Building Cinema City on a music-hall stage
By Maria Velez-Serna
The Panopticon had been one of the first places in Glasgow to show films, starting in October 1896, when the cinematograph was one more novelty in the music hall programme. When Pickard reopened the theatre in July 1906, he kept the same arrangements, the ‘American Bioscope’ showing unnamed ‘animated pictures’. As time went on, however, films crept up the bill and became central to the programme. Pickard made the most of their popularity by opening other full-time venues, combining cinema and variety, and made his name as a cinema owner after the glory days of the Panopticon.
At the beginning, though, everything was simpler. Two or three short films were shown, usually at the end of the programme at the Britannia. Finding and selecting the right films for their audience was part of any manager's job. One of the scrapbooks includes examples of the way film producers advertised their wares, before there were any film renting offices in Glasgow. Cinema managers needed to contact the London offices of companies like Pathé, Gaumont, and Warwick to book films, on the basis of their spoiler-ridden synopses or the bluff of their travelling salesmen. Comedies and violent melodramas feature often in the Panopticon’s programme, but there was also time for more wholesome films of natural and technological wonders, such as the Victoria Falls or the speed trials of the Mauritania.
Film brought the world into the music hall in a whole new way, and topical films brought their own publicity with them. This was true for newsworthy events as well as sports, such as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race or the Cup Final, both of which were shown in the Panopticon in April 1908. Even better was when the films caused controversy. This was the case of many boxing films, especially the 'battle of the century' between James Jeffries and Jack Johnson in 1910. The film of Johnson's victory had been banned in many American states due to its depiction of a black man beating a white man, and, in Scotland, Greenock magistrates blocked its exhibition. Pickard had no qualms in showing it, and relished the free publicity.
But the latest films were not the only thing that could keep the public interested. Twenty years before the ‘talkies’, the Panopticon advertised a variety of sound-film devices. First came Gaumont’s chronophone, which Pickard claimed was shown in Glasgow a day before London. A couple of years later, the theatre acquired another version of this technology, the auxetophone – so for a month or so in 1908, the Panopticon programmes included silent films on the bioscope as well as song films in the other two systems. But the new technologies did not displace the performers. At a time when cinemas were being built in every Glasgow neighbourhood, Pickard’s decision to keep live performance in his programmes distinguished his venues, and it seemed to go well.
After leasing it for short seasons, in 1910 Pickard took over the Gaiety Theatre in Clydebank. The following year, Pickard built the Casino cinema in Townhead, and converted a skating rink into the Ibrox Picture Palace. At the end of 1914 he built his largest cinema yet, the Seamore in Maryhill, with extraordinary décor. The scrapbooks collection includes extensive series of adverts for these venues, which allows us to compare their programmes and see how films and artists circulated between Trongate, Maryhill, Clydebank, Ibrox and Townhead, and how Glasgow earned the name of 'Cinema City'.
Location of A. E. Pickard's venues in Glasgow