The Cult of the Cinema
Paper delivered by J. J. Bennell to the Rotary Club, Glasgow in September 1917, reminiscing about his career.
A few personal references by way of introduction may perhaps be permitted. I have not the honour of being a Glaswegian by birth; I am a Southron whom Glasgow has adopted. I have, however, known Glasgow for a very long time. Some forty-five years ago I paid my first visit to this city by taking a two days' excursion from Bradford, Yorks, where I then resided. I learned to admire Glasgow then, I have never ceased to admire it, and to-day my admiration is greater than ever, heightened, as it is, by the innumerable kindnesses I have received at the hands of its citizens, one of the latest manifestations of which is your election of me as a rotarian to represent the city's cinema industry. Forty years ago I gave my first series of concerts in this city as a public entertainer. They were given in Hengler's Cirque, West Nile Street, a building now used as Henderson's Garage. I then made friendships I still cherish, notably that of Mr. Walter Freer, the curator of the City Halls. I have kept in touch with Glasgow ever since.
Having been associated with the entertainment world for so many years, and toured every city and town in the United Kingdom, I early turned my attention to the cinematograph when that marvellous invention loomed up before the entertainment industry. In 1896 Mr. R. W. Paul placed on the British market a projector which he called the animatograph. About the same time Mr. Edison, in America, produced the kinetoscope, and Messrs. Lumiere, in Paris, the cinematograph. In 1897 I hired a machine, films, and operator, and took a show on tour. My early efforts were not financially successful - the public were not educated up to the cinema twenty years ago. Later on I toured on one-night stands, showing in a different town each night - six towns a week.
To arrange and control the newspaper, window billing, and circular advertising, fix up trains, secure luggage accommodation in them and reserved compartments for the staff, transport the luggage to and from the halls, secure apartments, money-takers, stewards, and fit up a new hall every day was strenuous work, and my friends often remarked, "How nice it must be to travel about the country as we did." At any rate, we were not ungrateful for a Sunday off. Later on the touring picture show became popular, and we could stay three days, a week, or two weeks in the same town. Thirteen years ago I associated myself with the New Century Pictures and toured Scotland and all the North of England, visiting all the large centres of population about twice a year. We occupied the largest halls in each city and town for two or more weeks. Twice I visited Glasgow and occupied St. Andrew's Hall for seven weeks on each occasion, drawing immense audiences.
His First Hall
In 1907 I saw the coming of what we then called the permanent shows - that is, an exhibition continued in the same hall not only for weeks, but for months and years, and I enquired about the country for a suitable hall which could be adapted for the purpose. These enquiries brought me to Wellington Palace, Commercial Road, Glasgow, then owned and occupied by the Good Templars' Harmonic Society, and used mainly for Saturday night "busts" - tea and entertainment for 4d. or 6d. By the advice and with the assistance of my good friend, Mr. Walter Freer, I secured that hall for six weeks as an experiment; this was extended to a further three months, again to a further lease of three years, and before the three years expired I bought it and am still running it. It is almost ten years since that experiment commenced. It was the first all-picture show in Glasgow. Pictures were shown in connection with varieties in many other halls in the city, but Wellington Palace was the first hall used exclusively for pictures, so that I am the pioneer of the modern cinema in Glasgow, and am by the common consensus of my fellow exhibitors designated "The Father of the Trade." They have twice elected me as Chairman of the Exhibitors' Association, a position I hold at the present time.
The first modern cinema in Glasgow - that is, a building specially erected or adapted for the business, and run as a continuous show - was the Charing Cross Electric Theatre, which is still running. I personally had grave doubts about its success. I had pinned my faith to the working classes and the twice nightly house, and I did not dream that the palatial picture house, as we know it to-day, drawing its tens of thousands of well-to-d- patrons, would ever become a reality. I was entirely wrong. A picture enthusiast, I had only a limited faith in pictures. Cinema House, Renfield Stsreet, followed Charing Cross; then the Picture House, Sauchiehall Street, which after a couple of years' successful working was enlarged to its present palatial proportions. Then La Scala opposite was opened, and quickly gathered a clientele of its own. Glasgow has now over 100 cinemas in town and suburbs. So far as I know, they are all paying their way, but it seems to me that demand is fully met, at any rate in the centre of the city, and it is very doubtful if any further developments would be remunerative.
I myself have no central house, but I opened, five years ago, a house in Victoria Road, large and airy, and comfortably equipped, and have had no reason to complain of lack of patronage.
The cult of the cinema has developed not only in Glasgow, but in every city, town, and village in Great Britain.
In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland statistics quoted to the Cinema Commission by Mr. F. R. Goodwon, Chairman of the London Branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association, show that over
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