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Theatres and Cinemas of Stourbridge, 1752 - 1952

2 - New forms of entertainment

“Home Cinema”

During the winter of 1908 probably the first “home cinema” was held at my home. An actor in the stock company who also made the town his winter quarters, constructed a projector from an old limelight lantern, and Frank Hemming, the theatre’s stage manager, who was a friend of my father’s persuaded him to fit the projector with a gas burner, which was connected to the kitchen bracket by flexible tubing. With the machine on the kitchen table, and the blind for a screen, we had a number of weekend film shows, and if I was a good boy I was allowed to sit alongside it and turn the handle. The film was placed openly on a bolt above the machine, and I am horrified today to think of what would have happened if the film should have caught fire. During the next twenty years many such fires occurred in homes with a trail of burnt children, until the Government brought in legislation against the sale of inflammable film during the 30’s.

Many toy projectors for children’s use were sold during that period for as little as five shillings each, with strips of old film which could be bought for threepence upwards. As they were lit by smelly oil lamps which were always catching fire, it was no wonder so many people were burnt.

“Picture Plums”
Whether or not Phelps was impressed by this actor’s machine I do not know, but in April of the next year, 1909, he was advertising “Showing on Monday next, April 21, Phelps Picture Plums – The Grand National Steeplechase of 1909”. This was our first newsreel, and in the following weeks we were offered “The Cup Final, Manchester United v Bristol” and the “Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race”. These films were, of course, merely subsidiaries to the usual variety performances of the week. As with most cinemas of that time, only one projector was in use, lit by lime light and hand-turned. By autumn it had become “Phelps Alhambrascope” and he was also advertising free tram rides to the theatre for those travelling from out of town, as an added incentive. In 1910 another new innovation was sprung upon the town, for the Electricity Company announced that they were to run a main cable down High Street, along Market Street, New Road and Coventry Street and obviously Phelps who was always abreast of the times, took full advantage of the new form of lighting and was soon calling it “Phelps Electric Theatre”.

Roof Searchlight
With this new medium he was soon using what I consider as fine an advertising stunt as I know. With the assistance of his stage manager, he constructed a thirty inch arc-lit searchlight on the roof of the theatre which, until the Zeppelins made their first raid on us in 1916, nightly swept the sky, reminding all who were out in the darkness, that the Alhambra was open for business.
During the 1909 - 12 period we were also entertained by a kind of movie show on stage, Poole’s Myorioramas, which paid an annual visit to the Town Hall. Poole’ scenic contractors at Gloucester, and the “moving” pictures were carried out on stage by elaborate scenic effects with long backcloths which wound across the stage. A lecturer travelled with the show and topical scenes were enlivened by this gentleman standing at the side of the stage. While sets were changed we were usually regalled by a singer or a variety act.

New Craze
Another new craze was sweeping the country – roller skating. Not surprisingly, we learned that Messrs. Pooles were opening a fine Rollerdrome in Longcroft Gardens, New Road, on October 23rd 1909. On the previous Saturday we were also informed in the County Express that Mr. Pat Collins was contemplating building another rink on the fiar ground, opposite the town station. It was obvious that he had second thoughts, for the craze was short lived. However, the Bioscope was going ahead like a house on fire, and on April 2nd 1909 we learned from our paper that a Mr. Alfred Wall, having secured the Temperance Hall in Lye, was opening it on that date for variety and living pictures by Safety Bioscope Ltd. “This company has fitted out a number of London theatres and halls and the pictures at Lye will be of the same high standard as seen in the Metropolis”. Children’s Matinees on Saturday at 3.00pm, price 1d, 2d and 3d.
Within a fortnight we were also informed that the Lye Palace of Pictures and Variety would open as from April 16th. This theatre, built of sheet tin, with a brick front has had a varied career, and at the present moment has gone back to the fashion of 1909 with roller skating.

Up and down the country many such places were hurriedly built like this, to cash in on the new form of entertainment. I remember one being built at Brierley Hill of a smaller structure, which the form for who I was working as an electrician’s apprentice had wired. It was electrified not only literally but in actual fact, for on the opening day a fault developed on a circuit, so that anyone touching the tin sheets as they entered, got a nice little “tickle”. Another theatre in which I got a nice shock was the Lye Palace, which had changed its name to the “Victoria”. Just before the last war after it had been closed for some years, my friend Charles Hatton, the Wordsley born playwright, opened it for a short season as a variety house, and one Sunday afternoon I had an urgent call from him to see if I could assist at a charity concert that night, for a fund to purchase an iron lung for the Corbett Hospital. As I was to compare the show, I dressed and went up early to find out who and what the artists were, so that I could prepare my material. I am afraid I was too early, for only one programme girl was in occupation and didn’t know where the light switches were. I struggled up on to the stage by the aid of a match, and grabbed the nearest dressing room door.

In the dark I had great difficulty in opening it. There appeared something behind it, but eventually it opened sufficiently for me to enter. Putting my case down on the floor I felt along the wall for the switch and lit up. Then, turning to see what the room was like, I understood why the door had been so stiff, for lying behind it full length, was a large mastiff, who was chained to a nearby radiator from a large brass studded collar. Then I noticed a peculiar “pong”. For a dog he had a very long tail with funny black hairs at the end.
Then I felt the hair rise at the back of my neck and perspiration broke out on my face. Yes, I was alone with a nice African lion. To say that I was frightened is to dismiss it lightly. I was terrified as I backed slowly into the furthest corner while trying to see how much chain kept him from getting me. I knew it was no use shouting. There was only the girl. And I began to think of all the things I had read that one should do in such circumstances.

Almighty Hell
I stared him in the eye, but that only made him yawn, and to get through the door meant going right up to him. Eventually I plucked up enough courage to gently slide towards the door, holding my breath and watching every move of the animal. The door had remained slightly ajar, and when I was nearly there I tried a gamble. The box of matches was still in my hand and at the right moment I flicked it over the lion’s head, and as he turned to see what the noise was behind him I jumped through the gap in the door, letting out an almighty yell as I went.
This bought the owner running in from a caravan outside. They were a variety act for the following week, and having only just arrived, not knowing of the show that night, the trainer had put the lion in the dressing room until the morrow. He said it was perfectly tame, and invited me to stroke it, but I had all the wild animals I wanted for a long time. Now, of course, I realise it probably was harmless, for as you have seen from the film I took in Africa, I have been quite as close to others in the jungle in their native state. As long as you leave them alone, most wild animals will reciprocate.
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