A snapshot of Doncaster’s cinematic golden age

Cinema has the same capacity to seduce, influence and to overwhelm as it did 120 years ago.

By Nigel Booth
Tuesday, 12th February 2019, 3:21 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th February 2019, 4:05 pm
Celebrating cinema in Doncaster
Celebrating cinema in Doncaster

The rise and fall of cinema is one of the most dramatic stories in the social history of the 20th century. The cinema industry was once one of the six largest industries in the world. An estimate in 1936 on audience attendance at Doncaster cinemas in a normal week was round about 50,000.

Within the town boundaries there were seven sites accommodating over 10,000 patrons, used exclusively for showing films. Doncaster had more than 30 picture houses which existed at some time in the Metropolitan Borough. But how did it all start, no one person invented cinema, the first to present projected moving pictures to a paying audience were the Lumiere Brothers who gave a preview of their Cinematographe programme in London.

The Electra Palace cinema in Frenchgate

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Despite their success and foresight the Lumiere Brothers did make one miscalculated mistake by curiously being quoted as having said: “The cinema is an invention without any future”.

Following the first screenings in London, commercial activity quickly developed and film shows soon spread rapidly across the country becoming a popular feature of fairgrounds mention has to be made to Tuby’s Bioscope show. For Tom Tuby like the Aspland-Howdens and other progressive pioneer showmen of the age who brought the Doncaster public their first taste of moving pictures, in a sequence of short films lasting only two or three minutes each.

The touring fairground canvas tent was soon competing with the converted halls and conversions from theatre the Palace of Varieties in Silver Street was one such site. In the early years of cinema films were made of a highly inflammable plastic gelatin strip called cellulose nitrate or nitrate as it was known. It caught fire very easily and fires were commonplace.

After a series of UK disastrous fires, the Cinematograph Act of 1909 (effective from 1910) was passed. The act stimulated the building of new cinemas the fairground Bioscope tents and the scruffy Penny Gaffs eventually closing these temporary, notoriously dangerous premises. All cinemas had to be Kinematograph listed by the local authority, many were the difficulties which the cinema owners had to overcome and many despaired of reaching the degree of perfection it was certain the public would demand.

The former Rossington Hippodrome Cinema in Doncaster

In 1911 the demand for cinema was rewarded by the first purpose built picture house. 'The Electra Palace' in Frenchgate. Virtually by the late 1930s all the Doncaster suburbs and district surrounding villages had a cinema with the new housing developments being generated by new industries and the sinking of the new coal pits. These cinemas flourished with their warm and luxurious surroundings and were most appreciated by the new communities.

A history of Doncaster's cinemas would not be complete without the inclusion of those built by Doncaster's great entrepreneurs, Mr AL Rhodes, Mr GH Wright, and Mr JR Hebditch, chairman, managing director and originator of the Ritz and Don Cinema enterprises. On August 5, 1929, the first 'Talking Picture' was shown in Doncaster, the film only had a synchronized musical score with sound effects and some talking sequences, but no one could have imagined the effect it would have on the development on cinema in Doncaster.

When the queues for 'The Singing Fool' at the Picture House formed along High Street and down into Scot Lane and Baxtergate, queues like those ensured that talking pictures were in Doncaster to stay. Nearly all feature-length movies were now being presented, being shown only in black and white this would also have to change. Colour was first added to black-and-white movies through tinting, toning and stencilling. Colour was not used more widely until the introduction of the Technicolor three-colour process in 1932 films took on a new grandeur. During the 1930s and 1940s, cinema was the principal form of popular entertainment, with people often attending cinemas twice weekly. In Britain the highest attendances occurred in 1946, with over 31 million visits to the cinema each week. Since 2012 film projection has been profoundly altered by the impact of the rapidly improving digital presentation. The Gaumont Palace Trent Frieze is the only major surviving art work of our cinema heritage.

This is for all the back-room staff and the front of house box office, managers, film projectionists, usherettes, from the silent era through to sound and also right through to the wide screen CinemaScope 70mm years.

Celebrating cinema staff in Doncaster