Camera Phone Theatre: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

When I went to grammar school, history classes were still mostly dates and timelines featuring armed conflicts, colonialist expansion, and (what I liked best) invention stories. We learned about mechanical ingenuity ushering in the industrial revolution, facilitating economic expansion, and with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, leading to increased enslavement of millions of people. (Actually, the nuns at Star of the Sea didn’t emphasize that last part.)

Often tossed into the list of important technological achievements—perhaps because it seemed more relevant to a 1970s fourth grader—were motion pictures and the break-through addition of sound to feature films with Al Jolson in the The Jazz Singer in 1927. (His character in minstrel blackface for the big number was something else the textbooks and nuns didn’t get into).

But a decade before the introduction of “talkies,” audiences could hear film characters love, declaim, and wax poetic at the Camera Phone theatre, which opened in 1908 on Fillmore Street with “Pictures that talk like Living People!” 

Camera Phone Theatre, 1908.The Camera Phone Theatre on west side of Fillmore Street between Ellis and Eddy Streets, 1908. (wnp5.50463; Jack Tillmany Collection.)

In 1908, motion pictures were still somewhat a novelty and theatres such as the Camera Phone operated out of simple storefronts. This was just a couple of years after the great earthquake and fire, and Fillmore Street, beyond the burned zone, established itself as major commercial corridor while downtown was being reconstructed. Decorative iron archways spanned intersections and many clothing and furnishings stores moved to Fillmore Street after the fires. 

Fillmore Street near Eddy, 1908.View south at iron arches and Great White Fleet decorations at Fillmore and Eddy Streets, 1908. (wnp26.2082; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

The arrival of the U.S. Navy’s “Great White Fleet” had the whole city decorated with flags, bunting, warship artwork, and in the photo of the Camera Phone at top, a decorative curbside pillar with a battleship model. The image is from the collection of theatre historian Jack Tillmany, who explained on the excellent San Francisco Theatres blog 1908 talking picture “technology”:

“Simple. Hire a company of live people to read the words in synch (more or less) with the players on the screen in films, which they accompanied around the country! No microphones yet, so they used megaphones! Impractical? Just a bit, from a number of points of view; for instance, how much did they pay the speakers, and how and where did the cost of their travel & boarding come from? Even if they raised the admission from 5 cents to 10 cents, a capacity audience would only yield $50. But there was actually a circuit of such sites across the country, for a short time! And the films only ran one reel (about 15 minutes).”

Just across the street from the Camera Phone, the operators of the rival Electric Theatre brought in their own sound in the form of the “Human Ova Talking Picture Co.” 

Electric Theatre, 1909.Human Ova Talking Picture Co. cast in front of the Electric Theatre on east side of Fillmore Street between Ellis and Eddy Streets, December 1909. (wnp5.50504; Jack Tillmany Collection.)

The gimmick wasn’t around for long. Both the Camera Phone and Electric closed by 1912, victims of poor business and increased fire department regulations. In 2019, the block is occupied by residential towers, the Fillmore Heritage Center, and storefronts built in the mid-2000s.