Public Hall PicturesDuring the 19th century, as the population of Scotland's towns and cities grew, the idea of 'improving oneself' through rational recreation, associations and social pursuits became more prevalent. In many towns, however, the only large room where people could gather was in the pub, so the community, local council, or private benefactors raised funds to build meeting halls. Their main function varied - some were drill halls associated with the Territorial Army, some were Masonic, some were leased by Temperance organisations, or part of the Co-operative movement. Just to give a sense of the widespread availability of such spaces, the Canmore website lists 647 drill halls, 136 masonic halls, 166 town halls, over a hundred public and village halls, and many more meeting places attached to churches, schools, libraries, and clubs. Throughout the late nineteenth century, these buildings - from the humblest to the most ornate - had served as a venue for travelling entertainment companies that toured Scotland throughout the colder months, bringing music, dance, lantern slides, and comedy to rural and small-town audiences outside the fairground season.
The expansion of the railways connected many small settlements to one another and to the cities. This allowed artists and entertainers to travel easily from town to town for one-night-only shows. When these travelling entertainers or 'concert parties' started adding moving pictures to their shows, the village halls became the first sites of film exhibition in many towns.
Between 1896 and the First World War, several types of travelling cinema shows were common in Scotland, each connected to other forms of entertainment. There were people like William Walker, of Aberdeen, who toured extensively in the North-East, or Robert Calder whose tour included Kirkwall, Lerwick, Scalloway and Stromness. Like Peter Feathers of Dundee, or Lizars of Glasgow, they had been working as 'lantern lecturers' before, usually did this as a sideline to their main job as printers, photographers or opticians. They delivered illustrated talks on various topics, using a magic lantern,and the cinematograph was seen as an addition to this equipment; however, it also brought them closer to the entertainment business as opposed to the purely educational. These two categories were never fully distinct - the attraction of seeing the world on the screen was both for fun and for instruction. However, this educational image gave them an air of legitimacy and these exhibitors were more likely to be hired for private functions in the houses of the rich.
Many film exhibitors also worked on their own initiative and in association with musicians, comedians and dancers to put on 'concert parties'. Moving pictures were then part of a variety show, like in urban music halls, although usually of a more wholesome nature. A great example of how difficult it was to organise and manage a concert party is provided by the case of Alexander Mathieson, who in 1903 organised a three-week tour of mining villages in Linlithgowshire and Lanarkshire, and wanted to show Georges Melies' Trip to the Moon. He failed because his hired projector and projectionist didn't work, but left behind a fascinating correspondence showing how he had to contact each venue (public halls in this case), agree terms of hire, find somebody in town who could hire him a piano, arrange local advertising and licensing, and make travel arrangements for all members of the company. It was very hard work and not very lucrative once the other artists had been paid.
As permanent cinemas started opening their doors in the cities, touring companies continued to work in small towns and in some peripheral urban halls.Their work was becoming more difficult as audiences expected more up-to-date films, which were harder to acquire, and standards of comfort not met by the folding chairs or wooden benches used in halls. In 1909, a definitive threat came in the form of the Cinematograph Films Act, an act of Parliament that sought to regulate the conditions in which films were shown due to the perceived fire hazard they posed. The 1909 Act required the projector and projectionist to be encased in a fireproof metal box, which made it impractical to do one-night shows in places that did not have projection facilities installed.
At the same time, urban halls were hosting film shows for increasingly long seasons. Venues like Dundee's Kinnaird Hall, the St Andrews Hall in Glasgow, Queen's Rooms in Edinburgh and the Aberdeen Music Hall had been under long leases by cinematograph companies from around 1902. The success of these shows encouraged and supported their promoters to set up some of the first permanent cinemas. In fact, sometimes all that was needed was to change a lease from temporary to permanent, and the village hall became a cinema.
Often the lease conditions allowed for the venue to be used for some of its original functions such as dances, charity bazaars, political and Temperance meetings, or drills. Sometimes the halls became part of local circuits where an exhibitor would show the same films at different towns for two nights each week, or operated as weekend outposts of a venue in a neighbouring town. This flexibility allowed many small communities to have a regular supply of affordable entertainment, while generating income for local councils and maintaining public infrastructure. Public hall shows played a key role in sustaining interest in cinema at the turn of the century, and provided the basis for some outstanding careers in the Scottish cinema trade, from Walker and Calder to 'Prince' Bendon and J. J. Bennell.
Many of these public halls still exist today, and continue to be crucial for access to cinema and the arts in many communities. From the activities of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild in the 1950s, to the Community Cinemas supported by Regional Screen Scotland now, they prove that the big, urban, commercial picture palace has never been the only option.
Richard Brown, "New Century Pictures: Regional enterprse in early British film exhibition," The lost world of Michell and Kenyon, eds. Vanessa Toulmin, Patrick Russell, and Simon Popple, (London: BFI, 2004) 69-82.
Maria A. Velez-Serna