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Hidden in the South Australian State Library Archives is an undated handwritten manuscript monograph which provides a remarkably informative and graphic account of the silent film era in Adelaide. As it would appear never to have been printed or published, it is presented in full below, to provide a background to the description of Adelaide's theatre organs.
PICTURE THEATRE BUILDING IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
By Vera Jurs
Could any of the young people of the present time imagine what it would be like if there were no talkies?
They have become so much a part of life that it would be difficult. They have so much to offer of diversion and education that it would seem calamitous. Yet, our parents in their youth enjoyed no such privilege, for as short time ago as forty years the picture theatre did not exist, as an establishment, although it was in 1897 that the "movie" was first introduced to Adelaide theatre-goers when, on December 26th of that year, Wybert Reeve presented the Cinématographe as a part of his vaudeville entertainment in the Theatre Royal.
The audience first witnessed the usual sequence of juggler, acrobat, song and dance, etc., of the "Variety" show (some of the older Adelaideans might still remember).
Then followed the living pictures. They were silent, but the theatre orchestra did what it could to make up for this deficiency. Subjects shown were, an expanse of sea that surged to hurl itself against rocks of a rugged coast, the exercising of Russian cavalry, a charge of French Cuirassiers and the rushing by of a railway train. A member of the audience screamed as the engine raced forward. She explained afterwards that she felt it was coming straight at her.
These pictures were amazing to the audience of 1897. They were Lumière's Cinematograph Living Tableaux. Sestier and Barnett owned the Australian rights.
Later on, Mr. T.J. West of West's Olympia ice-skating rink in Hindley Street (previously known as West's Cyclorama, where some of us older ones can remember seeing the Battle of Waterloo realistically set out), installed in the Adelaide Town Hall the first motion picture projection equipment in the State. The films shown here drew capacity houses. They were aptly called "flickers", or "flicks", for the early motion picture flickered horribly - very trying to the eyes.
To enable the audience to follow the story, explanatory writing appeared on the screen at necessary intervals, while an orchestra played throughout the entertain-ment, suiting the music to the changing sentiments of the story. If, by any mischance, the music stopped, the resulting silence seemed almost startling, and a great part of the atmosphere and expression of the picture was gone, too.
Encouraged by this success in the Town Hall, Olympia was turned into a theatre. West's pictures opened there on 5th December, 1908.
The movie business held great possibilities. Other people opened shows both in City and suburb. One, our John Fanning, then well known in theatrical circles, and still remembered by many, showed The Globe Pictures at the New Pavilion, which opened on October 24th, 1918. It was advertised as "a remarkably cool tent (opposite the Exhibition Building) - Admission 6d., Chairs 1/-". For the 6d., forms were provided.
Some very fine films were released, and gradually they became steadier. As to their housing, many a tin shed served the purpose and, even in the city, some of the theatres were dirty and unattractive in themselves. Nor were the audiences of small unkempt boys and their sisters, who filled the front stalls at matinées, always well-behaved. It was not at all unusual for members of the orchestra to have to dodge fruit skins and peanut shells aimed at their heads. And, at interval time, there was a running in and out and a scrambling over the backs of seats until a manager or an usher quelled the too-high spirits with the alternative of being put out and kept out.
In the audience it was much worse: dirty little halls, half-ruined pianos, whose dirty, sticky keys were banged throughout the enter-tainment by a tuneless-souled individual whose main idea (which, incidentally, in many cases was also the idea of the management) was to make a noise. In some instances there'd be a violinist as well, to scrape harshly for the exciting parts and wail pathetically during the softer scenes; while the small fry of the audience raised their voices in shout or laughter, drowning the combined efforts of violinist and pianist, and spent their interval time jumping and climbing over the seats with deafening hubbub, and, when the show was over, left the floor (in any case never very clean) a mess of banana skins, nut shells, paper, spilt soft drinks, etc.
It is interesting to remark the great improvements that have been effected since those not so very long ago days.
Releasing of films went on apace as their popularity grew. It was inevitable, if the business were to continue to prosper, that suitable better theatres should be built and efficiently managed. In City and suburbs, in country towns too, transformations took place, and the people may now be justly proud of the architecture, comfort and cleanliness of their theatres.
In the suburbs, the accomplishment of this work is due largely to the ambitious spirit and hard work of Mr Daniel Clifford, Manag-ing Director of D. Clifford Star Theatres, Limited. Also, in 1911, Ozone Theatres, Ltd., was founded by Mr Waterman, who showed in the Semaphore Town Hall and later in the Port Adelaide Town Hall, subse-quently acquiring and building suburban and country theatres. This company also screens at the Majestic, Theatre Royal and Chinese Gardens, and controls about the same number of theatres as the D Clifford organisation.
These - the D. Clifford Star Theatres - number seventeen, including one at Mt. Gambier and one at Kadina, and are all comfortable, well-equipped modern thea-tres.
Up till eleven years ago, when Mr. Clifford saw fit to form a company, he alone was responsible for the successful running of the Star Theatres. The whole of the properties now owned by the company is valued at well over £200,000. This is an achievement, considering that Dan Clifford started out with no advanta-ges save his own ambition and industry.
It might be interesting to glance into this man's early activities.
Born second eldest of a family of eight, in West Adelaide in 1887, he was selling newspapers in the street at the age of eleven. On the suggestion of Judge Bouceaut, who was one of his customers, at fifteen he erected a news kiosk opposite the Supreme Court. And when the Outer Harbour was opened in 1908, he opened one down there, where, in addition to newspapers and magazines, he sold all the little extras useful to travellers. Both these ventures were immensely successful.
His next experience was in bookmaking. This occupation proved so profitable that he was enabled to enter the picture theatre business. He commenced by purchasing the plants of two small suburban theatres at Torrensville and Hindmarsh, respectively, and later the freehold of the one at Torrensville.
Next, he offered a loan of £4,000 and a contract for a lease to the Hindmarsh Council on condition that they improved and enlarged their Town Hall. This offer was accepted. Then followed a leasing and buying of theatres in the different suburbs. These he cleaned and improved in every way, rebuilding and putting in good profes-sional orchestras. Here, I might mention that the youngsters, also, responded to a little discipline and a changed environment.
From such beginnings arose the Capitol at St. Peter's, and the Unley New Star Theatre, with its attractive arcade entrance. This building cost £45,000. But it has well repaid its builder.
During the depression following the Great War, it was by dint of steady purpose and hard work that Mr. Clifford was able to retain his theatres and recover a successful footing.
Physically, this quiet-voiced, pleasant man is not robust, which makes his capacity for hard work the more remarkable.
In the City, the Regent and York Theatres are a great contrast to what formerly stood on their sites. The Rex, and others lately improved and renamed, are all clean, artistic and comfortable. And so we come to the latest splendid picture houses in Hindley Street.
While all this building was in progress, the heads of the makers of films were busy evolving ideas, with the result that in 1928, Adelaide saw, for the first time, a picture complete with dialogue, music and all the sounds necessary for a truly realistic production.
The picture was "The Jazz Singer", with Al Jolson as the singer. On the same programme was the opera "Lucia de Lammermoor", also a "talkie".
This was wonderful; but orchestras were no longer required, so that a time of heavy depression descended upon professional musicians.
Several of Adelaide's early picture theatres contained photoplayers of various sizes, which were used both solo and in combination with small orchestras. In the remaining houses the films were shown to the accompaniment of orchestras, pianos or player-pianos:
"In those days a piano, or preferably a pianola manned by somebody who could attack the drums, blow a horn and fire a gun proved sufficient for music and effects. At one Rundle Street show, the lady who attended to these multifarious duties was stone deaf, and, moreover, jammed right against the screen, was unable to gather much of what was going on, so the effects were apt to be a trifle mixed."
["Colourful History of Entertainment", The Advertiser, Adelaide, 1 Septembet, 1945]
[photos of Dan Clifford and the Star, Port Adelaide, from Everyone's, 1 November, 1922, p.95]
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