A job at the pictures

If the creation of motion pictures was a collective endeavour, marrying the skills of producers, directors, actors and cameramen among others, the same was true of their exhibition. Each of the 600 or so picture houses active across Scotland in the silent period employed a varied staff to attract and entertain their audiences: ranging from the manager who co-ordinated the publicity, or ‘exploitation’, for each programme; through the projectionists who ensured a comfortable viewing experience by running the film at the right speed and avoiding undue flicker in the picture; to the music director and instrumentalists, whose playing enhanced the emotional impact of the scenes played out on the screen; and those who sold tickets and ushered patrons to their seats in the darkened auditorium; and last but not least the cleaners who ensured that as far as possible audiences were not inconvenienced by the leftovers from previous shows, which could rage from tobacco ash to chewing gum, spectacles and, in one case, a glass eye. Numbers employed varied according to the size of the cinema. The Cinema House in Renfield Street, Glasgow, opened in 1911 with a staff of eighteen, including an orchestra of five, comprising two pianists, two violinists, and a cellist. Not all were employed full-time through the day. Orchestral provision varied with the size of attendance through the day, so that day-time audiences made do with a single pianist. At Saturday matinees intended for children, staffing was often sparse, dangerously so in the case of the Glen Cinema, Paisley, where in 1929 a Hogmanay show for some 700 children was handled by the projectionist and his assistant, along with a single male attendant assisted by a 15-year-old chocolate seller, also charged with ensuring that no-one gained entry by the back door without paying, and a woman with a bad leg who took money at the door.

Overseeing all was the manager who fulfilled the role of showman to maximise the films’ appeal. This could take the form of attractive lobby displays to draw the attention of passing custom, but could extend to more elaborate campaigns. In July 1919, the manager of the Pavilion in Rothesay organised a draw with the prize at the end of the week ‘a new born baby’ with a cheque to cover the cost of its education and upkeep. Curiosity was sufficiently piqued to ensure a full house on the Saturday to witness the presentation of a baby piglet with a cheque for £5 to pay for its feed. Reflecting the responsibility they assumed for the success of the house, managers were the highest paid of all cinema workers. At the Cinema House, the basic salary was £4 a week, double that of the next best paid member of staff, the orchestral leader. Cinemas incurred a substantial cost to ensure the quality of the music accompanying the film. At the Cinema House in Aberdeen, almost half the wage bill in the mid 1920s went on the orchestra of five. In the early years, publicity made considerably more of the nature of the music being provided than it did of the films on the bill. The presence of German musical directors at the Hillhead Picture Salon in Glasgow and the Princes Cinema in Edinburgh was thought to enhance the prestige of both houses in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. Although challenged by the rise of star actors, orchestras were never wholly eclipsed and a number of cinemas opted to retain live musicians into the sound era, providing a human counterpoint to an increasingly mechanical presentation.

The mostly part-time nature of cinema work rendered it suitable for all ages, so that school-leavers commencing to learn the trade as assistant projectionists worked alongside those of more advanced years, such as the 66-year-old attendant Thomas Binnie, charged each evening at 10 with carrying that day’s takings to the proprietor. Staffing spanned the genders as well as the ages: women were a significant presence in cinemas from the earliest days, albeit often in roles conventionally assigned to them. At the Cinema House in 1911, women acted as cleaners and musicians. Over time, opportunities for wider involvement opened up. During the Great War, the departure of large numbers of men for the armed forces obliged many cinemas to look to new sources of recruitment. Classes enabling women to train as operators (projectionists) were launched in Edinburgh in 1916, while job advertisements such as that placed by an un-named cinema in the north of Scotland for a ‘manager/ manageress’ reflected a greater readiness to consider women in positions of responsibility. By the end of the silent era, the Cinema House in Glasgow now renamed the Regent Cinema had a female assistant manager. Such cases continued to represent the exception rather than the norm, as even during the war when labour was in short supply, preference was often given to injured ex-servicemen now seeking lighter duties.

The war had a more lasting impact in the boost given to the organisation of cinema workers. The part-time, often supplementary nature of the work had discouraged the growth of unions, but by 1916 collective agreements for the wages of operators, doorkeepers, and attendants belonging to the National Association of Theatrical Employees were concluded. The creation of a single union for cinema and theatre musicians in 1919 encouraged agreement on rates of pay for a standard working week of 24 hours. Cinemas also encountered the problems of labour relations besetting much of British industry in this period, with strikes contemplated by musicians in Glasgow and Edinburgh in the mid 1920s. Work remained highly seasonal, as cinemas reduced orchestral provision during the summer as audiences declined. The coming of the talkies from 1929 marked a more permanent end for many. By 1931, some 8,000 professional musicians across Glasgow were reported to be unemployed. By that point, only two cinemas in Edinburgh were operating with orchestras. For many cinema workers then, the coming of sound represented as much of a revolution as it did for those on the screen.