How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 6

Electric Theatre

Continuing with our series on how to set up and manage a cinema, taken from How to Run a Picture Theatre (c.1912), we come to the crucial question of staff. The remarkable thing is the number of workers considered suitable for even a small operation. The average small pre-First World War cinema in London had eight to ten staff. Here it is recommended we have a manager, door keeper, box office assistant (note the coldly calculating recommendation for women in this role, being both ‘more reliable’ and cheap), ushers, pianist (with an interesting revelation that some cinemas relied upon mechanical pianos), someone to generate sound effects (a common role in pre-1914 exhibition), the projectionist (and his assistant), and those selling chocolates and programmes. We even learn the salaries, and what they should be wearing.

The Staff. Its Duties and Salaries. … As a general rule, it may be taken that from ten to twelve persons are required for the competent management of a theatre running a continuous show. These are: Manager, Cashier, Doorkeeper, Checktaker, two male or lady Attendants, Operator, Assistant Operator, Spool Boy, Effects Worker, and in some cases Program and Chocolate Sellers.

The Manager. Many a proprietor owes his success to his manager’s personality … The public like to go to a place of entertainment where the manager evinces a personal interest in them … His salary is calculated on the seating and earning capacity of the hall and may vary from £3 to £5 …

Much will depend on the way in which the manager engineers the opening ceremony … It is well to secure the attendance of the Member of Parliament for the Division, the Chief Magistrate of the City or Town, … Vicar of the Parish or some equally big wig to declare the show open.

Advantage should always be taken of this occasion to press home the educational aspect of the kinematograph and the high class nature of the entertainment which is to be provided.

The Doorkeeper. His wages run from 25s. to 40s per week.

The Box Office Attendant. It is best to put a woman in charge of the box office, partly because women are apt to be more reliable, and in part because they ask less money … One who is not too old to be attractive, and one who is steady enough to refuse the numerous opportunities for flirtation will become an asset … she is not too well paid at £1 per week, although cashiers can be had at 12s 6d.

The Ushers – Inside Attendants. You want bright youths or young women who are willing to work and whom you can trust to do as well when you are absent as when you are there … In many houses the attendants are supposed to polish up the brasswork in the morning and help with the place generally … As a rule these attendants are paid from 10s to 18s. per week, to which of course has to be added their commission on the sale of chocolates and programs.

They should each be provided with an electric torch … and should be instructed to always direct the light from their torches towards the ground and away from the faces of those who are following them.

The Pianist. Get a good one – the best you can afford. … [T]he patient plodder with a fair technique will sometimes be found to be better than a brilliant performer who has a soul above the pictures The man or woman who can read music well enough to memorize standard melodies, and who can pick up popular stuff “by ear”, is better than the more advanced player who cannot play without the music on the rack. … An automatic piano is to be preferred to a bad player.

The duties and responsibilities of the accompanist are by no means light or few – always excepting the cases where a mechanical piano is left in charge of the erratic and ubiquitous “chocolate boy”. Besides, a complete command of the keyboard, the pianist must have quick discernment, and a sense of the fitness of things …

The skilled accompanist will manage, with well-timed improvisations, to smooth over any awkward pauses and abrupt transitions … Finally, the pianist should commit to memory, or have to hand, a selection of pieces which are likely to suit the various idiosyncracies of the films …

The pianist should have the films at every change of program projected for his special delectation in order that he may arrange his musical program to suit the pictures and may know what is coming next. Too often films are changed and the man at the piano has no inkling of the subjects excepting what he has gained from a perusal of the synopsis … £2 to £3 a week is none too much to pay him. Where there is an orchestra, of course, the pianist’s salary is allocated to the conductor.

The Effects Worker. … It falls to him to give life to the picture by the aid of mechanical or other means … From 12s to 15s. a week is the usual age for a boy and 30s. for a man.

Program and Chocolate Sellers. …the vending of their wares shall not be to stentorian, for nothing detracts more from the pleasure of patrons than to have a loud voiced boy or girl continually brawling in one’s ears “Chocolates” or “Programs”.

The Operator and his Assistant. … The young man who knows a little about the machine, but who needs more experience and is willing to work cheaply in order to obtain it, is the most expensive operator who can hire. He only takes one pound out of the box office on pay day, but presently you have to pay for repairs to an abused machine that will run up, the shows will have been so poor that your attendance will have dropped off, and all at once you will realise that there are occasions when it is cheaper to pay a man three pounds than one. Your operator will cost you up to £3 a week, or even more.

You can get men to turn the crank for very low fees if you have only night shows, but a night operator who has other employment during the day is not apt to be in shape for his work, and a good operator is worth every penny you pay him.

How the Staff Should be Uniformed. The male attendants should be uniformed … The female attendants should be attired in black dresses with white aprons and caps or of preferred they may be made up as vivandieres, or in the style made famous by Marie Antoinette with powdered hair, patches and pannier dresses, as is done at some London theatres.

Next, we will need to consider how to go about selecting a programme of films.

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 5

I’m running this series taken from the 1910 [correction – probably 1912] publication How to Run a Picture Theatre, which eventually I’ll put up all together in a new Texts section. Anyway, having taken care of the exterior, foyer and auditorium, now you need to think about your projectionist. Note the fire precautions, but also the need to install a stereopticon, or lantern slide projector, for advertisements, in-house announcements and sing-a-long slides:

The Operating Chamber. The operating chamber is, of course, subject to very stringent regulations by the authorities which appear in an index to this work …

There should be three traps, one each for the projector, the stereopticon, and the look-out in preference to a larger trap permitting all three. If two machines are used, the number of traps is increased …

A bucket of sand and a wet blanket must always be kept in the operating room for fire extinguishing purposes …

Allow reasonably ample room and make the operator comfortable. A high stool with a comfortable back is a necessity rather than a luxury. If the chair induces the operator to loaf, get rid of the operator, but retain the chair …

It is best to provide two machines, using them alternately, and then if one breaks down, there is a second to run on, until the other is repaired. The assistant operator, too, is always handy in rewinding the films, because if there is only one operator who has to divide his time between projecting and rewinding, both tasks will suffer.

Next up, choosing your staff.

The Bioscope (continued)

Bioscope is a term for a film projector. Its first use in a moving image context precedes projected film. Hermann Hecht’s monumental Pre-Cinema History: An Encyclopaedia and Annotated Bibliography of the Moving Image Before 1896 records an 1852 reference to the stéréo-fantastique or Bioscope of Jules Dubosq, a combination either of the Phenakistoscope (Plateau’s spinning disk with images on its edge which when its mirror reflection was viewed through slots gave an illusion of motion) with the stereoscope, or the Zoetrope (using the same principle as the phenakistoscope but with the images on the inside of a drum) and the stereoscope. The effect was to produce moving, stereoscopic pictures.

On the cusp of projected film, in 1892 the Frenchman Georges Demenÿ patented a motion picture device he named the Phonoscope, which projected brief images from rotating glass discs. When the Phonoscope was marketed by Gaumont from the end of 1895, it was renamed a Bioscope. Also at the end of 1895 the German Max Skladanowsky named his projector a Bioskop, and gave the the first commercial presentation of projected film in Europe with it at the Berlin Wintergarten theatre on 1 November 1895.

In 1896 the American Charles Urban developed a projector with the engineer Walter Isaacs, which he named a Bioscope. When Urban moved to Britain in 1897 he brought the Bioscope with him. He built a successful business on the back of the Bioscope projector and the use of Bioscope as a brand, to the extent that for a while the word became synonymous with cinema itself. A version of the Bioscope c.1900 is illustrated in this site’s header.

More on the history and etymology of the Bioscope to follow…