Cinema before cinemas: Public hallsDuring 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. Hundreds of public halls were built in Scotland before the end of the First World War. 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. 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.
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. They would be leased for a night by companies like William Walker's of Aberdeen, who toured extensively in the North-East, or Robert Calder's whose tour included Kirkwall, Lerwick, Scalloway and Stromness. A more modest 'concert party' was Alexander Mathieson's tour in the mining towns of Lanarkshire and East Lothian, which is well documented due to a court case involving a faulty projector. Running a concert party was very hard work and financially risky, but many of these companies had been doing it for decades, and continued to tour without films after about 1905.
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
These regulations made it impractical to do one-night-stand shows in places that did not have projection facilities installed. However, another type of show had been thriving - longer seasons at urban halls. 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