Going to the pictures

A story by Beryl Bowden

Below is the paper I wrote and presented at Sydney University on the 26th June 1995. The occasion was a conference to” Celebrate100 years of Movies in Australia.”

Scarletts Picture Show Van

Scarletts Picture Show Van

From the early 1930s to the early 1960s my father, Les Bourke, was the motion picture exhibitor at Stroud, then a small country town some 400 people. Previously, we were visited by two travelling picture shows; Scarlett’s, and Penn’s Touring Talkies, with their equipment carried in large trucks and the company name printed on the side in large letters.

Lyle Penn, who wrote “the Picture Show Man” which covered history of the early days of the Australian movie Industry, married a local girl and later returned to the Stroud district when he retired. His book was filmed under the same title and starred John Mellion and Rod Taylor.

Stroud’s School of Arts building in Cowper Street was the only one large enough to accommodate the eager patrons. As we lived next door, Dad became quite friendly with the visitors and was allowed to assist in screening the films. When their infrequent visits ceased, Dad felt sufficiently confident to invest in a second hand projection machine and have a go himself. His venture succeeded despite the comments of one local lady who also frowned on dancing. According to her,” Dancing was better than the pictures because you could at least see what the young people were doing”!

Les Bourke

Les Bourke

The School of Arts was far from comfortable and in winter we wore as many clothes as we could and wrapped ourselves in a blanket. During summer screenings, fans made from palm leaves were plied with great vigour and all doors and windows remained open for our added comfort. On moonlight nights, of course, this did nothing for the standard of viewing. Seating could best be described as “basic.” In the front of the theatre the children sat on wooden forms, with their parents behind them seated on padded seats in comparative comfort.

When the lights went out the absence of parental supervision encouraged rowdiness and it was the responsibility of our family member taking the tickets to restore order among the children. Armed with a torch, they would creep up on the offenders and shine the light on them.

The task of selling the tickets and later collecting them was passed down through our family. I eventually inherited the job when all my sisters married and moved from home. This natural selection also applied to our boyfriends. Both my husband and myself were born at Stroud and on one particular night he was having a lot of trouble with a row of small boys. The usual excursion with the torch having had no effect, he ordered them outside. Once in the light he discovered to his dismay that out of the eight offenders, four were related to him and the others related to me!

In the interest of family harmony they were allowed in after a caution.

With only one projector available, the interval between each reel didn’t improve the youngsters’ behaviour.

“Put a penny in it” they would yell, knowing it would only be a few minutes before the show would be resumed. Sometimes a breakdown would take much longer and the lights would be switched on, much to the embarrassment of courting couples. Things were greatly improved when Dad added a second projector. Then the only interruption was for intermission. At half time the men disappeared outside to have a smoke, while the women caught up with the gossip.

Dad had a contract with the advertising company Charles e Blanks and before the main feature commenced, he would dim the lights and show the advertising slides supplied by them. Local events such as P&C Street stalls and church fetes were brought to public notice by printing the details on clear glass and projecting it onto the screen. I have a box of these slides in my possession with my mother’s printing on them.

The pictures were always screened on Saturday nights but if it was a Shirley Temple or George Formby movie, it was also shown on Friday night. Cowboy films starring Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry got them in every time. Because it was impossible to darken the hall sufficiently during daylight, matinees were not held. The School of Arts was used for functions other than the pictures, so every Saturday afternoon, the rows of seats had to be dragged out of the Ladies cloak room and be deposited in the main hall.

Dad wound the films and mended any breaks with something that smelt like nail polish remover. Mum was kept busy on the phone taking seat bookings and she made a box plan showing all the padded seats. Some people had permanent bookings but others came only when something special was showing. Regulars were pencilled in first, with the others marked off and initialled, as they were booked. Whoever was on the door that night took the plan into the hall and tipped back the booked seats so that we could see at a glance how many were reserved. This system worked very well and it was surprising how seldom we had to refer to the plan.

The ticket seller worked from an opening cut in the front wall of the building and in winter it was a very cold place to be! All tickets had to be accounted for, with the first and last ticket numbers being religiously recorded. Strangers buying tickets were regarded with suspicion as official inspectors were occasionally sent to check that every one was sold a ticket. However, I can’t recall there ever being a problem in this regard.

In front of the hall stood a large hoarding used to advertise the “ coming attractions”. Coloured posters were supplied for this purpose. After a liberal pasting with flour and water they replaced the previous week’s offerings. After the screening date was printed on them, the posters were despatched to the local shops for display. The mail-car took some to the nearby towns of Bulahdelah, Booral and Stroud Road.

The film companies always sent more than we could use so my sister and I decided our bedroom could do with a lift and we used them to paper the walls. With ”King Kong”, “The last of the Mohicans,” and “Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde,” leering down on us, it is a wonder we got any sleep!

The Saturday screening was not the end of the jobs to be done. Sunday afternoon was spent pushing the seats back into the cloakroom and sweeping the main hall. The empty Mintie and potato chip packets were disposed of with bad grace, as there was no profit in them for us. Mum’s one attempt at a refreshment stall was a failure because her prospective customers spent their money at Theodore’s café on their way down town. She sold very little of the churn of ice cream she ordered, and since we had no means of keeping it cold, we were encouraged to eat what we could. In the days when a penny ice cream was a treat, eating a whole churn of it with a spoon is one of my earliest … and certainly happiest… memories!

We often came home from school to find a picture traveller sitting at the kitchen table with his advertising material spread out before him. All major (American) film companies, RKO, Paramount. MGM and Universal sent these young men out to promote their films. It was a difficult task for Mum and Dad to choose the programmes for the coming year. A quota system was then in force which meant that a percentage of British films…bad as they were…had to be screened. Also, the films were transported by train and it was desirable that our selection coincided with picture theatres located in towns before and after Stroud. In our case this meant Dungog and Gloucester. When all this was ironed out a contract was signed and an invitation extended to the young man to join us for a meal. The evening usually ended with a singsong around the piano.

Post pic - TALLTIMBERSMost of the outdoor scenes for the Australian film “Tall Timbers” were taken in the Stroud district. Stroud Central Hotel was host to such famous names as Ken G. Hall, Shirley Ann Richards, Frank Leighton, Harvey Adams, George Lloyd and Letty Craydon. Each night Dad showed the day’s filming (rushes) for them. He made no charge as he was happy to do it and so was promised the world premiere of the film. This event actually took place in Sydney but Dad had the satisfaction of screening “Tall Timbers “ for the second time in Australia. It played to packed houses over four nights, with the locals coming back to see themselves in the crowd scenes!

For the thirty years that Dad was involved in the movie industry ”going to the pictures” was an important social event in the life of our small town. In that time we saw a lot of changes ranging from silent to talkies, from one projector to two, from a noisy generator in a tin shed to “proper” electricity, from black and white to colour, and from the small screen to the wide screen. Dad made no money out of the business because all the changes and improvements ate up any profits. For taxation purposes Mum kept a faithful account of every show, recording details such as the name of the film, the takings and expenses. Unfortunately, these records have not survived.

When T V station Channel 3 opened in Newcastle it was the beginning of the end for the small movie theatre. People bought their own sets so could no longer afford the admission price to the pictures. Audiences dwindled, and reluctantly, Dad had to close the doors. The year 1962 marked the end of an era; an important era, and one in which I am proud to have played some small part.

3 Comments on “Going to the pictures”

  1. Diane Palos February 9, 2017 at 2:33 am #

    Hello Beryl,
    My mother worked in a hat shop in Sydney in the 1940s. She was invited by the photographer from Charles E. Blanks to model the hats for advertising at the picture shows.
    The photographer gave her a framed colour tinted photo as a souvenir. Would you like to see a copy of the photo? I wonder if you have slides of any other hats that she modelled.
    Best regards,
    Diane Palos

  2. Beryl Bowden December 24, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Thanks Maree. Happy Christmas to you and yours.

  3. maree cardiff December 9, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    love your stories

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