Topic

The making of Cinema City

At the end of the 19th century, Glasgow was the sixteenth largest city in the world, after experiencing the fastest population growth in Europe. In a hundred years, the number of urban dwellers had gone from less than 50,000 to 775,561 by 1901, and it passed the million mark with the annexation of Govan and Partick burghs in 1912. This fast population growth was linked with Glasgow's position as an industrial powerhouse, first as a textile and manufacturing centre, and then as a world leader in heavy engineering and metal-work. As a characteristic example of a Victorian city, Glasgow combined the extravagant mansions and office buildings of industrialists and bankers with the overcrowded inner-city lodgings and the masses of tenements that housed workers near shipyards and workshops. This industrial population was already notorious as a keen and discriminating music-hall audience, while the middle classes were well catered for in sumptuous theatres, concert halls, and tea-rooms.

Moving pictures arrived in Glasgow in May 1896, on the back of a different attraction — ice skating. Arthur Hubner’s Real Ice Skating Palace had only been open for a week when it started advertising the Cinematographe, 'Direct from London, The Century’s Sensation'. Accompanied by a full orchestra and “entertainments of a high-class character”, the seven short films shown did not attempt to upstage the skaters. Hubner continued to include films in his variety entertainment, which could be enjoyed from the balcony by non-skating spectators at a cost of 1s. But the reception amongst the well-heeled patrons of the Skating Palace was lukewarm. In August 1896, the manager of the Britannia Music Hall hired Hubner and his animated pictures as a special attraction for the venue’s re-opening after the installation of electric lighting. Charging 2d for admission, the show was a resounding success.

Over the following months, cinema appeared in a variety of contexts, as exhibitors tried their luck with different audiences. The cinematograph, or any of the other projection systems in competition, was often part of the programme for travelling 'concert parties' presenting respectable entertainment in large variety theatres (like the Empire Palace or hired halls, like the Waterloo Rooms. Shoppers could also encounter free film shows at Wilson's Colosseum, a department store on Jamaica Street which always put on special attractions during the Christmas season. Meanwhile, on the other end of town, George Green had brought the bioscope into the Old Barracks carnival, as a sideshow attraction to the fairground rides, exhibits and performances offered at Christmas and during Glasgow Fair. Cinema's novelty valued was couched in more aspirational terms when it appeared at the Royal Institute of Fine Arts, where it was presented as an exciting extension of photography, with the additional appeal of electricity "ensuring great brilliance and absolute safety".

Catering for very different audiences, these shows brought moving pictures into existing formats and contexts of entertainment. The supply of new films was irregular and expensive, so exhibitors had to stay on the road, showing the same programme in different places. During the first ten years of moving picture exhibition, Glasgow had a steady flow of visiting companies that leased existing spaces for temporary shows, as part of Scottish or UK-wide tours. Travelling companies like the New Century Animated Picture Company or William Walker's cinematograph were able to use the large number of public halls, many of them owned by the Glasgow Corporation, which also hired their services for their own concerts. An amicable relationship was formed between the Corporation and some sectors of the cinema industry, in particular those claiming a connection with Temperance movements.

Over the years, patterns started to emerge, with some companies staying on for longer seasons. One of the travellers with New Century Pictures, James Joseph Bennell, seized the opportunity and took over the Wellington Palace, a large hall belonging to the Good Templars in the working-class residential area of the Gorbals, just south of the city centre. Opened just before Christmas 1907, the Wellington Palace was just a couple of weeks behind Glasgow's first permanent picturehouse, an old music hall in Calton reopened by the English entrepreneur Ralph Pringle as Pringle's Picture Palace. This was followed by Pringle's Bijou Hall in March 1908 and the Govan Hall Pictures in August 1908. The transition to permanent places of film exhibition started outside the city centre, in relatively large halls, rather than the small store-front urban venues characteristic of the 'nickelodeon' era in other parts of the world.

As J. J. Bennell admitted, this was a cautious strategy: Instead of building expensive theatres to attract an affluent audience, exhibitors leased large but unassuming venues in densely-populated working-class districts. Only after the success of these shows had confirmed that cinema was not a passing fad did exhibitors dare to invest in purpose-built venues. The first of these to open in the city centre was the Charing Cross Electric Theatre, in May 1910. After this milestone, however, growth was very quick, in the city centre as much as in the residential areas. The association with music hall continued, as Hengler's Circus (which replaced the Skating Palace), the Britannia, the Bridgeton Star Palace, the Empire, and the Tivoli all showed films. By 1915, there were around a hundred places showing films in Glasgow, a number that continued to grow after the First World War. By the end of the silent era, Glaswegians were amongst the most avid cinemagoers in the world, and Green's were opening the largest cinema outside the US - at the heart of Glasgow's theatrical district, and a far cry from the days of drill halls and fairground booths.

By Maria A. Velez-Serna.