Going to the pictures

Before the introduction of television in Australia in 1956, going to the pictures was a popular entertainment.

The first permanent cinema in Adelaide was established in 1908: West’s Olympia Theatre at 91 Hindley Street.*  A further fifteen cinemas opened in Adelaide and surrounding suburbs within the next nine years, and another twenty-five in the 1920s.  In these huge cinemas, the floors usually sloped up at the back so that all patrons could see the screen.  Ticket prices varied, with seats at the front and in the wings being the cheapest, those in the middle and back portion dearer, and those in the dress circle, the dearest.

Going to the pictures in country towns

Advertisements for moving pictures in the Mt Barker Courier, 12 April 1951.

In small country towns, going to the pictures was a very different experience.  It was one of the main forms of entertainment available, but few country towns had their own purpose-built cinema.  More commonly, a hall or mechanics institute was used, and a bio box (a room at the back of the hall from which projection, lighting and sound were controlled) added.

In the small town of Meadows in South Australia, with a population of 289 in the early 1930s, moving pictures were shown in the local public hall.

Barry Ellis recalls going to the pictures in the 1940s and 1950s:

From memory I think that used to be Wednesday nights and a chap by the name of Archie Thomas from Strath[albyn] used to come across and he had a big panel van and he used to bring all his gear with him, and that was in the old hall, of course.  And the picture board used to be just between the hall and the school and you always used to know what was going to be on next week because when he was there this week he’d plaster up what was going to be on next week.  And the back about a third of the hall they had some platforms that they used to drag out, they were stored at the back of the hall through the week, and they’d put canvas chairs up there and that was the elevated section; the rest of us had to sit down on the level floor.  That was always pretty exciting.  I was allowed to go to the pictures if it was a suitable picture and I behaved myself, I was allowed to go to the pictures.  Mum used to love the movies.  And I remember Ross Buckley, he was the lolly boy at one stage, used to sell the lollies, and that was good.”

Francis the Talking Mule

Ken Smith explains the adaptations to the hall to enable pictures to be shown, and recalls some films he saw in the 1940s and 1950s:

Advertisements for moving pictures in the Mt Barker Courier, 12 April 1951. Two of the films being shown in Macclesfield and Hahndorf were from the popular series, Francis the Talking Mule.

The Meadows Hall had a little box out the front, and if you look around at some of the old halls around the districts they had just a small box built out the front for the projector to be out the front and then showing the films through the small hole through the wall.  Archie Thomas from Strathalbyn took films around to Meadows, Kangarilla, Macclesfield, Strathalbyn, Langhorne Creek and probably one or two around that area as well, and there would be two films, and Meadows was Wednesday nights.

I felt a bit hard done by at the time but it didn’t worry me that much, but my mother didn’t agree with shooting people and those sort of films so I only ever got to go to the pictures when there was a Francis the Talking Mule or something that she thought would be good for me and so I was allowed to go on those nights, but they always showed that film first, unfortunately, so I had to (laughs) go home at interval.  But it didn’t hurt me.”

A matter of continuity

Watching a movie in the local hall could be an interesting experience for a variety of reasons, sometimes unexpected, as Harry Portlock remembers:

Film projectors in 1947, possibly in a cinema in Port Lincoln, South Australia.  The Meadows hall only had one projector, so there would be a break in screening whilst film reels were changed. Photo courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, PRG 1605/9/87.

It cost something like sixpence to go to the pictures.  The Town Hall – of course, we had no electric power in those days, so they would start up the hall generator which ran the projector at the movies, and he only had one camera so that ran one reel at a time, and when the lights went out – the whole lights went out while he changed the reels of the film.  What the bigger boys and the girls got up to I’ve got no idea, but as younger children up the front we used to yell and shout.  There would be a pause in the picture show until such times as he loaded the second reel, and providing that he was watching what he was doing the second reel followed on from the first reel; but occasionally he got the reels mixed up and you’d have to try and pick up what the film – – – .  And most of the films were three to four reels of film and you’d have the three to four breaks between each show.”

The lolly boy

In the first quote above, Barry Ellis recalled that Ross Buckley had been a lolly boy at the pictures.  Ross himself describes his memories of the pictures:

See, we never went out very much back when we were kids, there was nothing on.  Pictures once a week, on Wednesday nights… In the old hall, which used to be right next to the school.  That was knocked down in, oh golly, the ’70s, I think, sometime… Oh, it was great.  It was really something for us.  Never went very often; it was a real outing… Oh, yes, the seats were those sort of long three or four or a dozen together and they fold up.  Then they had the canvas ones at the back up on about a foot or so high, that was the upper class went in those.  I had a job selling candy and lollies and stuff with a little tray, rope round my neck and a box of cash.  I used to sell lollies there at one stage, half‑time and beforehand… I can remember some of the guys from out Peters Creek way, they used to ride their horses in and tie them up at the school.  After we got out of the pictures they’d get on their horses, their horses’d be cold on a winter’s night and they had to ride them full‑bore down the main street, shod horse, and they’d make a lot of noise.”

Cinemas today

Attendance at cinemas decreased dramatically with the introduction of television.  Attendance figures declined from approximately 140 million attendances per year across Australia in the period 1942-1953, to a low point of 30 million attendances in the mid-1970s when colour television was introduced (Screen Australia, 2018b).  However, going to the cinema is still the most popular form of cultural entertainment in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics), and the number of people going to see films has once again increased, with attendance figures now back to 80 million a year.

You can read more about cinema experiences here.

* West’s Olympia Theatre was demolished in 1938. A new West’s Cinema opened in 1939, operating until 1977.  A series of businesses operated in the building intermittently after that. Since 2001, the building has been home to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Further reading:

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011). Perspectives on Culture, March 2011: Cinema Attendance.

Hennessy, A. (2013). Entertaining the Classes: An archaeological investigation of historic cinemas in Metropolitan Adelaide, South Australia, and their development in relation to social class, 1896-1949. Flinders University thesis.

Heritage Matters Pty Ltd and Heritage Victoria (2008). Jaffas down the Aisles: A Survey of Cinemas in Country Victoria.

National Archives of Australia. (nd). Introducing television to Australia, 1956 – Fact sheet 115.

Roe, K. and Pearson, B. (nd). ASO Grainger Studio. Cinema Treasures.

Screen Australia (2018a). Cinema audience attendance patterns.

Screen Australia (2018b). Cinema industry trends: Historical overview of admissions since 1901.

Quotes from oral history interviews with Ken Smith, Harry Portlock, Ross Buckley and Barry Ellis courtesy of the State Library of South Australia (OH 829-3, 57, and 18).

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