Itinerant exhibitionMoving pictures were first presented to audiences in borrowed spaces: fairgrounds, public halls, theatres, shops, galleries and even a few palaces. Permanent cinemas only started appearing in Scotland in 1907, and even those were conversions of existing buildings. Cinema owes its initial popularity to these borrowed spaces and to many entrepreneurial, ingenious people who brought the cinematograph to town and country. Theirs was a very challenging job, using skills developed in other occupations like lantern lecturing, touring concerts and music-hall performance. At a time when moving pictures were simple glimpses of reality or very short silent sketches, and before there was a whole industry dedicated to their marketing and distribution, the work of these travelling exhibitors made cinema popular by placing it in the context of a more appealing show.
Recalling the main groups involved in the British film trade before permanent cinemas, A.C. Bromhead, director of Gaumont, spoke of three main categories: the fairground travelling showpeople, the town hall showpeople, and the music hall exhibitors. These were quite distinct forms of practice with different but overlapping audiences and social standing. The fairground milieu is examined in more detail in another section, while here we look at the Scottish exhibitors putting on shows in other types of venues.
There was no shortage of meeting places in Scotland at the turn of the century. During the second half of the 19th century, public halls had been built all over Scotland by a variety of investors. Broadly speaking, the new civic meeting spaces could be either built by municipal authorities, by religious or friendly societies, or by private landlords. Within these categories, the halls could have a more or less commercial bent. Most municipal authorities and societies used their halls for their own meetings, but also rented them out to other groups, including entertainers, or promoted their own commercial events as a means of fundraising for the organisation. Halls were often governed by committee, which tended to foster a strong community-service ethos. While these halls aimed to be sustainable and to yield some profit, the types of activities that took place in them depended to a great extent on the criteria of the governing board; some were wary of purely recreational events such as dances, whereas others were more liberal or profit-oriented
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. Having a place where the community could gather was a priority, and an important driver of this impulse was the idea of 'rational recreation'. As working conditions improved, even if very slowly, people started to think about using their leisure time in other ways beyond drinking. Sports and hobbies started to become a feature of everyday life. The expansion of the railways, meanwhile, 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.
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, Peter Feathers of Dundee, or Lizars of Glasgow who had been working as 'lantern lecturers' before. They delivered illustrated talks on various topics, using a magic lantern, but they usually did this as a sideline to their main job as printers, photographers or opticians. For them, the cinematograph was seen as an addition to the magic lantern; 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 of them, however, 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.
The show had to be on the move because there were not enough films to change the programme. So as films became more abundant and interesting, some showmen started experimenting with longer stays in one place, as well as longer shows in bigger venues.
Joe Kember, Marketing Modernity