Monday, January 21, 2013

Melbourne's First Movie Screening

Located at 235 Bourke Street, the rather drab Tivoli Arcade:

Functional and thoroughly unlovely, it's hard to imagine that this same location was once home to one of Melbourne's grandest and most popular theatres. In 1872, the Prince of Wales Opera House occupied this location, featuring an elaborate design and seating for more than 2000 people.

The Prince of Wales interior, circa 1872.

As was usual at the time, the Prince of Wales presented a wide variety of live entertainment; everything from vaudeville and three penny opera, to live music, drama, comedy and novelty acts. Among others, the first performances of HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance in Australia were staged at the Prince.

In 1895 Harry Rickards, a former actor who had previously performed at the Prince, took over the building and re-named it the Melbourne Opera House. Rickards would continue to present a similarly varied bill as before, now augmented by his own troupes of minstrels and vaudeville acts, but was always on the lookout for new attractions. He was particularly keen on novelty acts; anything that was new and different that he could use to generate publicity.

The facade of the 'Melbourne Opera House.'

A technological marvel, invented in France and unveiled the same year that Rickards leased his new theatre, was about to provide him with a sensational show business opportunity.

The Lumiere Brothers (Auguste and Louis) were born into the photographic trade. Their father, Claude-Antoine, ran a large photographic plate and film development firm near Lyons. Both brothers went into the family business after attending university and showed an immediate aptitude for photographic processing, helping to refine and advance the still developing medium.

The Lumiere Brothers
Inspired by Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, a viewing device that flashed a series of still images in sequence into a single eyepiece and so gave the impression of movement, the young brothers soon set themselves an ambitious new task; to design and build a 'moving picture' camera, capable of capturing live action, developing it and then broadcasting it onto a screen for mass viewing. Their creation, dubbed the Cinematographe, is undoubtedly one of the defining inventions of the modern age.

A drawing of Edison's 'Kinetoscope.'

A photo of the Lumiere's 'Cinematographe'

The first major public screenings involving the Cinematographe took place in Paris in September 1895, where the Lumiere's screened short films they had shot themselves. Amazed audiences flocked to the 1 minute long silent projections, which depicted scenes from everyday life, and the new marvel spread like wildfire.

Within a year, the movies would make their way to Australia.

Carl Hertz; magician and
cinema pioneer
Carl Hertz was an American born magician based in England, who had toured the world extensively and had already had success in Australia. He had seen the Lumiere's invention when it arrived in England early in 1896.

Visiting the UK and looking for acts, Rickards booked Hertz for a series of dates later in 1896 and Hertz, concerned that his act was not significantly different from what he had previously presented in Australia, was determined to bring a Cinematographe with him. Such was the the sense of wonder attached to the new motion picture process that presenting it as part of a magic show seemed a natural association.

But the Lumiere's agent in London, Felicien Trewey, had been instructed not to sell the devices under any circumstances. After repeatedly being rebuffed by Trewey, Hertz then turned his attention to Robert W.Paul, a British inventor who had viewed the Cinematographe and come up with his own version, which he imaginatively named the Theatrograph. While similar in design and construction, Paul's version was less sophisticated and was considered inferior to the Lumiere's model, in terms of both film quality and projection.

Nevertheless, Hertz was determined to have one of Paul's machines. Again told that they were not for sale, Hertz convinced Paul to show him his workshop and demonstrate the workings of the device in person. In his autobiography, Hertz recollects:

He (Paul) took me on to the stage and showed me the whole workings of the machine. We were there for over an hour, during which I kept pressing him to let me have one of the machines. Finally I said,

'Look here! I am going to take one of these machines with me now!'

And with that, I took out a hundred pound in notes, put them into his hand, got a screw driver and unscrewed one of the machines from the floor. The next day I sailed for South Africa, with the first Cinematographe that had ever left England.

Paul would later claim that Hertz had 'stolen' the machine from him. It's also interesting to note that Hertz referred to the machine as a Cinematographe which, strictly speaking, it wasn't. Although it would be billed as such during its tour of the Southern Hemisphere.

After a stopover in South Africa where he performed a few dates, and so became the first man to show moving pictures in that country, Hertz arrived in Melbourne in early August 1896. His series of magic shows commenced at the Melbourne Opera House on the 15th and he unveiled his version of the Cinematographe to a select private audience on the 17th. Hertz had five short films to show:

Highland Dances

Street Scenes in London 
Trilby Dance
Military Parade
Soldier's Courtship

This last had been shot by Robert Paul himself on the roof of the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, and Hertz's showing of it casts doubt on the inventor's claim that they had had a falling out. While Soldiers Courtship was an early attempt to shoot a movie with a simple, comic narrative, and Trilby was a scene from a play, popular at the time, the rest were documentary style depictions of the titular events.

And just as everywhere else that the cinema had ventured, they caused an immediate sensation. Especially once they were incorporated into the magician's public act, as they were from the 22nd onward.  August 22nd 1896 then becomes a red letter day in the history of the Arts in Australia; the first public movie screenings in this country.

The films were so popular that Rickards was soon promoting them above Hertz's name on the advertising material (although perhaps Hertz was compensated for this by being mentioned twice?):

Crowds flocked to the screenings and the films were the talk of the town.

Their success was so great that Rickards would almost immediately set about sourcing another Cinematographe (or, realistically, any such similar device he could lay his hands on).  Once he had obtained one, which was dubbed 'The Second Edition,' Rickards set sail for Sydney, determined to capitalise on the time when he was the only promoter in Australia with moving picture machines. He set up a series of screening dates in that city, commencing mid September.

Hertz, whose original series of shows was meant to incorporate Sydney with the Cinematographe still included as part of his act, now found himself performing only his magic when he moved on from Melbourne. But he would take his projector with him when he left Australia to continue his tour around the south Pacific, screening films to stunned audiences in Fiji and Japan, among other exotic locations.

But  the motion picture screenings he and Rickards had presented in Melbourne had been enormously popular and had changed the entertainment culture in the city, and the country, for good. By the end of the year, three more Cinematographes, one of them a genuine Lumiere designed model, would be in operation in Melbourne, such was the demand for the moving pictures. They were so prominent in the city that a local newspaper would note:

The country visitor who returns home from Melbourne still in ignorance of the marvels of the Cinematographe must have gone nowhere and seen nothing.

                                                              - 'The Australasian,' 7 November 1896.

The movies had arrived in Australia.

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