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‘Music, Movies & Dance with Edison & Ford’ exhibit opens

By Staff | Sep 25, 2009

When most people think of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, the light bulb and the automobile come to mind. Though these ventures are worthy of the recognition received, Edison and Ford had a wide variety of interests, both business and personal. Many projects Edison and Ford created converged, overlapped and enhanced their own personal lives, and the lives of thousands of others. Some of their ventures were very personal and very surprising.

A new exhibit at the Edison & Ford Winter Exhibit in Fort Myers, “Music, Dance and Movies with Edison and Ford,” introduces some of these surprising interests and inventions that show how music, movies and dance wove deeply through their lives and their inventions.

The exhibit includes dozens of examples of Edison’s phonographs and movie equipment, Ford’s interest in dance and his published dance and music books, and even an antique piano for live performances of the music and dance of their era.

The exhibit opened on Sept. 20 and throughout the next year, the historic site will present performances of dance, music, film festivals and other programs that show the varied music, movie and dance interest of both inventors.


Edison’s goal was to create a machine to record and play back the human voice not only for entertainment, but for business, teaching, toys and documentation. Though Edison created a demonstration phonograph by 1879, it was not until 1887 that he returned his focus to its potential. Many businesses found the machine too complex, and some companies found it to be profitable by using the phonograph for entertainment purposes.

By 1889, Edison began to use musical recording to promote the phonograph. He also recognized the needed to produce the records and began to focus on creating the best type of record, as well as to select the best musicians and singers to record. Edison continued in the phonograph business until 1929, finally conceding to the radio. He often admitted that the phonograph was his favorite invention (and Edison was deaf from an early age).


Even with his work and success with the phonograph, Edison did not think motion pictures would have commercial success. He actually had the idea of motion pictures in the late 1870s, but it was not until 1888 that his interest peaked again. He focused on making an “instrument which should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by a combination of the two, all motion and sound could be recorded and reproduced simultaneously,” but was unclear of the potential for this machine as entertainment.

Edison relied on the earlier work of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge to create moving images from still photographs. He asked his staff photographer, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, to develop a machine to project images. Working with several other staff, a demonstration machine was completed by 1891. The first film studio, the Black Maria, was running by 1894. Later that year, 25 kinetoscopes were sold for commercial use. Andrew and Edwin Holland purchased 10 at $200 each and opened a kinetoscope parlor in Manhattan. Charging five cents to view each machine, they made $120 the first day.

As the industry started to form and films became longer, the cost for production and distribution increased. Edison decided to get out of the movie business in 1918, and sold the studio to Lincoln & Parker Film Company. Edison created integral equipment, as well as over 4000 pictures, and became the first honorary member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1929.


As Edison moved on to other ventures and exited the phonograph and motion picture business, his good friend Henry Ford began a new endeavor into music and dance. The story is told that in 1924 a group of friends sat at the Ford’s Fair Lane home in Michigan one evening telling stories, and Clara Ford said to her husband Henry, “[W]e have danced very little since we have been married.” Looking to do something about that, they planned to hold a Halloween party in the Ford family homestead barn. After that, the Fords never stopped dancing.

Ford brought dance instructor Benjamin Lovett was brought to Detroit from Massachusetts in 1924 as his “dance master.” Lovett, along with his wife Charlotte, stayed in Detroit until 1945. Throughout these twenty years Lovett taught traditional dance to the Ford family, friends, staff and local school children. The school dance program expanded across the country. Ford considered dancing to be a form of social training for boys and girls, saying to Lovett, “Courtesy makes friends and good manners keep them.” Ford loved to dance and to play the instruments and to write the music. It became part of his life.

In conjunction with the traditional dance, Ford also revived traditional music. He organized the Early American Dance Orchestra to accompany the dancers. The core instruments in his orchestra were the violin, cymbalum, dulcimer and sousaphone; sometimes added were the banjo, guitar, xylophone or accordion. The public was able to enjoy Ford’s love of music when The Early American Dance Music radio program broadcasted from January 1944 through July 1945, with Lovett calling the steps. Ford’s book, “Good Morning After A Sleep Of 25 Years Old Fashioned Dancing Is Being Revived,” a collection of music and dances published by Lovett and Ford, was a huge success during his life and today reproductions are available in bookstores and the Estates Museum Store.

At Ford’s winter home in Fort Myers (next door to his friend Thomas Edison), he reputedly regularly removed all of the furnishings from the home and guests would dance from live and recorded music and Henry Ford himself would call the steps.

Visitors to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates today can wander through the exhibit “Music, Movies and Dance with Edison & Ford” and the homes of the famous men and experience their lives and their varied interests.

The Estates is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Estates was awarded the National Trust for Historic Preservation Award in 2008 and is an official project of “Save America’s Treasures” at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Florida Historic Landmark and a National Register Historic Site.

For additional information call 239-334-7419 or visit their Web site at www.efwefla.org.