Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897 © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from www.parisenimages.fr
We return, after something of a gap, to Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor, whose reminiscences, written in 1926 for the Kinematograph Weekly, are a rich source of information on early film business practice. Here Turner discusses exhibition in the late 1890s, with particular reference to the effects of the Bazar de la Charité fire:
The First Exhibitors
The earliest exhibitors were fairground showmen, magic lantern lecturers, and men who earned their living by giving private entertainments. The theatres and music-halls took to pictures as a nine-day wonder which would have its day and die.
I remember a time about the end of 1897 when there was not a single music-hall or theatre showing pictures in London. It was only a temporary lull, however, chiefly caused through the lack of subjects. With the advent of the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope, and the American Bioscope, the pictures became a permanent installation in the music-halls in London, but the early showmen and lantern lecturers were the men who were making the pictures popular all over the country.
These were the men who had sunk their little all in the Industry, and they kept pegging away, believing that it must eventually win out, and that the subjects would not be confined to 40 or 50 ft. lengths, but whole stories would be filmed.
The great bar to progress was the difficulty of getting new subjects except by buying them outright, and I think my partner and myself solved the problem for the world by instituting the renting system. Little did we think that that system would spread all over the wide world, and grow to the great business it is to-day.
In those first days we only did it spasmodically, because we had very few customers, but later on when the pictures had caught on, and village halls, churches, and chapels were taking up the pictures and giving regular weekly displays, our hire system grew rapidly. We would buy as many as ten and twelve prints of a film, which was entitled “Landing an Old Lady From a Small Boat.” Our first regular hirer was Ted Lacey, of Barnards M.H. Chatham. My first customer to buy films was Mr. Henderson, of Newcastle.
This is George Henderson, of Stockton, whose surviving film collection is held by British Movietone News and available to view from their website. There’s information on this important early film collection in an earlier post, Movietone and Henderson.
We then extended operations to the entertainment bureaus, such as:- Whiteley’s, Keith Prowse, Harrods, Gamage, Webster and Girling, H.L. Toms, Woods, of Cheapside, Ashton and Mitchell, Army and Navy Stores, the Church Mission Halls, Salvation Army, the Leysian Mission, City Road, and many more whose names at the moment I cannot remember, and after thirty years, we still do business with practically all the above-named firms.
The most disastrous fire that has ever occurred in our Trade took place on May 4, 1897. It is still remembered as the Paris fire. No fewer than 130 people lost their lives in the panic and stampede which occurred, and amongst those killed were the Duchess d’Alençon (sister of the Empress of Austria), Duke d’Aumale, Baron d’Sainte Didier, and General Munier (or Muiner). The Life Assurance losses were paid as to two-thirds American companies and the remaining one-third French – the total being twelve million francs, which, in that day, represented £480,000.
The kinematograph got the blame of this fire, but it actually occurred after the operator had finished giving his display of films, and was showing some slides. He was using an ether saturator, which was giving out, and he started to replenish same by pouring fresh ether in, and, of course, at once the fumes caught fire. The exhibition was being given in a large marquee. It was decorated with inflammable material, and soon the whole was one roaring mass of flame. The tent contained bazaar stalls, etc., and the bazaar was patronised by the principal nobility and well-known people of France – which explains the enormous sums paid by the life insurance companies.
The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from www.parisenimages.fr
This was the notorious fire of 4 May 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris, at which a Joly film projector had been used. As Turner correctly recalls, the fire was not caused by the cinematograph but instead by a Molteni ether lamp, but the calamity was swiftly associated with motion pictures, and caused great damage to the reputation of the medium.
This had the effect of making the Insurance Companies look askance at the kinematograph; and the mere mention of the word sent a shudder through the official minds. The public memory, however, is very short, and the desire for amusement great, and as new subjects arrived on the scene, slowly but surely, we overcame these difficulties.
Within a month of this happening I had an engagement at the St. Martin’s Town Hall. On the afternoon, I presented byself with an apparatus at the hall, and the dismay on the face of the official when he saw it was a kinematograph, accompanied by cylinders of gas, can be well imagined.
He informed the authorities at once, and one official informed me that the display could not be given. After half-an-hour, I got their sanction – they only giving way because they had failed to give notice that they would not permit a kinematograph.
The following week a resolution was passed that no kinematograph should ever be allowed in the hall again, and I believe that this is so even up to the present time. I am the only person who has ever given a display in the Westminster Town Hall, St. Martin’s Lane.
(To be continued)
The memoirs so far have been taken from the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1926, pp. 53-54, and further installments will follow in due course. You can follow the earlier installments here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.