Continuous performance


Continuous Performance: Going to the Cinema a Hundred Years Ago is an exhibition marking the centenary of cinema-going in Britain. Well, we can argue the point whether 1909-2009 is any real sort of centenary, since pedants like me would point to the first British cinemas having appeared in London in 1906 (specifically, the Daily Bioscope opposite Liverpool Street Station gets my vote as cinema no. 1), but 1909 was undoubtedly the year when the phenomenon undoubtedly took off in a huge way and started to make such a great impact upon society.


The exhibition is taking place at the Templeman Library, University of Kent, Canterbury, as part of the Canterbury Festival. The exhibition celebrates the first film shows and their audiences through cameras, projectors, books, photographs, fan magazines, and other ephemera from the early years of the cinema. The exhibition has been put together by Dr Nicholas Hiley, head of the university’s world-renowned British Cartoon Archive and a great collector of early cinema apparatus and memorabilia. The Bioscope plans to visit the exhibition soon and to review it in detail, but as that may take a week or two as yet, do note that it is open Friday 2 Oct – Friday 6 Nov, Mon-Fri 8.45am – 10pm, Sat-Sun 12pm – 7pm. Admission is free, and you get to visit the fair city of Canterbury into the bargain.

Tell me Grandpa


It’s been quite a while since we have an extract from one of the memoirs of early cinema-going that I like to collect. So here’s something from Josef Morrell’s Tell Me Grandpa, published in 1981. Morrelwas born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham, London. His memoirs cover the period from pre-war to the 1920s, and includes this really well-observed sequence on the child’s experience of the early cinema. Although what he recalls tooks place in the 1910s, I’m struck with how much something like this remained the experience of children’s cinema for decades afterwards. Certainly anyone like me who can remember children’s Saturday morning film shows in the (late) 1960s and early 70s (when they died out in the UK) should recognise the happy blend of anarchy and enthalment at the thrills and spills on the screen:

However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

‘Elmo the Mighty’ is Elmo Lincoln, who would become the cinema screen’s first Tarzan.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Goldman concludes with an interesting insight into the difference between the child’s and the adult’s cinema-going experience, indicating the way in which cinema had moved from its earlier, rumbustious state to an ordered world where social pressures demanded conformity.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

A delightful piece, I hope you’ll agree, evocative and informative.

So you want to open a motion picture theatre?


So, as promised, it’s cinema month here at the Bioscope, and let’s kick things off with a guide to operating your own motion picture theatre, produced in 1912, which is going into the Bioscope Library.

James F. Hodges’ Opening and Operating a Motion Picture Theatre: How it is Done Successfully is available from the Internet Archive. It was produced as a basic manual for the opportunist. As Hodges writes in his introduction:

This book is written with the view of giving to the novice in the Motion Picture Business information that will be of service to him in his efforts, and which might require much time and labor on his part to obtain. It is written not so much to guide the man in the business as it is to guide him who contemplates engaging in the business. In it is contained much information that will open his eyes at once to important matters at the beginning, so that he may start right.

This is a guide therefore in the mould of those similar texts from the time which encouraged the gullible to believe that they could become actors or screenplay writers for the price of the dollar that the book would cost them. Many at this time looked upon the cinema as an easy route to quick riches, with elementary set-up procedures and costs, to be followed by an endless procession of huddled masses with their nickels yearning for the silver screen. In truth, by 1912 the initial rush of cinema speculation was over, and Hodges’ guide is for those who had come a little too late to the party. But it is all the more interesting for how it explains the business to one who it assumes knows little or nothing about motion pictures.

Firstly, he lures the keen investor in with the promise of riches:

There are approximately 14,000 picture theatres in the United States, and these give two shows, at least, an evening and seat an average of 500 people for the two performances; thus 7,000,000 people patronize the picture theatres and combination picture and vaudeville theatres each evening. Figuring the admission averaging 7 1/2 cents, which is reasonable, for while the 5c. houses are in the majority, the higher priced theatres accommodate larger audiences, it will be seen that more than $500,000 is taken in nightly.

This does not take into consideration those houses that are open from 11 A.M. and from 1 P.M. on. This would add considerably to these figures probably 50% or about $300,000,000 per annum. More than $50,000,000 is invested in the Motion Picture industry in this country outside of the picture theatres. Seventy-five to one hundred negative films are made each week and more than 3,000 positives, to supply the demand of the 14,000 picture houses.

Interesting figures, but they assume that every cinema was full all the time, which was seldom the case. He goes on to advise over location (“The best place to locate a Motion Picture house is, of course, on a street with plenty of traffic, or just around the corner from a busy thoroughfare”), management, competition, audiences (“A manager will gain a pretty fair knowledge of the effect of his program upon his business by watching the audience as it passes out”), how films are rented from a film exchange (“A film service is generally made up of films of different ages. One film may be a week old, the next may be three weeks old and the third may be three months old. The price you pay for service will determine what service you get”) and the new phenomenon of the feature film.


Example of an attractive theatre front from Opening and Operating a Motion Picture Theatre

More follows on how to convert your building into a motion picture theatre (“It is absolutely essential, after deciding upon your location, to have plans of alterations submitted to the bureau of buildings, which will inspect the premises and pass upon seating capacity, material construction, etc.”), layout, lighting, seating (“For a small place 299 chairs are generally installed. This is because in most states the license for houses containing less than 300 seats is much lower than for houses containing over 300 seats”), projection equipment and electricity (here the book gets surprisingly technical), the screen, advertising, song slides, music (he recommends having an automatic piano in case the pianist fails to turn up), side-line revenues, and he gives these costs for salaries:

Machine operator, $15 to $24 per week
Pianist, $12 to $20 per week
Ticket seller, $6 to $8 per week
Ticket taker, $8 to $10 per week
Porter, $7 to $10 per week
Manager (probably yourself)

To this list may be added, if required:

Singer, $12 to $25 per week
Violinist, $10 to $20 per week
Drummer, $12 to $15 per week
Usher, $3 to $8 per week

Particularly interesting are the overall costs that he gives for costs for operating a small motion picture theatre:


So, are you tempted? If so, then James F. Hodges is waiting for you, because at the end of his book he gives you an address and tells you that he has a number of theatres throughout the United States available for sale, or he can join you up with a syndicate, if you can indicate how much money you are willing to invest. I wonder who tore out the form at the end of the book in answer to his call?



Milton Rosmer in A Romance of Wastdale (1921), from Ivan Butler, Silent Magic (1987)

Well I’m back from all too brief a sojourn in the Lake District, where my mind was on hills and dales and becks and crags, and not much on silent films. But the medium can pursue you wherever you may be, and though you might think the Lake District is the last place where you could expect silent cinema associations, they are there. To begin with, there’s the splendid still reproduced above, which comes from the only silent drama set in the area (so far as I know). A Romance of Wastdale (1921) was a British film, directed by Maurice Elvey for Stoll and starring Milton Rosmer and Valya Venitskaya (aka Valia). The film no longer exists, but Ivan Butler in his superlative book Silent Magic recalled seeing it:

Another adaptation from a well-known author, A.E.W. Mason’s A Romance of Wastdale (directed by Maurice Elvey), a grim tale of jealousy and revenge among the Lakeland mountains, was weakened by having the events turned into a dream; but it generated enough tension between the small group of characters to make certain scenes stick in the memory. The photography has a grey, gritty quality which admirably suits the circumstances, preserved in a fine still featuring Milton Rosmer.

Would that he had told which scenes impressed him so, and would that the film survived. It would be good to know more about its production. Jack Cox was the man responsible for the gritty cinematography. Wastdale (or Wasdale) is the area between Scafell Pike and Wast Water lake, by the way.

And then there’s Stan Laurel. OK, so the birthplace of Stanley Jefferson, Ulverston, is south of the Lake District, but not by much, and Ulverston is now home to the renowned Laurel & Hardy Museum. In the heart of the Lake District, in the town of Keswick, there is the cheerfully named The Cars of the Stars, a museum dedicated to famous vehicles from film and television. If you fell the urge to get up close to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Herbie, this is the place to go, and the exhibits include a Laurel and Hardy Model T and the sort-of-silent Mr Bean’s Mini.


The Alhambra, Keswick (in the rain)

Keswick is a small town (about 5,000 population), but it does boast a cinema, and one that has been in operation since 1913. The Lonsdale Alhambra, in St John’s Street, is a delight. It opened in 1913 and from its Edwardian facade it doesn’t look like it has changed much since then. The cinema provides a handy leaflet on its history, from which we learn that the Keswick Alhambra Theatre Co. Limited as registered with £2,000 capital on 27 May 1913. It was able to seat 595 people and showed one programme a day,with two changes of programme per week. Prices ranged from 4d to 1/3d. It had music, dancing and cinematograph licences, and variety acts performed alongside the films.

By 1916 it had a local rival, the gloriously named Queen of the Lakes Pavilion, around the corner in Station Street. In the 1920s it changed its name from the Alhambra Picture Theatre to simply the Alhambra, and converted for sound. It continued, taking over its rival the Pavilion in the 1940s, and enjoyed something of a boom with the arrival of holidaymakers in the 1950s discovering the Lake District for the first time. But hard times came, as they did across the cinema industry, and by the 1980s the Pavilion had closed and the Alhambra was shut during winter months. But it has survived, and hearteningly in 2006 it was leased to R.J. Towers & partners of Gretna, a business formed by former silent film pianist Towers.


Interior of the Lonsdale Alhambra. For more images, visit

Today the cinema seats 270, has Dolby stereo sound, and has an ambience that adroitly combines its past with the present. It has one or two screenings per day, and hosts the Keswick Film Club with its imaginative programme of world cinema titles. I saw District 9 (a proficient B-movie) in thoroughly comfortable circumstances and warmly recommend the place (though they should let the film credits roll through to the end, please). It also serves as an introduction for what is going to be cinema month here at the Bioscope. Alongside the usual reports and idle speculations, throughout October we will have a number of posts focussing on cinemas and the silent era, including publications, web resources, exhibitions and projects. Take your seats, and keep watching the screen.

(One last Lakeland connection – the Old Laundry Theatre at Bowness-on-Windermere has occasional silent film screenings, and on 21 November Neil Brand will be there accompanying a programme of Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton shorts)

From old Ireland


While sojourning in Dublin last month, I picked up a copy of a new film history which I’d managed to miss up until now. Denis Condon’s Early Irish Cinema 1895-1921, published by Irish Academic Press, describes itself as examining “early and silent cinema and its contexts in Ireland”. It is a history not just of film production in Ireland (at a time when politically it was still a part of the United Kingdom), but its exhibition and its social and cultural contexts as well. Although there have been several histories of Irish film which include accounts of filmmaking in the silent era, so far as I am aware this is the first book dedicated to the early and silent cinema period alone.

Irish film production in the silent era was small-scale (and has attracted little interest among film scholars except those from Ireland) but Condon argues the attention given to these films by Irish commentators suggests that they have “a symbolic significance far out of proportion to their numbers”. The first Irish-produced fiction films did not appear until 1913 – one-reelers made by Irish Film Productions such as Michael Dwyer and Love in a Fix – and did not seriously begin until 1916 with the formation of the Film Company of Ireland, which made O’Neil of the Glen (1916), Knocknagow (1918) and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920), the latter two of which survive. Irish-themed films were made in profusion in America, however, mostly notably by Kalem, which sent a company headed by Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier over to Ireland and made such titles as The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), Arrah-na-Pogue (1911), The Shaugraun (1912) and Come Back to Erin (1914) (the latter one of those made by the Gene Gauntier Players, rather than Kalem). On the non-fiction side, there was Irish production from early on with local views produced by exhibitiors such as James T. Jameson, through to Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, whose most interesting production was the newsreel Irish Events (1917-1920). Again, the greater number of Irish-themed non-fiction films came from outside, particularly British companies such as the Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company, which produced assorted travelogue series.

This history Condon covers in remarkable detail. There appear to be few documentary sources that he has not examined, and his notes and sources will be plundered by future researchers for years to come. However, though he piles on the detail, he has arranged the book most interestingly. Avoiding too slavish an adherence to chronology, he divides the book into chapter entitled ‘Retrospection and Projection’, ‘Theatre’, ‘Virtual Tourism’, ‘Participation’ and ‘The Great Institution of Kinematography’. These reflect Irish cinema’s roots, its cultural inheritance, the importance of external producers’ work, Irish production itself, and a larger conception of cinema which includes the distribution of films, their exhibition and reception. The construction makes think about how Irish cinema was constructed.

This is a worthwhile, rigorous academic study. It is based on a thesis (and reads like it), with arguments about the institutional and pre-institutional form of early cinema which are designed to appeal to the film studies crowd. But it is also jam-packed full of every sort of detail, fascinating to dig through, and comes with a very helpful filmography that includes both films extant and films lost. My thought on reading it was that, despite the author’s progressive historiographical aims, there is something about the national film history which is a little quaint these days. We’ve done with the histories of this country and that country’s films, or we should have done. If cinema history teaches us anything it is that distribution had to flow over borders, if films were to make money. Condon certainly looks beyond Irish film production, and admirably so, but it is what audiences saw (American films, largely unmentioned except for the Kalem films) and what those audiences were (mostly absent from his book) that is the heart of the matter, not what any one country made.

Conference diary


Newman House, Dublin

I was recently on my travels, attending a couple of conferences and a summer school, and this is my report. The first half of July was remarkably crowded with moving image-related conferences and other such events in the UK (and environs). Because of the jam-packed schedule, sadly I had to say no to the Visual Delights conference at Sheffield, on the theme of Visual Empires. This had an intriguing selection of papers surveying assorted lost empires and the media they sought to bend to their needs, with an encouraging number of new speakers (new to me, that is). Perhaps someone could say something about how they found the conference.

I also had to give a miss to Researching Cinema History: Perspectives and Practices, a symposium at Burlington House in London, which normally would have been right up my street, discussing as did the changes that seem to be happening to the historiography of cinema. For I was by then in Dublin, to speak to the Dublin James Joyce Summer School on Joyce and his fleeting management of the Volta cinema in Dublin in 1909 (centenary year, you see). This took place in the delightful Georgian building of Newman House, where they nervertheless managed to drum up a decent digital projector. The gathering of students looked a little bemused at times as I piled on the detail of how one went about managing (or mis-managing) a cinema in 1909, but they loved the film clips. A Cretinetti comedy (Come Cretinetti paga di debiti / An Easy Way to Pay Bills) and a scatalogical Pathé film C’est Papa qui à pris la purge, but could have been a film shown at the Volta entitled Beware of Castor Oil!, went down particularly well. The chances are now that it isn’t the film shown at the Volta, but it was certainly something like it (a man drinks his son’s castor oil medicine by mistake and gets caught short in assorted public places). In the end it was concluded that it was probably best that Joyce turned out to be such a poor cinema manager, because otherwise he’d have become a minor, prosperous businessman who never quite got round to writing that novel he’d been dreaming about, and none of them would have been there at such a summer school at all.


An uncredited Max Linder appearing in C’est Papa qui à pris la purge (1906)

And then it was off by plane to Birmingham followed by the epic train journey through Wales (anxiously following the first Test through text messages on the mobile phone) to get to the University of Aberystwyth for the Iamhist, or International Association for Media and History, conference, on the theme Social Fears and Moral Panics. Well, hard to go wrong with a theme like that, and there was a fine array of papers covering the multifarious ways in which the media acreates, reflects, perpetuates or addresses social fears – as well as being the subject of such fears itself. This was a particularly well-managed event, where for once I could find no complaint with any of the speakers that I heard (though surprisingly I encountered only one brave enough to try showing film clips) and all topics contributed usefully to the greater theme.

There wasn’t much on silent cinema, curiously enough, because the silent era had more than its fair share of moral panics – Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid etc – indeed early cinema in general was ubiquitously viewed as a social threat of the first order. But for the record I heard papers on the ‘quality’ press and its adversion to commercial radio (Richard Rudin), the battles to preserve the Welsh language through film (Kate Woodward), how Limerick newspapers helped and hindered the fight against the 1832 cholera epidemic (Michelle Mangan), the very topical print history of influenza (Penelope Ironstone-Catterall), local reporting on the Ottoman bankruptcy crisis of 1875 (Gul Karagoz-Kizilca), the fears aroused by the arrival of the telephone (Gabriele Balbi), the image of Marconi operators given in the pages of Wireless World (David Hendy), the ‘Lady Chatterly’ trial and its press coverage (Nick Thomas), the use of fear in British government public information films (Linda Kaye, the speaker with the film clips) and the 1950s obscentity campaign against British seaside postcards (Nick Hiley).

In fact, the only silent cinema subjects I encountered were James Burns speaking on early cinema and moral panic in various parts of the British Empire, amusingly pointing out how different countries ended up worried about different things (in South Africa they feared racial mixing, in Southern Rhodesia it was sexuality, in the West Indies it was images that diminshed British prestige that concerned them, in India they worried about the threat of motorised crime); and me. I spoke on How Working Men Spend their Spare Time, a social survey conducted by George Esdras Bevans in New York in 1912, which I’ve written about on the Bioscope before now. You can find a copy of the talk on my personal website, should you be interested.


An impassioned moment from the debate on regulation and the media, with (L-R) Nick Cull (chair), Martin Barker, Julian Petley and Sir Quentin Thomas

There was a silent film screening, however. We were in the heart of Wales, with the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales just down the road, so it was more than appropriate that we were treated to Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), previously described here in detail. The film was shown in NSSAW’s distinctively cylindrical Drwm cinema, and had Neil Brand playing the piano. A somewhat prolonged introduction over-sold the film, and it was a rather flat atmosphere that was created by an audience of worldy-wise media historians unaccustomed to adjusting their perceptions to the demands of silent film. In February when I saw the film at the British Library it was fresh and thrilling; here it seemed to drag, and its highlights seemed perfunctory. It’s the audience that makes the film, every time.

With the practice such conferences have of parallel sessions I missed many papers, while others I had to skip while putting together mine (a last-minute job, alas as usual with me). There were also plenary sessions: one on Government, Panics and Media Crisis (Virginia Berridge eloquent on AIDS, Merfyn Jones – former BBC governor – choosing his words with care but equally with feeling in recounting the fresh history of the Hutton enquiry into the Iraq war), and a thought-provoking session on Regulation and the Media, with Martin Barker on ‘disguised politics’, Julian Petley on the failure of the 1977 Williams committee which sought to change laws on obscenity, and an urbane turn from Sir Quentin Thomas of the British Board of Film Classification, who didn’t saying anything much but said it with authority.

My travels should then have taken me to Colour and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive at Bristol, but weariness overcame me. A shame, because this looked like an agenda-setting conference, with a remarkable range of papers mostly focussing on the aesthetic side of things. The publication of the papers would be very welcome.


The women’s 800 metres from De Olympische Spelen, the official film of the 1928 Olympic Games (a notorious event because one competitor – according to the evidence of the film – collapsed at the end of it, leading the event to be withdrawn from the Games until 1960 because it was thought to be too strenuous for women)

Instead, a few days later, I dragged myself to Pembroke College, Cambridge, for a conference held by the Sport in Modern Europe academic network. This was a select gathering of some of the leading sports historians, and I was somewhat dazzled to be in the same room as Richard (Sport and the British) Holt, Wray (Pay up and Pay the Game) Vamplew, and Kasia (Boxing: A Cultural History) Boddy. But no matter how wise in the ways of the world sports historians are generally, they welcome a bit of guidance when it comes to film, so that was my cue to speak to them about the films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games (again, as previously covered here at the Bioscope), with emphasis on the use of slow versus natural motion and whether the sports filmmakers of the silent era were more interested in athletic records or idealised athletic motion (a bit of both, really).

So there you are – a couple of weeks in the life of the roving academic, and illustration of just where film can take you because it has this marvellous facility to reflect – and illuminate – all subjects. Which is perhaps why James Joyce was drawn to it, why the workingmen of New York in 1912 preferred it far above any competing leisure attraction, and why the seemingly plain records of the Olympic Games of the 1920s grow all the more fascinating the more you try to unpick them.

Going to the show


Postcard of the Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., 1914, from Going to the Show

Though there are some who would deny it, cinema history involves the history of cinemas. The study of a medium that ignores the social form in which it has been consumed is a blinkered one, yet sadly so much of film studies exists in just such state of denial. Happily there has been a concerted effort by a dedicated band of academics in recent years to investigate cinema-going as an integral part of cinema history. Inspired in the first place by Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie in the United States (1992), the school uses socio-historial tools to analyse the experience of movie-going through patterns of audience types (age, gender, race, class), venue locations, social mobility, transportation links, purchasing power, leisure time and competing attractions. The significant output from such investigations has become the database which maps and documents particular territories. We’ve already had Cinema Context for the Netherlands and the London Project for the early film business in London. Now we have Going to the Show for North Carolina, 1896-1930.

This is a fabulous resource. It is going to make many other places wish that they had something much the same. Going to the Show “documents and illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930)”. At its heart are 750 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of forty-five towns and cities in North Carolina between 1896 and 1922 that locate film venues within general urban life. All of these are mapped to a database (a welcome feature for the specialist is that not only are all the database fields explained but the database relationship diagram is given) to which have been added photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, architectural drawings, advertisements and more. It totals over 1,300 film venues across two hundred communities.


Film venues marked on Sanborn fire insurance map for Burlington, N.C.

As said, Going to the Show is based around fire insurance maps, and gives this explanation of their provenance and use:

From 1867 to 1977, the Sanborn® Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced large-scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities in North America to assist fire insurance companies in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented each built structure in those districts, its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example). The intervals between new map editions for a given town or city in the early decades of the twentieth century varied according to the pace and scale of urban growth — from a few years to more than five years. In all, Sanborn® produced 50,000 editions comprising some 700,000 individual map pages. Because almost all early movie theaters were repurposed from an existing retail space located in the commercial heart of a town or city, they appear on thousands of Sanborn® map pages after 1906. Larger, purpose-built theaters were included in later Sanborn® maps.

Going to the Show takes these precise records of film venues and marries them to Google Maps, with all the familiar tools of zoom-in, zoom-out, scan across and marking of venues with hyperlinks to further information. But it is the range of extra information that makes Going to the Show so powerful. Map searches can be refined by year, venues and period in which the venue was active, while you can select whether to view modern or historical map with an opacity slider, and bring in current street names. Each venue is marked with a Ticket icon, which links you to additional information.


New Bern, N.C. shown through modern Google map and Sanborn fire insurance map, pinpointng the Dixie Theatre 1913-1918 catering for African American audiences only

A major aspect of the research has been the racial division of film venues. Keen to demonstrate how race conditioned the experience of movie-going for all North Carolinians – white, African American and American Indian – the resource extends beyond the silent era to document every known African American film venue in North Carolina operational between 1908 and 1963.

What distinguishes Going to the Show is its attention to database searching and presentation. The faceted browse option shows how you can refine searches by item type (Architectural Drawing, City Directory, Commentary, Illustration, Newspaper, Organization, Overlay Map, Periodical, Person, Photograph, Postcard, Typescript, Venue),
location (by City, County or Region), venue name, date (allowing for searching by decade), and keyword or tag (including such useful terms as admission price, boxing films, children, fire, influenza, penny arcade, racial policy, religious objection and separate entrance). The tag ‘notable’ leads you to some of the choice items, such as this 1897 press notice saying that owing to the popularity of the Edison Projectoscope at the Wilmington Opera House that the dress circle will be reserved for “colored citizens”:


Wilmington Star, 20 March 1897

And there’s more. Robert C. Allen, James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies, History, and Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the presiding genius behind Going to the Show, has produced an eye-catching timeline for Wilmington, N.C., chronicling and commenting upon twenty-six venues from 1897 to the end of racial segregation in 1954. Business papers from this period are a rarity, and another very welcome feature is the Joyland Theatre Ledger, the manager’s ledger from 28 September 1910, to 14 January 1911, including expenses and ticket receipts.


Going to the Show is handsomely and sensibly presented. It merits detailed study. It has been produced as one of a number of University of North Carolina digital resources under the title Documenting the South. It ought to be the springboard for much further research, not simply within film/cinema studies, but as part of that general social history of which film history needs to be a part. This is the point – that so much of film history speaks only to those who know about film. It constricts itself to a narrow field by not speaking the language that is natural to other disciplines. I’ve mentioned at a couple of conferences what for me is the shocking case of G.R. Searle’s A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005), part of the New Oxford History of England. This 951-page magisterial history builds on new research in the areas of social, cultural, ecnomic and political history, yet among all those 951 pages just one throwaway paragraph is devoted to cinema. The bibliographic essay notes the extensive work done in music hall and sport history, but has nothing on cinema at all. Film historians – and in this case particularly British film historians – simply aren’t writing in a language than anyone else recognises, or cares about. The situation is better in America, as the work of Gomery, Allen, Garth Jowett and others indicates, but much much more remains to be done. Moreover, such moviegoing studies as there are often tend to get subsumed within concerns about spectatorship – handy enough in itself, but still making the audience subservient to the film. For discussion on this issues, read Richard Maltby’s essay for Screening the Past, ‘How Can Cinema History Matter More?‘, the title of which rather sums it up. To read about some of the other projects worldwide which are investigating cinema-going, see the HOMER website (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition, and Reception).

To understand the phenomenon of film, of course we need to appreciate it as an art form, but we must ask those basic questions how, where and when motion pictures were consumed, and to see their world as integral to a wider social world. Datasets and databases don’t answer everything by themselves, but they provide the foundations for thinking about the right answers. Going to the Show points the way.


Robert C. Allen would welcome any feedback from Bioscope readers. You can email him at rallen [at]

A festival of silent cinema


Interior of the Harwich Electric Palace, from

News of an introductory festival of silent cinema being held 7-10 May in Harwich, Essex at the Electric Palace, one of the oldest cinemas in Britain still to be showing films, indeed with its original screen from the silent period, original projection room and ornamental frontage still intact.

A Festival of Silent Cinema
Thursday 7th May – Sunday 10th May 2009

A four day programme of silent films aiming to show exactly what these first films looked like and what the audience were seeing between 1896 and the late 1920s.

The Programme Curator is David Cleveland, founder and now retired director of the East Anglian Film Archive in Norwich. Presentations and commentary contributions will also be given by other film archivists and film historians.

Over the four day festival in May, 2009, there will be a unique opportunity to experience an array of original silent films. The programme will include many rare films; some will not have been shown since first distributed almost a century ago. The Electric Palace will be host to films typical of the period 1896 -1929: comedies, dramas, animations, features, topicals and shorts. These will have authentic accompaniment as well as specially composed music. The programme will also include live re-creations of music hall acts. which would have been common for the time. What audiences were seeing before motion pictures, will be illustrated by Magic Lantern Shows. In addition, there will be an exhibition of early cinema technology as well as a display of pre-cinema media.

Films will be shown on the Electric Palace’s Kalee 35mm projectors and, in the case of some very early films, on a specially installed Gaumont Chrono projector. All films will be projected onto the cinema’s original hand-painted screen.

The Festival will open on Thursday May 7th, with a special reception and screening of the Alfred Hitchcock film ‘The Ring’ (cert U), 1927. At its close, on Sunday 10th May, there will be a guest presentation and feature to be confirmed.

A full programme hasn’t been published as yet, but is promised soon. You can read more about the history of the Electric Palace, and other pre-1914 cinemas in Britain, here.

The Volta in Trieste


Exhibition on James Joyce, the Volta Cinematograph and Trieste, on show in Trieste

Well, it’s good to be home again. I’ve spent the past week or so in Italy, mostly in the fair city of Trieste for a conference on James Joyce and the cinema. And an excellent conference it was too, with some fine papers identifying the several ways in which Joyce’s work (particularly Ulysses) has affinities with early cinema.

There was yours truly, speaking about Joyce’s brief time as a cinema manager in Dublin; Marco Camerani, Philip Sicker, Carla Marengo Vaglio and Maria di Battista each speaking on aspects of early cinema in Joyce’s work, especially the ‘Circe’ episode in Ulysses, with references to Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, Leopoldo Fregoli and more; and Katy Mullin on the relationship between the erotic in early Edison and Biograph actuality and comedy films and Joyce. Other speakers covered film adaptations of Joyce’s work, making it a very rounded event. I found the arguments convincing and illuminating, particularly regarding the debt Joyce (an avid filmgoer from 1904 onwards as well as a cinema manager, albeit briefly and somewhat ineptly) shows to early cinema in his fiction. The promised book of essays coming out of the conference will be something to look out for.

There was also (and continues to be) an exhibition on Joyce, the Volta and Trieste, entitled ‘Trieste, James Joyce e il Cinema: Storia di Mondi Possibili’, curated by Erik Schneider, who also spoke at the conference on the discoveries he made in the archives about Joyce’s brief foray into cinema management and cinema in Trieste generally. The reason for the Trieste connection is that Joyce – who was living in the city in 1909 as a language teacher – joined up with some local businessmen who ran cinemas in Trieste and Bucharest and offered to help extend their circuit to Ireland by setting up the Volta Cinematograph at 45 Mary Street, Dublin, in December 1909.

Report (in Italian) on the Joyce exhibition and screening of Volta films, from the Trieste Film Festival’s YouTube channel

Joyce was manager on the cinema for a few weeks only before handing over to Lorenzo Novak (the cinema was sold at a loss in June 1910), but enough exists in the archives to reveal a rich history. The above video, from the Trieste Film Festival (which housed a complementary Joyce film season), shows the exhibition, with contributions from assorted brainy Joyceans, plus scenes from an evening of films taken from the BFI National Archive which were known to have been shown at the Volta. You can see me, mercifully briefly, introducing the show (with much habitual hand-waving), Carlo Moser at the piano, and Paolo Venier heroically hand-cranking a Pathé projector for the whole show (with gaps in between each reel as the films were changed, giving the full house a taste of the authentic 1909 cinema experience).

The films shown were:

  • Une Pouponiere a Paris (France 1909) (first shown at the Volta 20 Dec 1909)
  • Francesca da Rimini, or the two brothers (USA 1907) (6-7 Jan 1910)
  • Come Cretinetti paga I debiti (Italy 1909) (17-19 Jan 1910)
  • Il signor Testardo (Italy 1909) (17-19 Jan 1910)
  • A glass of goat’s milk (GB 1909) (3-5 Feb 1910)
  • The Way of the Cross (USA 1909) (14-16 Feb 1910)
  • (Der Kleine Schlaumeier) [original title not known] (France c.1909) (21-23 Feb 1910)
  • (Hunting Crocodiles) (France 1909) (7-9 Mar 1910)
  • Une Conquete (France 1909) (10-12 March 1910)

(Note – some of the films are possibily those shown at the Volta, and are not definite identifications. Le Huguenot (France 1909), which was advertised for the festival, wasn’t shown)

Also shown was Georges Mendel’s 1908 opera film of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor (with Enrico Caruso’s voice) as an example of the synchronised sound film Joyce wanted to show at the Volta, but never did.

For me, the most remarkable discovery in the exhibition was Joyce’s own hand-written list of expenses at the Volta for its first three or four weeks, from the collection of Cornell University Library, accompanied by a letter from Pathé in Britain advising him on the choice of projector, lenses, light source and so forth. Joyce’s venture into cinema, though short-lived, generated a significant amount of information on cinema in 1909 to make it worthy of study for those interested in general cinema history. We know the identity many of the films shown, thanks to extensive advertising in the Dublin press; we have the contracts drawn up; we know the initial expenses; we know about the background business in Trieste; we know how the cinema was decorated; we have the names of three or four of the staff (such as Lennie Collinge, the projectionist who lived long into a ripe old age and was interviewed by film historian Liam O’Leary, who first uncovered the Volta history). What we don’t have, alas, is a contemporary photograph of the cinema, interior or exterior.

There is much in the exhibition on early cinema in Trieste itself, which had a remarkable twenty-one cinemas in 1909. There is a history of cinema in Trieste, 1896-1918, written by Dejan Kosanovic, though in Italian only. Another gem from the archives was the advertised programme for Lifka’s Bioscope, a travelling film show which visited Pola in December 1904, when James and Nora Joyce attended the show. Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus: “The other evening we went to a bioscope. There were a series of pictures about betrayed Gretchen … Lothario throws her into the river and rushes off, followed by rabble. Nora said ‘O, policeman, catch him'”. I’m working on trying to identify which film moved Nora so. Would you believe Lifka’s Bioscope mostly got its film from Charles Urban…?

Anyway, a stimulating conference, a fine exhibition, and bright winter’s sunshine to delight us all.


Statue of James Joyce by the Canal Grande, Trieste

Off to sunny Italy


Well, I hope it’s sunny at any rate. The Bioscope is heading for Trieste, Italy for a few days, to speak at a conference on James Joyce and cinema. Then it’s a few days more in Florence. So, as I’m under stern instructions not to go anywhere near a computer for the period, normal service will have to be resumed on January 22nd.

Meanwhile, for your amusement, I’ve included a few frame stills from films that are known to have been shown at the Volta Cinematograph in Dublin, between December 1909 and January 1910, the period when Joyce was either managing the cinema or immediately afterwards (he left Dublin on 2 January). So they are likely to have been films that he saw, indeed programmed. All images are from prints held by the BFI National Archive (via a DVD copy).


Une Pouponnière à Paris (Éclair 1909), an interest film about a Paris nursery. The only surviving film from the inaugural programme of the Volta Cinematograph, 20 December 1909.


Aviation Week at Rheims (Pathé 1909), newsfilm about the world’s first aviation meeting (the aviator is Henry Farman). Shown at the Volta 3-5 January 1910.


Francesca da Rimini, or The Two Brothers (Vitagraph 1907), classical drama based on Dante, with Florence Turner and Paul Panzer. Shown at the Volta 6-8 January 1910.


Come Cretinetti paga i debiti (Itala 1909), special effects comedy starring André Deed as Cretinetti, ingeniously avoiding those to whom he owes money. Shown at the Volta 17-19 January 1910.


Il signor Testardo (Itala 1909), bizarre comedy about a grotesquely stubborn man, shown at the Volta 17-19 January 1910.