Burford's first "movies"
by Mel Robertson
I HAD THE pleasant experience recently to read a short article in the news-sheet "Village Echoes" describing the first attempt to show "moving pictures" in Burford. This was with an ingenious device invented by the famous Bur-ford artist, Robert Whale, in the late 1860s. The "show" was a panorama of twenty 6' x 8' oil paintings titled, "Great Panorama of the Mutiny in India". These were oil paintings Whale had produced on a big roll of canvas. They were revolved by a turning device to illustrate a lecture given by Whale or an associate.
It is said that the paintings were done on a continuous roll of canvas, but anyone who has dabbled in painting with oils on Canvas will know that the need for proper drying would have made a 160-foot roll of paintings completely impractical. In all likelihood, Whale painted each picture separately and when all were thoroughly dry, had them stitched together.
When the panorama was finished, Whale formed a production company to handle the shows he had planned. This included members of the Whale family to set up the oil-lamp illumination and handle other technical details. A Mr. J.E. Dockery, whose name I cannot find in Brant County Gazetteers of the time, was engaged to look after the rolling and unrolling of the pictures and Samuel Flewelling provided the accompanying music. Flewelling was a Burford musician who lived on Concession 7, Lot 4 in the village. He taught voice, organ and violin and, with his daughters Jessie, Alice and Cora, formed a local entertainment company.
Early papers contain frequent references to the Flewellings providing the entire program for many afternoon "teas", lawn socials and garden parties. Their ability must have been good, for the editor of the "Times" in 1886 never hesitated to criticize local entertainers or orchestras if he felt that their work was not up to acceptable standards.
The program of music that accompanied Whale's panorama is not known, but it probably included many patriotic and sad songs, for the Indian Mutiny was marked by the most atrocious acts of cruelty by both the British and the rebels. For example, crowds gathered to see rebels blown to bits from the muzzles of cannon and public hangings were thought to be a jolly way to pass a couple of idle hours.
Admission to "The Great Panorama" was 15 cents for adults and 10 cents for children under 12. These prices may sound trivial in 1995, but we must remember that in the 1860s many people worked for pennies a day.
Whale's "Great Panorama" drew crowds wherever it was shown and had a sold-out week's "run" in Brantford City Hall. It is not known how long the panorama was shown, but one would have to think that frequent rollings and un-rollings, plus the rigors of transportation, would have played havoc with it. However, in biographies of Whale, reference is made to large paintings of the Indian Mutiny, so it is possible that some parts may still exist. Examples of Whale's work can be found in the National Gallery, Ottawa; Dundurn Castle, Hamilton; Brantford City Hall and in many of the area's older homes (I have two).
The panorama was not a real motion picture in that the people and things in the pictures did not move, but nonetheless, it was an ingenious attempt to create a new form of entertainment that pro-pressed eventnalv to the many forms of picture production and enhancement we have today. Indeed, Whale's inventive genius may have inspired many of the great Panoramas such as the "Cy-clorama" at St. Ann de Beaupre, and those that have graced many great fairs and art galleries ever since.
The next step in local picture entertainment was the "Magic Lantern" or "Limelight Views", whereby picture postcards could be projected onto screens with a device involving lenses and oil lamps. This was so popular that when Burford was running its gigantic train excursions in the late 180()s and early 1900s, many of the several thousand local excursionists would detrain at Grimsby Beach to see "Magic Lantern" shows of "Dr. Tebb's Trip to Ireland", rather than go on to see Niagara Falls! Later on, "Magic Lanterns" became cheap and were standard Christmas gifts for boys. This led little boys to try to emulate the big "Magic Lantern" shows by setting up play theatres in basements. One of the most popular of these "shows" was in the basement of the Royal Bank (now the Township Office) where Scott Bowerman, the manager's son, and this writer set up an imaginary theatre with old chairs and benches. There, for the admission price of two common pins, kids could see postcards of all sorts projected on a bed sheet by Scott's "magic lantern". The price of admission was easy to obtain for, every evening when the bank was
swept out, quantities of common pins were included in the trash and "theatre-goers" had only to rummage among the sweepings to find the price of admission.
With the development of regular "movie" film by Thomas Edison in 1903, "movie" theatres began to spring up and by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Brantford theatre companies began to advertise moving picture shows in Burford's Barnea Hall. These shows were greeted with some apprehension by local churches, as it was felt that they would have an "improper" influence on young people and would discourage them from attending the young people's associations that all churches maintained. Consequently, all such shows were previewed by the "Advance" editor, who would publish his approval before the show took place. This form of censorship lasted for some time. For example, on January 20, 1921, when the Allen Theatre Company of Brantford announced that it would present the films "The Eyes of Youth" and "Charlie Chaplin at the Rink" in the Barnea Hall, the editor said that "The Eyes of Youth" was highly recommended by all churches and that the Charlie Chaplin film was "good clean fun". Such shows continued on a "hit or miss" basis until about 1925 when A.E. Judge, Principal of Bur-ford High School decided, as a public service, to run moving picture shows every other Friday night using a motion picture projector that had been recently obtained by the school. These shows were held in what was called the "Upper School Room" at the north end of the second floor. Seating was in the
school desks and on a few folding chairs, and the screen was a bed sheet tacked to the blackboard. Films, which Mr. Judge obtained from the Pathe organization, always included an "Out-of-the-Ink-well" cartoon and a feature comedy starring either Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Admission for children was about 15 cents. I can recall only two of the films - Charley Chaplin in "Shoulder Arms" and Charlie Chaplin in "The Frozen North". The hall was always crowded and, whereas the films were silent, on at least one occasion, the Burford orchestra (in which Mr. Judge and several students played) provided music. These shows provided excellent entertainment for young people at a time when there were few other local sources of amusement. However, in a few years, Mr. Judge stopped them and, when I interviewed him on tape in 1971, he told me that the reason he stopped them was that Pathe had a very limited choice of films that could be rented
Early movie theatres in Brantford included the "Temple" (now the Sanderson Centre), the "Brant" opposite the Temple, the "Opera House" on William Street and the "Rex". Others followed later, but I do not recall the names. All the films were silent, of course, but I can recall one that was most impressive. This was "The Ten Commandments" which was divided into two parts - one covering the Israelites' flight from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the other part showing the application of the Commandments to modern life. In the giving of the Commandments, Moses went up on the mountain and there each Commandment was imprinted in the rock with a bolt of lightning. Since the film was silent, the sound effects had to be provided by the percussion section of the pit orchestra. This was done with such effect that there were hysterical screams from the audience every time a new Commandment was given. People were terrified and every child who had cheated at Parchesi and every adult who had dealt themselves a "lone hand" at Euchre came away determined never to repeat their sins.
In the days of silent films, there were several magazines that extolled the lives of Hollywood film stars. Among them was one cute, chubby, golden-haired child whose many pictures were very popular. I had the misfortune to meet this person later in life.
From 1948 to 1950, I was stationed with the RCAF at Goose Bay, Labrador. It was a time of several big international conferences and since Goose Bay was the refueling place for eight overseas airlines, many VIPs passed through. We were instructed to meet all such persons, take them to the Mess for food and drink, and to offer them hospitality during the hour or so their plane was being serviced. I was President of the Officers Mess and with the C.O., had to look after these people. I met a number of internationally-known
politicians, statesmen, nobility, etc. I dare say this was an honour I did not appreciate at 3:00 a.m. in the midst of a Labrador blizzard.
One day, word was received that a large, privately-owned plane was about to land. Since the passenger list was not given, we assumed that the plane was bringing people of indescribable importance. The C.O. grabbed me and the staff car and we hastened to the hangar. The plane taxied up, the ramp was run out and, to our amazement, it was not the Emperor of China or a mid-Eastern potentate who came down the stops, but a little, pot-bellied, slob who seemed to be the worse for drink.
He waddled up to us and said, "I am... (the former golden-haired, chubby, smiling tot of the silent movies). He then stuck out his hand and said, "Shake the hand that...". The rest of the introduction was so puke-making that both of us turned our backs on him and left. Neither of us were people who were easily shocked, but the introduction that this person gave left us with the impression that his private plane had run out of toilet paper somewhere over the Atlantic. Later conversations with Americans revealed that indeed this was the old child star of the silent films and that this was his usual introduction. I can't imagine how many childish memories he destroyed in the process. Neither can 1 imagine why this tipsy has-been imagined that he merited VIP treatment on a par with internal heads of state.
In the past several years, Burford people have played prominent parts in area motion picture houses. The Johnson family, who were connected with the Ambrose Small chain of theatres in Toronto, managed the Brantford Opera House Theatre for a number of years. Art Lockwood was engineer in charge of heating, lighting and ventilation at the Temple (later the Capital) Theatre, and Mrs. Ausleybrook was for years in charge of that theatre's box office. Other Burford people may have had theatre positions, but I only remember one man who, dressed like an Admiral of the Fleet, took tickets at a Brantford Theatre.
Many "moving pictures" have been displayed since Robert Whale unrolled his "Panorama of the Mutiny in India", Dr. Tebbs created his "limelight" "Trips to China" and Mr. Judge displayed Charlie Chaplin on a bed-sheet tacked to the Upper School blackboard at BHS. Many people have been amused, amazed and abashed by the movies. Theatres have opened and closed and people's ideas of entertainment have been drastically changed by the introduction of TV, videos, computers, camcorders, etc.
In 1995, it is easy to laugh at early attempts to provide moving pictures, but let us give due credit to the inventive and imaginative people who sought to "improve the shining hour" for generations to come.