Bunny Brown and his Sister Sue

Source: Laura Lee Hope, extract from Bunny Brown and his Sister Sue (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1916)

bunnybrownText: Just beyond the corner there was a moving picture theatre, lately opened. Mrs. Brown and Aunt Lu had taken Bunny and his sister there once or twice, when there was a fairy play, or something nice to see, so Bunny and Sue knew what the moving pictures were like.

“Oh, let’s just go down and look at the picture posters outside,” said Bunny, as they stood on the corner, from where they could see the theatre.

“All right,” said Sue quickly.

In front of the moving picture place were some big boards, and on them were pasted brightly colored posters, almost like circus ones, telling about the moving pictures that were being shown inside. There was a picture of a man falling in the water, and another of a railroad train. Bunny loved cars and locomotives.

Not thinking anything wrong, the two tots ran across the street, looking carefully up and down first, to see that no automobiles were coming. They crossed safely.

A little later they were standing in front of the moving picture theatre, looking at the gay posters.

“Wouldn’t you like to go in?” asked Bunny.

Sue nodded her curly head.

“Maybe Aunt Lu will take us,” she said.

“We’ll ask her,” decided Bunny.

Then they heard, from down the side street, the sound of a piano. It came from the moving picture place, and the reason Bunny and Sue could hear it so plainly was because the piano was near a side door, which was open to let in the fresh air.

“Let’s go down there and listen to the music a minute,” Bunny said. “Then we’ll go back and tell Aunt Lu.”

“All right!” agreed Sue.

A little later the two were standing at the open, side door of the place. They could hear the piano very plainly now, and, what was more wonderful, they could look right in the theatre and see the moving pictures flashing on the white screen.

“Oh! oh!” murmured Bunny. “Look, Sue.”

“Oh! oh!” whispered Sue. And then Bunny had a queer idea.

“We can walk right in,” he said. “The door is open. I guess this is for children like us – they don’t want any money. Come on in, Sue, and we’ll see the moving pictures!”

Bunny Brown and his sister Sue walked right into the moving picture theatre. The door, as I have told you, was open, there was no one standing near to take tickets, or ask for money, and of course the children thought it was all right to go in.

No one seemed to notice them, perhaps because the place was dark, except where the brilliant pictures were dancing and flashing on the white screen. And no one heard Bunny and Sue, for not only did they walk very softly, but just then the girl at the piano was playing loudly, and the sound filled the place.

Right in through the open side door walked Bunny and Sue, and never for a moment did they think they were doing anything wrong. I suppose, after all, it was not very wrong.

Bunny walked ahead, and Sue followed, keeping hold of his hand. Pretty soon she whispered to her brother:

“Bunny! Bunny! I can’t see very good at all here. I want to see the pictures better.”

“All right,” Bunny whispered back. “I can’t see very good, either. We’ll find a better place.”

You know you can’t look at moving pictures from the side, they all seem to be twisted if you do. You must be almost in front of them, and this time Bunny and Sue were very much to one edge.

“We’ll get up real close, and right in front,” Bunny went on. Then he saw a little pair of steps leading up to the stage, or platform; only Bunny did not know it was that. He just thought if he and Sue went up the steps they would be better able to see. So up he went.

The screen, or big white sheet, on which the moving pictures were shown, stood back some distance from the front of the stage. And it was a real stage, with footlights and all, but it was not used for acting any more, as only moving pictures were given in that theatre now.

Sue followed Bunny up the steps. The pictures were ever so much clearer and larger now. She was quite delighted, and so was her brother. They wandered out to the middle of the stage, paying no attention to the audience. And the people in the theatre were so interested in the picture on the screen, that, for a while, they did not see the children who had wandered into the darkened theatre by the side door.

The music from the piano sounded louder and louder. The pictures became more brilliant. Then suddenly Bunny and Sue walked right out on the stage in front of the screen, where the light from the moving picture lantern shone brightly on them.

“What’s that?” cried several persons.

“Look! Why they’re real children!” said others.

Bunny and Sue could be plainly seen now, for they were exactly in the path of the strong light. There was some laughter in the audience, and then the man who was turning the crank of the moving picture machine began to understand that something was wrong.

He stopped the picture film, and turned on a plain, white light, very strong and glaring, Just like the headlights of an automobile. Bunny and Sue could hardly see, and they looked like two black shadows on the white screen.

“Look! Look! It’s part of the show!” said some persons in front.

“Maybe they’re going to sing,” said others.

“Or do a little act.”

“Oh, aren’t they cute!” laughed a lady.

By this time the piano player had stopped making music. She knew that something was wrong. So did the moving picture man up in his little iron box, and so did the usher – that’s the man who shows you where to find a seat. The usher came hurrying down the aisle.

“Hello, youngsters!” he called out, but he was not in the least bit cross. “Where did you get in?” he asked.

By this time the lights all over the place had been turned up, and Bunny and Sue could see the crowd, while the audience could also see them. Bunny blinked and smiled, but Sue was bashful, and tried to hide behind her brother. This made the people laugh still more.

“How did you get in, and who is with you?” asked the usher.

“We walked in the door over there,” and Bunny pointed to the side one. “And we came all alone. We’re waiting for Aunt Lu.”

“Oh, then she is coming?”

“I don’t guess so,” Bunny said. “We didn’t tell her we were coming here.”

“Well, well!” exclaimed the usher-man. “What does it all mean? Did your Aunt Lu send you on ahead? We don’t let little children in here unless some older person is with them, but -”

“We just comed in,” Sue said. “The door was open, and we wanted to see the pictures, so we comed in; didn’t we Bunny?”

“Yes,” he said. “But we’d like to sit down. We can’t see good up here.”

“No, you are a little too close to the screen,” said the usher. “Well, I’d send you home if I knew where you lived, but–”

“I know them!” called out a woman near the front of the theatre. “That is Bunny Brown and his sister Sue. They live just up the street. I’ll take them home.”

“Thank you; that’s very kind of you,” said the man. “I guess their folks must be worrying about them. Please take them home.”

“We don’t want to go home!” exclaimed Sue. “We want to see the pictures; don’t we, Bunny?”

“Yes,” answered the little fellow, “but maybe we’d better go and get Aunt Lu.”

“I think so myself,” laughed the usher. “You can come some other time, youngsters. But bring your aunt, or your mother, with you; and don’t come in the side door. I’ll have to keep some one there, if it’s going to be open, or I’ll have more tots walking in without paying.”

“Come the next time, with your aunt or mother,” he went on, “and I’ll give you free tickets. It won’t cost you even a penny!”

“Oh, goodie!” cried Sue. She was willing to go home now, and the lady who said she knew them – who was a Mrs. Wakefield, and lived not far from the Brown home – took Bunny and Sue by the hands and led them out of the theatre.

The lights were turned low again, and the moving picture show went on. Bunny and Sue wished they could have stayed, but they were glad they could come again, as the man had invited them.

Comments: Laura Lee Hope was a pseudonym used by American book publisher the Stratemeyer Syndicate to produce books for children, including Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Bunny Brown and his Sister Sue. The latter series, aimed at young children, was published 1916-1930.

Links: Copy on Project Gutenberg

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 54-56

Text: … the Lido in Bradshawgate, as unprepossessing an unVenetian a building as could be imagined despite its gondola-filled proscenium frieze. Financed by a small Salford-based circuit, it was little more than a cheap shell. The foyer was bare and cramped, and the centre stalls exists were by crash doors which opened from the auditorium straight out into the side alleys, sometimes drenching the adjacent customers in rain or snow.

But we were unaware of such inconveniences on the Saturday in 1937 when we queued for the gala opening. For some reason the attraction chosen for that one night only was a revival of Jessie Matthews in Evergreen, very welcome but quite uneventful, since we had previously seen it at the Hippodrome. The place nevertheless was mobbed, and we found ourselves in a low point of the front stalls from which it was difficult for me to see more than the top half of the screen over the heads of the people in front. I was comforted, however, by a handful of sample packets of a confectionery, then new, called Maltesers: the usherettes were practically throwing them at everyone who came in, and I grabbed as many as I could from the tray on the way to my seat.

We went again on Monday to see the Lido’s first première, which was Song of Freedom, staring Paul Robeson. It was enjoyable enough while the star held sway, and I responded to his voice as to no one else’s since Al Jolson, who seemed unaccountably to have retired from the screen; but by now we had discovered two of the Lido’s failings. The first was its long, long intervals for ice cream sales, drastically curtailing the supporting programme we expected; the second was an even longer non-attraction called Younger’s Shoppers’ Gazette, a compilation of crude advertising filmlets (I once counted twenty-eight on the one reel). This was certainly not value for money, especially since the Lido was also the proud possessor of a Christie organ, and the interlude for this could stretch the gap between solid celluloid items to as much as thirty-five minutes. Though it had the advantage of a phantom piano attachment, the Lido organ did not rise from the orchestra pit as we expected, nor did it change colour as it came. From some of the side seats you could see it waiting in the wings throughout the performance, and since the main curtain hung slightly short, front stalls patrons could count the feet of the men who pushed it on stage at the appropriate moment. This musical marvel was operated by one Reginald Liversidge, an eager-to-please young man with a gleaming smile and a fine head of skin; his natty tailcoat and graceful manners probably endeared him to the matrons, but not to me. So far as I was concerned, his slide-accompanied concerts of ‘Tchaikovskiana’ were just one more nail in the coffin of a disappointing venue in which I had expected to spend many delightful evenings.

And so I was not impelled, in the years before the 1939 war, to visit the Lido very often. Its schedulers did not have the booking power of the established cinemas, and certainly not of the new Odeon which was to menace them all. It was too often to take the cheapest programme available, and I was happiest when it settled for a re-issue. One such attraction was the 1931 Fredric March version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which my mother wanted to see again, having been impressed by it when I was still in swaddling clothes. It was my first experience, in our well-behaved town, of an audience cat-calling and rough-housing during a performance. Mum said comfortingly that they only did it to prove they were not scared by Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde; I was, but tried not to show it, my fear being tempered by a burning desire to wear, when I grew up, a dress cape, cane and top hat just like Mr March’s. I realize now that this superbly crafted film, by far the best version of the story, is not only horrifying but surprisingly one-track-minded in the matter of sex, and therefore not at all a suitable entertainment for a boy of tender years; nonetheless what I most remember from that long-ago evening is how lustrous and dramatic it was to look at. Mum anxiously watched my reactions to the shock moments and, since I showed no ill effects, took me along a few weeks later to see the Lido’s ‘double thrill bill’ consisting of re-issues of The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. This time, to our astonishment, we were forestalled by the burly commissionaire in the second-hand uniform, who informed us between pursed lips that Children were no Admitted. My mother pointed out that both films had ‘A’ certificates, not ‘H’, and that she regularly took me to ‘A’ pictures, but argument proved useless, and we could only conclude that this was an entirely unofficial rule drawn up by the management either for the public good or (more likely) to drum up business during a dull week. Adamant, the commissionaire repeatedly tapped a hanging notice on which the words ADULTS ONLY had been inscribed in shaky green lettering. Although, he assured us confidentially, he had seen both pictures and wouldn’t give you that (he snapped his fingers) for their horror content, he was powerless to help us, and could only suggest that we went round the corner to the Theatre Royal where Old Mother Riley was showing. His sister had described it as a real good laugh. Disconsolately, we took his advice; but I don’t remember laughing much: the rather primitively filmed knockabout failed to capture the instinctive zest of Lucan and MacShane’s crockery-smashing stage act which I had seen at the Grand on one recent Saturday night.

Comments: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult. ‘H’ certificates, for Horror, were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors in 1932, to be replaced by the X certificate in 1951. The Lido cinema opened in March 1997 and closed in 1998, by which time it was called the Cannon Cinema. The site is now occupied by a block of flats. The films recalled by Halliwell are Evergreen (UK 1934), Song of Freedom (UK 1936), The Old Dark House (USA 1932), The Invisible Man (USA 1933) and Old Mother Riley (UK 1937). Younger’s Shopper’s Gazette was produced by Younger Publicity Service and ran from the 1920s to the 1940s. An example can be seen on the website of the Media Archive for Central England.

The Plastic Age

Source: Percy Marks, The Plastic Age (New York: The Century Co., 1924), pp. 24-28

Text: “Well,” he exclaimed, “that’s that! At last I know where I’m going. You certainly saved my life. I know where all the buildings are; so it ought to be easy.”

“Sure,” said Carl encouragingly; “it’s easy. Now there’s nothing to do till to-morrow until eight forty-five when we attend chapel to the glory of the Lord. I think I’ll pray to-morrow; I may need it. Christ! I hate to study.”

“Me, too,” Hugh lied. He really loved books, but somehow he couldn’t admit the fact, which had suddenly become shameful, to Carl. “Let’s go to the movies,” he suggested, changing the subject for safety.

“Right-o!” Carl put on his freshman cap and flung Hugh’s to him. “Gloria Nielsen is there, and she’s a pash baby. Ought to be a good fillum.”

The Blue and Orange – it was the only movie theater in town – was almost full when the boys arrived. Only a few seats near the front were still vacant. A freshman started down the aisle, his “baby bonnet” stuck jauntily on the back of his head.

“Freshman!”… “Kill him!”… “Murder the frosh!” Shouts came from all parts of the house, and an instant later hundreds of peanuts shot swiftly at the startled freshman. “Cap! Cap! Cap off!” There was a panic of excitement. Upper-classmen were standing on their chairs to get free throwing room. The freshman snatched off his cap, drew his head like a scared turtle down into his coat collar, and ran for a seat. Hugh and Carl tucked their caps into their coat pockets and attempted to stroll nonchalantly down the aisle. They hadn’t taken three steps before the bombardment began. Like their classmate, they ran for safety.

Then some one in the front of the theatre threw a peanut at some one in the rear. The fight was on! Yelling like madmen, the students stood on their chairs and hurled peanuts, the front and rear of the house automatically dividing into enemy camps. When the fight was at its hottest, three girls entered.

“Wimmen! Wimmen!” As the girls walked down the aisle, infinitely pleased with their reception, five hundred men stamped in time with their steps.

No sooner were the girls seated than there was a scramble in one corner, an excited scuffling of feet. “I’ve got it!” a boy screamed. He stood on his chair and held up a live mouse by its tail. There was a shout of applause and then – “Play catch!”

The boy dropped the writhing mouse into a peanut bag, screwed the open end tight-closed, and then threw the bag far across the room. Another boy caught it and threw it, this time over the girls’ heads. They screamed and jumped upon their chairs, holding their skirts, and dancing up and down in assumed terror. Back over their heads, back and over, again and again the bagged mouse was thrown while the girls screamed and the boys roared with delight. Suddenly one of he girls threw up her arm, caught the bag deftly, held it for a second, and then tossed it into the rear of the theater.

Cheers of terrifying violence broke loose: “Ray! Ray! Atta girl! Hot dog! Ray, ray!” And then the lights went out.

“Moosick! Moosick! Moo-sick!” The audience stamped and roared, whistled and howled. “Moosick! We want moosick!”

The pianist, an undergraduate, calmly strolled down the aisle.

“Get a move on!”… “Earn your salary!”… “Give us moosick!”

The pianist paused to thumb his nose casually at the entire audience, and then amid shouts and hisses sat down at the piano and began to play “Love Nest.”

Immediately the boys began to whistle, and as the comedy was utterly stupid, they relieved their boredom by whistling the various tunes that the pianist played until the miserable film flickered out.

Then the “feature” and the fun began. During the stretches of pure narrative, the boys whistled, but when there was any real action they talked. The picture was a melodrama of “love and hate,” as the advertisement said.

The boys told the actors what to do; they revealed to them the secrets of the plot. “She’s hiding behind the door, Harold. No, no! Not that way. Hey, dumbbell – behind the door.”… “Catch him, Gloria; he’s only shy!”… “No, that’s not him!”

The climactic fight brought shouts of encouragement – to the villain. “Kill him!”… “Shoot one to his kidneys!”… “Ahhhhh,” as the villain hit the hero in the stomach…. “Muss his hair. Attaboy!”… “Kill the skunk!” And finally groans of despair when the hero won his inevitable victory.

But it was the love scenes that aroused the greatest ardor and joy. The hero was given careful instructions. “Some neckin’, Harold!”… “Kiss her! Kiss her! Ahhh!”… “Harold, Harold, you’re getting rough!”… “She’s vamping you, Harold!”… “Stop it; Gloria; he’s a good boy.” And so on until the picture ended in the usual close-up of the hero and heroine silhouetted in a tender embrace against the setting sun. The boys breathed “Ahhhh” and “Ooooh” ecstatically – and laughed. The meretricious melodrama did not fool them, but they delighted in its absurdities.

The lights flashed on and the crowd filed out, “wise-cracking” about the picture and commenting favorably on the heroine’s figure. There were shouts to this fellow or that fellow to come on over and play bridge, and suggestions here and there to go to a drug store and get a drink.

Hugh and Carl strolled home over the dark campus, both of them radiant with excitement, Hugh frankly so.

Comments: Percy Marks (1891-1956) was an American author whose notorious novel of college life, The Plastic Age, was filmed under that title in 1925 (starring Clara Bow) and in 1929 as Red Lips.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Babylon at Brixton

Source: James Agate, extract from ‘Babylon at Brixton’, in Around Cinemas (London: Home & Van Thal, 1946), pp. 52-53 [originally published in The Tatler, 25 September 1929]

Text: … For the Brixtonian, Brixton is clearly the hub of the universe. There is a large railway bridge which bears to the Brixton landscape the same relationship that St. Paul’s bears to Cheapside. But I am convinced that the Brixtonians regard their railway bridge as a thing in itself and serving no purpose save the ornamental. That train should use that bridge to convey people to other parts of the world seems unthinkable There is no other part of the world that matters.

These things being so, it was obvious that Brixton must be provided with a cinema equal to any of those which, if the worlds of travellers might be believed, had been erected on the other side of the big river. But what Brixton wants, Brixton has, and that was why we alighted at a building which was certainly much less of an eyesore than, for example, the Regal Picture Palace, the exterior of which I take to be the biggest blot on the new London landscape. At the same time the architect had made a great mistake in despising the side street down which half his building runs. For this side street, which has no façade, is just as visible as the main Stockwell Road which is plentifully bedizened, with the result that the visitor receives the impression of a building only two-thirds completed. Inside, of course, completion has done her utmost. In the entrance-hall there is a running fountain in whose basin may be seen, disporting themselves, gold-fish, numbering, as Mr Belloc used to say in the old war days, more than fifteen and less than thirty. Marble stairs, lusciously carpeted, lead the giddy visitor into an auditorium alleged to resemble an Italian garden. Stars twinkle; fronds fan the fevered forehead, and, what is more important, the seats are admirably cushioned. The place is one of extraordinary, almost Babylonish magnificence. Tea-lounges abound. There are cubicles where the jaded shopper may repose; and wherever marble has a right to be, there marble is. The Directors, whose mobile, eager, and pleasantly acquiline features decorate the handsome souvenir with which the management presents you, have obviously not demanded any change out of their capital expenditure of £250,000 and will be satisfied, I imagine, with a return of something like 1000 percent on their money. I am not very good at figures, but the house holds over four thousand people at prices from sixpence to three shillings and sixpence, and there are three performances a day, at all of which up to now the house has been crowded out. Well, that is good business, but not better than such enterprise deserves. I guessed correctly the number of charwomen employed, to which must be added twenty-four brass cleaners. I was, however, £8000 out in my estimate of the organ. The instrument would appear even to the unskilled as a noble one, and fit for the performance in the best cinema manner of pieces written for the piccolo, pianoforte, and every instrument except the organ. On the afternoon that I attended, Mr Pattman played a selection from “Peer Gynt,” which I shall say, with bated breath, needs that drama to jog it along. But the reasons why I intend to be outrageously and unfairly favourable to his picture palace are, first, that it has not wholly gone over to the talkies; and second, that it has retained a first-class orchestra, the excellence of which has been made possible by the poltroonery and short-sightedness of those West End houses which have dismissed their orchestras. It is true that there was a talkie on that afternoon, but I took advantage of this to inspect the lighting plant, the drains, and the strictly business side of the venture. The talkie being over, I saw an admirable silent film about a New York journalist. “Get your street scenery on,” said that journalist to a chorus girl. “You’re going up town with God’s gift to literature!” But he had the sense to say it in a sub-title. While Mr Haines was delivering himself of this amiable nonsense, the first-class orchestra played Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” Overture, Dowling’s “Sleepy Valley,” Montague Phillips’ “Arabesque (a piece I didn’t know), “Oh, Maggie, What Have You Been Up To?”, and if I mistake not, “The Lost Chord.” And I hereby announce that in the bosom of one cinema fan there is more joy over chords that are lost than over tongues that are found.

Comments: James Agate (1877-1947) was a British theatre and film critic. His film reviews, mostly written for The Tatler, often mention the cinema in which he saw the film. The cinema described here is the Brixton Astoria, London, built in 1929 and now the Brixton Academy. The architect was Edward A. Stone. The film about a New York journalist was Telling the World (USA 1928 d. Sam Wood), starring William Haines.

That’s the Way it Was

Source: Walter Southgate, That’s the Way it Was: A Working Class Autobiography 1890-1950 (Oxted: New Clarion Press, 1982), pp. 75-79

Text: There were very old houses and shops fronting the Narrow Way of Mare Street opposite the old Hackney Church tower then given up in their old age to such fleeting businesses as wax work shows and salacious picture machines offering the delights of “What the Butler Saw” and “A Night in Paris”.

During my youth I was a regular visitor to the gallery of the Hackney Empire music hall on Monday nights for tuppence … Monday was often a bad days for the halls and so one could get in the gallery for 2d or 3d.

… About the time that the Hackney Music Hall was opened there still existed off the Hackney Road one of the last of the “penny gaffs”. Mayhew describes them as existing in many parts of the metropolis in 1850. “Penny gaffs” had largely disappeared by the 1900s except “The Belmonts”, known locally as “The Flea Pit”. It maintained the tradition of such places right to the very end – colourful, noisy with melodrama and excitement …

… As the old “Flea pit” went out so the silent bioscope came in with a juvenile audience enjoying the blood letting, the shooting and the thundering of horse hooves necessary in a Wild West film. There again the appropriate noises and tempo had to be supplied by a versatile pianist. This fellow sat in the wings playing the same tunes and making the same noises twice nightly, seven days a week.

Comments: Walter Southgate was born in Bethnal Green, London one of seven children. His memoirs include an excellent section on ‘penny gaff’ cheap theatres, a name also given to some of the early cinemas because they were located in the same working class districts and attracted similar audiences. Mare Street is in Hackney, London.

That's the Way it Was

Source: Walter Southgate, That’s the Way it Was: A Working Class Autobiography 1890-1950 (Oxted: New Clarion Press, 1982), pp. 75-79

Text: There were very old houses and shops fronting the Narrow Way of Mare Street opposite the old Hackney Church tower then given up in their old age to such fleeting businesses as wax work shows and salacious picture machines offering the delights of “What the Butler Saw” and “A Night in Paris”.

During my youth I was a regular visitor to the gallery of the Hackney Empire music hall on Monday nights for tuppence … Monday was often a bad days for the halls and so one could get in the gallery for 2d or 3d.

… About the time that the Hackney Music Hall was opened there still existed off the Hackney Road one of the last of the “penny gaffs”. Mayhew describes them as existing in many parts of the metropolis in 1850. “Penny gaffs” had largely disappeared by the 1900s except “The Belmonts”, known locally as “The Flea Pit”. It maintained the tradition of such places right to the very end – colourful, noisy with melodrama and excitement …

… As the old “Flea pit” went out so the silent bioscope came in with a juvenile audience enjoying the blood letting, the shooting and the thundering of horse hooves necessary in a Wild West film. There again the appropriate noises and tempo had to be supplied by a versatile pianist. This fellow sat in the wings playing the same tunes and making the same noises twice nightly, seven days a week.

Comments: Walter Southgate was born in Bethnal Green, London one of seven children. His memoirs include an excellent section on ‘penny gaff’ cheap theatres, a name also given to some of the early cinemas because they were located in the same working class districts and attracted similar audiences. Mare Street is in Hackney, London.

Just Like it Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 27-30

Text: On some Saturday evenings my mother would say, ‘Wash your face and hands quick – we are going to the pictures’. In a flurry of soap and water my sister and I would comply with her request and then, with coats buttoned to the neck, walk down the dark stairway that led from our second-floor flat to the street’. The cinema we usually patronised was in Chicksand Street, a narrow dingy turning diagonally opposite Flower and Dean Street, still shuddering from the memory of Jack the Ripper. We crossed Bethnal Green Road at Haltrecht’s corner and walked through the odiferous Brick Lane market …

… Eventually Chicksand Street came into sight and we rushed off to take our place in the queue. My mother would recognise old friends and chat away in Yiddish whilst my sister and I exchanged our spending money for massive bags of peanuts, still warm from their on-the-spot roasting. By twos and threes, the queue dwindled as room became available in the auditorium, and soon it was our turn to be ushered in. On the diminutive screen, the ‘big picture’ had already started. Under it, curtained off from the main audience, Miss Daniels, a heavily made up brunette, played a piano accompaniment to the tragic drama that flickered overhead. The heat was terrific. A perpetual buzz of conversation mingled with the crackle of peanut shells that littered the floor like snow in winter. Every step in any direction crunched.

Having found three seats together, we removed our coats and sat back to enjoy the programme. Nearby, children were reading the titles out loud for the benefit of their foreign parents. Some even translated the words directly into Yiddish. Babies cried, kids were slapped, and an endless procession to the ‘ladies and gents’ was greeted by outraged cries of ‘Siddown’. Only the screen was silent. It was here, and in other cinemas like it, that I saw Pearl White, Eddie Polo (in person), Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin, Pola Negri, Chester Conklin, The Keystone Cops, Nazimova, Louise Fazenda, Harold Lloyd, The Gish Sisters, Mary Pickford, and a host of other luminaries in a fast-developing cinema world.

No air-conditioning disturbed the fug of cigarette smoke and perspiring humanity. From time to time an usher would walk up and down the aisles spraying the air with a perfumed disinfectant that made you smart if you got an eyeful. At the end of each reel, a slide appeared stating ‘end of part one’, or whatever it happened to be. Resuming projection, the operator usually missed the screen by a foot or so above or below. This was greeted with loud cries of ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ until all was well. The peanut crackle and general hubbub was resumed, and the audience settled back in their seats for further enjoyment.

When it was all over and ‘the end’ faded out Miss Daniels played a very spirited National Anthem, somehwat drowned out by the noise of shells crackling underfoot as we stood in respect before the portraits of George V and Queen Mary spanning the silver screen. Attendants walked round and woke up those customers who, still under the influence of the post-Chollant barbiturate, had comfortably snored through the complete programme. Still excitedly chattering about Cowboys or Comedians we had seen in the show, my mother, sister and I would arrive home where father had prepared hot cocoa and buttered cholla for us so that we could go to bed soon after.

Comment: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. His memories of cinemagoing cover both the 1910s and 1920s. Chollant was a traditional Sabbath meal; cholla a type of bread.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Mrs Alfreda Elicia Holmes, C707/4002, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: A: Oh but now I must tell you something that might interest you, do you know – do you know the – that cinema in Drayton Gardens. The Barons. The Paris Pullman now, it used to be called the Bolton cinema you see. Well on a Saturday morning, they did – they did a marvellous thing. From ten o’clock ’til twelve – they used to have a childrens – do, and you could get in for threepence. And – many a Saturday morning when I’d saved up – I’d take the children.

Q: What kinds of things would they have on?

A: Oh cowboys of course, cowboys and Indians and things like that and somebody playing the piano you know. Whathaveyou you see. And of whenever the – whenever the – cowboys looked like – you know, we used to sort of – shout out you see. We were quite convinced that that – it was because they could hear us through the screen, that that’s why they – that’s why they moved quickly you see, and – and of course the cowboys always won of course, I mean the Indian spears, you know, never – never sort of – hit them properly you know. And – and – but of course we used to walk – we used to walk from – where we were living then, in Knightsbridge, to – you know, so it didn’t cost us anything in bus fares you see. And – I used to try and contrive to get, you know, a little bag of sweets to have in between, ’cos it was typically a children’s do you know, and you had to be doing something you know, during the time. But that was the result of our – that was – that was our – our main – and – and every Christmas – I remember – my mother always used to take us to the Chelsea Palace here, that is now – it’s this big – huge building you know, the Granada people had it, and – we used to go to pantomime. We used to go up in the gods, we used to love it. That also used to be threepence in those days, most things used to be about threepence you know, in those days.

Comment: Alfreda Holmes was born in 1902 in Kensington, London, the eldest of five. Her father was a restaurant manager, the mother was a lady’s maid. She was interviewed on 18 July 1972 and 20 July 1973, one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). The Bolton Picture Playhouse was at 65 Drayton Gardens, South Kensington.

This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows; Do YOU Know WHY?

someofthethings

Illustration that accompanies the original article

Source: Charles Darnton, ‘This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows: Do YOU Know WHY?’ The Evening World [New York], 16 January 1909, p. 9

Text: “I like to see a story.”

A long tramp bad led to a short answer. And the woman with a shawl about her head and a wide-eyed child clutching her hand was probably right about the appeal of the moving picture.

How wide this appeal has become may be judged from the fact that there are more than 500 moving picture shows in New York. From one end of the town to the other the “manager,” with little more than a lantern to his name, is holding the screen up to nature and occasionally turning a trick that goes nature one better. Although vaudeville audiences take the moving picture as their cue to move toward home, true lovers of art in action take all they can get for five or ten cents and then come back for more next day.

They like to see a story.

That’s the explanation – thanks to the woman with a shawl over her head. They feed upon mechanical fiction. They read as they look. Sensational melodrama, with the villain doing his worst in a plug hat, is an old story to them. They know it by heart. And so, theatres in which virtue used to take a back seat until the last act have felt the power of moving pictures. Only one remains to tell the blood-and-thunder tale in all Manhattan and it was obliged to get down to “workingmen’s prices” before it could compete with its noiseless rivals. From the start the moving picture show had a double advantage – lower prices and a daily change of bill. Then it went further and produced “talking pictures,” but in most cases this feature has been done away with audiences preferring to take their plays in peace and not be disturbed by the man behind the megaphone. What they want is action. Their attitude goes to show that it is always well to leave something to the imagination. They like to see a story from their own point of view.

In New York nearly every neighborhood has its “show,” and the craze has spread throughout the country until no town is too small to do the moving picture honor. Here, according to the word of a Sixth avenue showman, “picture fiends,” who keep a record of what they have seen and protest against “repeaters,” are an outgrowth of the craze. Their criticism of the Sunday exhibitions at which only educational pictures may be shown, in accordance with the stupid law, is often expressed in the simple term “Rotten!” They insist upon getting action for their money. The pictures must get “a move on” to win success. Patrons of the picture-drama want to see a story with plenty of action in it. From the Bowery to the Bronx tastes and pictures are much the same.

Bowery Wants Bank Robberies

But hero and there of course individual taste asserts itself. The proprietor of a little hall on the Bowery confessed that while his clientele showed a due appreciation of comedy and tragedy they had from time to time expressed a deep yearning for bank robberies. Unfortunately safe-cracking is not included in the picture-maker’s repertoire, and so the regretful “manager” has not been able to supply the demand for that particular form of art. However his audience made the best of things on a recent afternoon and seemed rather pleased with “A Corsican Revenge.”

The Corsican who caused all the trouble by killing a fellow fisherman and then got knifed by his victim’s wife, a husky lady with a fine stroke, looked like Caruso in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” According to the hospitable custom of the country, she was obliged to entertain her husband’s slayer when he sought refuge in her home. But once she got him outside she made short work of him. The lively little tragedy was worked out with neatness and dispatch. Five or six Chinamen who could qualify as Broadway first-nighters without putting on boiled shirts watched “A Corsican Revenge” without the slightest change of expression. In fact, the audience made no sign until two energetic gentlemen were flashed upon the scene and began kicking each other in the stomach. This light comedy was received with roars of laughter. The drummer emphasized each kick with a thump and the “professor” came down hard on the piano. “Comedy” won the occasions.

A placard on the wall warned the visitor to “Beware of Pickpockets.” Another made this polite request: Gentlemen Will Please Refrain from using Profane Language. The gentlemen did.

Accordion Breathes Hard.

In front of another temple of art across the street was the sign: “Positively No Free List During This Engagement.” You had to have a nickel to get inside. Down in front sat a Bowery artist with an accordion that was drawing its breath with great difficulty. During the overture he addressed facetious remarks to the audience.

“Hey, there!” yelled one of the crowd. “Cut out that comedy and give us some music.”

“Anyt’ing doin’?” inquired the performer, holding out his hat. “Come on, now,” he urged, ” trow in a little sumt’in fer de dear ones wot are dead and gone.”

“Ferget it!” yelled the unsympathetic mob.

“The Gallant Guardsman” presently drew attention from the accordion artist. At the first appearance of a Spanish soldier on the screen the accordion began wheezing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” When the guardsman rescued a dancing girl from the embraces of a low-browed citizen the tune changed to “Marching Through Georgia.” A dash of “Trovatore” cheered the guardsman on his way. The low-browed citizen waited behind a wall and killed the first soldier that came along. But he got the wrong man and the hero was about to be shot when the barefooted dancing girl ran to the rescue and explained the situation in a few hand-made gestures.

The audience followed the story with intense interest, and only the accordion was heard until a picture showing a young man who was carried off in a wardrobe appealed to the Bowery sense of humor. The hero of this adventure found himself in the bedroom of a loving couple who finally accepted his explanation and then had him sit down to supper with them.

French but Chaste.

All of the pictures seen on the lower east and west sides were French but chaste. Nothing more shocking than a murder occurred in any of them.

At a place in Grand street “The Peasant’s Love” was the chief feature of the bill. All went well until the peasant’s sweetheart promised to meet a newly arrived sailor “down by the pond.” His note to her was revealed on the screen. But the jealous peasant got to the pond first and when the girl came along he sneaked up behind her and threw her into the pond. The inevitable gendarmes first arrested the sailor, of course, but after a long chase they nabbed the guilty peasant.

Nearly all of the pictures showed gendarmes in pursuit of somebody. The principal figure was usually obliged to “run for it,” and suspense was kept up until the capture of the fugitive. The “story” was kept on the jump.

In “The Magic Boots” a happy individual was seen eluding his pursuers by walking on water, telegraph wires – wherever his fancy led him. His wonderful boots defied the French and all other laws. But down in Grand street it was the serious pictures that gripped the spectators.

“Dremma,” answered one manager when asked what appealed to his patrons most of all. And a woman whom he described as one of his best customers said: “I like to see a story. The funny pictures – they are funny, yes, but you don’t remember them. I like to remember what I see. You don’t forget a story – it goes home with you.”

Take Them Seriously.

This serious interest in story-pictures was apparent in other halls along Grand street. But a desire to be cheerful under all circumstances was suggested by this announcement over the door of one place: “The Bride of Lammermoor – A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland.”

In a Mulberry street “theatre,” conducted under Italian auspices, the pictures were similar to those in Grand street. A coal stove filled the place with gas but no one seemed to notice it. Another Italian place in West Houston street sported this sign: “Caruso Moving Pictures.” But Caruso wasn’t among those present on the screen. The name, apparently, was merely a delicate tribute to the Metropolitan’s sobbing tenor.

Bessie Wynn’s name was prominently displayed in front of an imposing theatre in Fourteenth street. But Bessie was there only in voice and picture. You could recognize her picture but her voice had to be taken for granted. When they canned Bessie’s voice they evidently forgot to screw down the lid, and so it had soured and curdled and lost its flavor.

“The Wild Horse” filled up on oats at the Manhattan Theatre and developed from a weak skinny nag into a fat and fearful animal that kicked everything to pieces. It was the “big laugh.”

Harlem Likes to Laugh.

But here as elsewhere serious pictures with now and then a shooting or stabbing incident for excitement outnumbered the comic subjects. Harlem showed the greatest fondness for funny pictures. The Bronx appeared to be more serious minded.

Some of the places open their doors as early as 9 in the morning and keep going until after 11 at night. The shows are continuous and so are the privileges that go with a ticket. Only the pictures are compelled to move.

Comment: Among the films described are Âmes corses [The Corsican’s Revenge] (France 1908 p.c. Eclair) and Le galant garde français [The Gallant Guardsman] (France 1908 p.c. Pathé Frères). Bessie Wynn was an American singer and stage comedienne. The mention of ‘talking pictures’ presumably refers to a short vogue in a few theatres for having actors speak behind the screen rather than synchronised sound films (i.e. films, usually of singers, synchronised to a gramophone recording).

Links: Available online at Chronicling America

The Picture-Palaces of London

picturepalace

Illustration accompanying the original article

Source: ‘The Picture-Palaces of London’, The Daily Chronicle, 9 April 1910

Text: The Picture-Palaces of London. Have They Comes to Stay?

Pricked out in electric lights, on an imposing brand new structure of white stucco, you read the words “Cinematograph Theatre.” You wonder where the thing has come from. Like Aladdin’s Palace, it seems to have sprung up in a single night. On yesterday there was a block of old houses on that very spot. You remember looking in a the greengrocer’s window as you sauntered home to dinner, wondering what kind of fruit the children would like.

Well, no, it could not have been yesterday, but it was certainly the week before last!

A few weeks later the white stucco erection appears to have budded. There are two of the now, side by side. The matter is worth further enquiry, so you cross over, and read the “bill of fare” at either door. The rival attendants, gorgeously arrayed, glance at you with enticing eyes, but you regard not their mute entreaties. Then you are probably taken by surprise. The charm of the things catches you. Perhaps it is best set down as a free-and-easiness. Go when you will, after the door is opened, you are never late; never in anxiety over a seat. The show goes on continuously. There is a set of pictures for the day – six perhaps, or eight – and if you miss numbers one and two, why, you will see them for certain after number eight.

Entertainment Ad Lib.

The set may last an hour, to an hour and a half, but you need not go out at that time unless you have a mind to. You may sit still, if you choose, and see the whole set over again. I dare say you won’t, unless it is pouring wet outside, and you have forgotten your umbrella, but it is something to know that you can.

The cinematograph theatre fills a gap in our scheme of amusement. It may be a small gap, but still it was there, and now it is filled. It catches the leakage from the theatres and halls, the unfortunately who are sent sorrowfully away by the unwelcome announcement of “House full.”

It gives the tired sightseer an hour’s respite from the noise and fatigue of the streets, and in some cases it dangles the tempting bait of “afternoon tea[“] gratis before this type of prospective patron. To the regular theatre it stands in the same relationship as a “snack” does to a formal luncheon. It is the resource of the man with only an hour to spare, the lady who doesn’t like to be out late, the girl whose papa doesn’t approve of theatres, the little boy who must be in bed at six, the hospital nurse who only has two hours off duty, and the family party from the provinces, whose train starts at ten sharp.

Oh, and one must not forget the lovers! Humble lovers, perhaps, with a few shillings to spare. one sees them often in the sixpenny seats, holding hands in the friendly dark. They watch the films go spinning on, with absent eyes and beatific smiles. They haven’t come there for the show, but to find a corner to sit in, out of the wet. One can’t always go round and round the Inner Circle with a penny ticket without catching the eye of the cute conductor!

The Aristocratic Sixpence.

There are differences in the quality of these as of all other types of amusement. There are the second-raters in the outlying streets, just beyond the radius of West-end style. The modest sum of threepence will gain you admittance here, and if you indulge yourself to the tune of sixpence you are “a swell.” The pictures are usually quite up to the average, but the environment is not. The dark is not friendly, but apprehensive. One is suspicious of one’s neighbour, and keeps a tight clutch on one’s belongings. There is every prospect of carrying away with you less than you ought, and more than you bargained for. Reminiscences of the place are forced upon you next day by the odour of stale and indifferent tobacco that clings to your clothes. As you near the vicinity of Oxford-street there is a decided attempt at luxury in the internal appointments of the “Palaces.” The goods are not all in the shop window. Decidedly, too, the “orchestra” plays better. It consists usually of a girl with a piano, the latter very much at her mercy. In some of the theatres visited by the writer, it would be only charitable to suppose that the lady pianist had fallen a victim to the prevalent disease newly christened by a London daily as “The Hump.” She played in spasms, with a reckless disregard of time and tune, and an obvious idea that her function was merely to drown out the silence.

In the West they have changed all that, and, incidentally, the prices have gone up. We may now pay two shillings for a “fauteuil” (which is a horrid, awkward word to spell, and means exactly the same as seat, anyway!). Along with the fauteuil we have the advantage of being shone upon by rose-shaded electric lights, vastly improving to the complexion, and of feasting our eyes on the artistic decorations of the walls when we tire of the pictures.

People do not laugh so boisterously here as they do in the north and east. At most they chuckle. On the whole, there is a remarkable absence of all kinds of noise in these cinematograph theatres. Applause seems to be a thing unknown. It is a relief to hear the voice of a child imperiously demanding, as the name of the film appears, “Read it, mother. Read it quick!”

Child’s Living Picture Book.

The little folks are mostly to be found at the afternoon performances. It must all seem a kind of glorified picture book to them. How they roar over the man who knocks down everything, or the fat old lady pursued by some strange fatality, who is knocked down by everybody! They have a wonderful aptitude, too, for following the “story” in some of the more ambitious pictures. The kidnapped child is one of their favourites. “Did they find him, mother? Are you sure?” a little lad asks in a tearful voice, to the kindly amusement of all who sit near by. The tragic subjects find favour with young ladies, one fancies, and indeed they are sometimes admirably conceived – real dramas, in which the words are hardly missed. The marvellous power of facial expression to convey an emotion in all its subtle shades is brought home to the mind with striking force by the intense interest one feels in these “mimed” plays. Of course it is hard to forget that the pictures are “faked.” One could never for a moment admit the possibility of pictorial drama affecting the taste for the drama of the regular stage. Too much talk may be bad, as was instanced in a recent much-criticised production, but no talk at all is the worse evil of the two.

Perhaps most successful of all are the travel pictures, where the scenery is absolutely realistic, and the sense of motion admirably conveyed. No “book of views,” however beautiful, can fascinate as this moving panorama does. It is as good as a holiday – and somewhat cheaper!

Have the pictures come to stay? Yes, they have filled a gap. It will be long before anything more novel or more entertaining appears to fit that precise niche in the House of Pleasure.

Comment: The inner Circle refers to a London underground train line.