Black Maria replica in 1954 to commemorate Edison’s contributions to motion pictures.

The re-opening of the Black Maria represents the first public access since the mid-1980s, when the building was used to exhibit films. As part of the rehabilitation, new exhibits and interpretive panels were added, including a replica film backdrop (laundry storefront), a replica kinetograph (film camera), replica kinetoscopes (early devices for viewing films), a video exhibit of select films produced in the Black Maria, and period clothes and hats that allow visitors to create their own films or selfies.

Caroline Itzkoff is a senior Film and History major at Barnard College of Columbia University. She has just finished her senior undergraduate thesis on Thomas Edison’s relationship with his attorney, Frank L. Dyer. Itzkoff also has written a short one-act play and produced and directed multiple theater and film productions at Columbia. After graduation in May, Itzkoff will continue her research on Edison at Cambridge University, pursuing a Master of Philosophy in History.

For more information about Thomas Edison NHP, please visit our website at www.nps.gov/edis.