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Foreshadowing the Silent Movie

By Henry Voigt

The Grandon Hotel opened in Helena, Montana in 1885 when there was still gold in nearby Last Chance Gulch. The daily table d’hote dinner at the Grandon typically began with oysters that were delivered by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Oysters were shelled and packed in containers on the East Coast and shipped to small towns all over the country where they were unpacked and placed back on the half shells for serving. Americans were then crazy about oysters. Per capita consumption in the United States reached 660 oysters per year in the late nineteenth century. In addition to Blue Points, this special dinner on Thanksgiving in 1897 features caviar, green turtle soup, planked whitefish, and a haunch of venison. What is particularly interesting about this menu is the cover which reflected the imminent arrival of the silent movie.

The menu is printed on card stock made by the C. E. Morrell Co. in Elmira, New York. The melodramatic scene on the cover shows a well-dressed couple bringing a basket of food to a poor wretch. The custom of photographing staged scenes had roots going back to the 1840s when people had to remain motionless for minutes to accommodate long exposure times. The quiet display of costumed subjects, which were called tableaus, became a popular form of entertainment at social events. The custom was even adopted in theater productions where the actors held a pose at the end of each act. However, the photograph on the menu is different in that it captures the dynamic moment of a drama, making it look more like a movie still than a static tableau. Although motion pictures were still a novelty in penny arcades, four thousand small cinemas called nickelodeons would soon begin to open across the country.