Prince Regent Theatre, Sale. Private collection of Colin Campbell, Churchill, Victoria.

Marshall Berman claims that modernity “pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal” (1). This article contends that successful exhibition in country Australia depended on film exhibitors being innovative and multi-skilled, adaptable, engaged with technological change, proactive in their businesses and active in fostering the loyalty of their patrons. The Glover family’s 47-year commitment to picture exhibition in Gippsland offers a microcosm of exhibition in country Australia.

The Glovers’ Gippsland venues encompassed large agricultural towns and regional centres such as Sale, with 3,000-4,000 people, tourist and fishing towns such as Lakes Entrance, and small, remote communities such as Benambra. (2) The Glovers were attuned to the momentous changes occurring in the entertainment industry, and the audiences of the picture shows were swept up in pleasure-seeking, consumerism and social change. (3) The rise and demise of the Glovers’ business illustrates the relationship of both exhibitors and audiences to the changes in the film industry and in the country towns between 1926 and 1973.

By 1933, there was one theatre for every 6,314 people in Australia, the second-highest ratio of theatres per population in the world. (4) In Gippsland, virtually every town and hamlet had access to the shows and, through these shows, audiences participated in the rapid advance of change. Jill Julius Matthews, writing of Sydney film viewers, claims that participating in an audience “broke through the barriers of social hierarchy and differentiation” (5). Throughout her book, she points to cinemas as mediating change and acquainting viewers with the “constantly evolving, international process” of modernity. Apart from Richard Waterhouse, who refers to picture-going in rural Australia in The Vision Splendid: A Social and Cultural History of Rural Australia, and Ina Bertrand, who mentions rural areas in a number of her books and articles, little has been published about country exhibition. (6)

Oral history has been used extensively in this research, with the primary purpose of uncovering the way people remember their experience of attending picture shows, and the importance they placed on the shows as an integral part of social life. Paula Hamilton claims that “Oral history and ethnohistory […] are directed at capturing and recording memory, and evaluating individual memories as one constituent of a collective consciousness.” (7) This idea is further explored by Helen Richards, in relation to audience. She recognizes the urgency in undertaking oral research, claiming that “if one wants to gain an insight into the views of the public, […] and their cinema going habits […] a project of memory reclamation must be undertaken” (8).

Exhibitors

No one amongst the showmen of Gippsland fits the image of a successful exhibitor who adapted to change better than Jack Glover, the initiator of the Glover family’s involvement with the exhibition industry. Jack’s fascination with technology led to his desire to enter the emerging aviation industry, but his father, Alex, would not provide financial support, considering aviation too dangerous. He did, however, give his wholehearted backing to Jack’s next choice: moving-picture exhibition, which was another modern innovation of the time. (9) Jack was a businessman and farmer, with interests in music, technology, education, religion and politics. The writer of his obituary claimed that he “had the power of concentration on any subject that interested him” and that he would study blue prints and textbooks until he “had a good working knowledge of any undertaking he set himself” (10). Amongst his achievements were a camera he assembled designed to take copies of photographs in a form that could be projected on a screen, and his many films produced for showing in the theatres his company controlled. (11)

As with many others involved in the exhibition of films, Jack Glover was active in community organizations. At various times, he served on the committees or boards of Sale Agricultural Society, St Anne’s Girls Grammar, Sale Rotary Club, the Masonic Lodge, the Diocese of Gippsland and the Sale Bowling Club. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Sale Council. He also attempted to enter State parliament, standing for election in 1938 as an independent Labor candidate. He advocated low-cost health care, the promotion of tourism and the use of film for educational purposes: he was a man with modern ideas. In seeking this political office, Jack Glover clearly saw himself as a community leader who could promote Sale in a wider context than that provided by the local council.

In 1926, Jack persuaded his father to finance the building of a new theatre in Sale. In a move symbolic of the changes imminent in country towns, the family demolished its grain store in Raymond Street, although the business continued at another venue, and built the Palais, a modern venue specifically designed as a cinema, on this site. The Glover family almost all had parts to play in this new venture, with most of Jack’s seven siblings involved in the theatre. They were adept in a number of practical, technical areas: plumbing, carpentry, electrical work and vehicle maintenance. In addition, they were expert publicists and bookkeepers. They negotiated with film exchanges and with local government. (12) Although the family were progressive in many of their ideas, they nevertheless had to accommodate the social conservatism of their community, while, at the same time, catering for the massive social changes that occurred during the years they exhibited in Gippsland.

Despite their skills and the support of a large extended family, the Glovers’ path to success was a challenging one. The first hurdle to face was the erection by rival company, Combined Victorian Theatres (CVT), of a new, state of the art theatre in Sale, the Prince Regent. Often referred to as the only picture palace east of Melbourne, the theatre was opened just a year after the Palais. The struggle for the support of the local community that ensued was won by the Glovers in 1928, when they took over the lease of the Prince Regent. The community of Sale supported the Glovers and, according to Graeme Glover, resented CVT, the outsider. The social capital built by the Glovers through their participation in numerous organizations contributed to this outcome. In 1933, CVT went into liquidation and the Prince Regent was sold to Tanjil Theatres Pty Ltd (Later Regal Theatres), a local company that included some of the Glovers. The business soon acquired interests in other Gippsland venues, showing at Lakes Entrance, Maffra and Bairnsdale, and at various times at a number of smaller towns. (13) With their interest in the Prince Regent, the Glovers had a modern venue with all the luxury of a city cinema: dramatic lighting, fitted carpets and comfortable upholstered seats, an ideal setting for the enacting of social rituals and the absorption of the messages of the movies. (14)

In response to a fall in attendance at the Prince Regent during the Depression, the Glovers, always willing to experiment and take risks, established a circuit operation in East Gippsland, based at Lakes Entrance. This began in 1933, operating under the business name of Great Eastern Circuits, and in 1934 George Glover began to assist his brother, Jack, with the circuit, which was divided into two sections. In one week, the circuit went to Yarram and towns near Yarram, and, in the alternative week, the show travelled to Omeo, Benambra, Swift’s Creek and Buchan. They always put on a show at Lakes Entrance on a Saturday night. (15) Circuit operators such as George Glover were responsible for every aspect of the show: exhibition, advertising, ticket sales, record-keeping, maintenance of the generator and projectors, and ensuring cordial relationships between themselves and the owners of the halls where they showed the films. They had to be Jacks of all trades, such as the occasion when George lost his trailer and equipment one night, while travelling a country road. He had noticed an abandoned trailer at the side of the road, so, collecting parts of this, he returned to his other, smashed trailer, constructed a workable vehicle, reloaded his equipment and continued to the next venue. (16) The rise in prosperity that accompanied World War II led to the demise of the circuit, as the Glovers or other operators established permanent shows in the circuit towns.

World War II brought significant change to Sale, with the establishment of two air force bases, adding around 2000 military personnel, mostly young men, to the population. In most cinemas, the majority of the audience were women during the war, but the Prince Regent was “packed every night” with large numbers of young men, many still adolescent. This brought the challenge of keeping control at the cinema, for audiences were noisy and fights were not uncommon. Patrons who became too disruptive were thrown out and sometimes banned and, on one occasion, usher Ruth Glover hit an RAAF man who would not listen to reason. (17)

To add to the challenges, George Glover enlisted in July 1940 and spent most of the war overseas, so staffing the theatre was difficult. (18) Compounding the problems were wartime rationing and a scarcity of goods. Issues that arose through lack of manpower and the imposition of petrol-rationing can be seen in a letter Jack Glover wrote to the secretary of the Maffra Mechanics Institute, Mr V. H. Cooper. In the letter, Jack complained that the seats used for the picture shows were being badly damaged by those who stacked them for regular dances held in the Institute. The coming together of dances and pictures in one venue was common in country areas, but challenging for exhibitors, for, “owing to Man-power and Petrol restrictions”, it was difficult for Jack to “get anyone from Sale to do the works”. Further, the damaged seats caused stockings to ladder, and “one lady had her new frock torn and threatened to make a claim against the management.” The distress of the women in this situation is understandable, given the difficulty of obtaining stockings and the restrictions on the purchase of clothing during the war. (19) At this time, woman dressed up to attend the shows, often dressing and styling their hair in fashions they had first seen on the screen. (20)

One of the initiatives taken by the Glovers was the production of local films, an innovation embraced enthusiastically by the audience. The films were not an incidental part of the program, but sometimes received publicity to rival the main feature, such as in September 1940 when a “Local News Special” featured “Safstrom’s Mart Fire” and the Bishop of Gippsland’s daughter’s wedding. This bulletin received equal billing with South of the Border (George Sherman, 1939) and It’s a Wonderful World (W. S. Van Dyke, 1939). (21) This may appear a strange priority for an exhibitor, but, in conservative Sale, a shop fire was a talking point, and a society wedding was a community occasion, where the upper echelons of the town would be present. The opportunity for the people of Sale to view themselves and others on the screen was certainly an event not to be missed. It is also possible that Jack Glover, with his close association with the Anglican Cathedral in Sale, saw this as an occasion where he could bring together two of his interests. Sale had a history of bitter Protestant-Catholic rivalry, stemming from violently opposed views of conscription in World War I, so the exhibition of this film could be viewed either as a case of one-upmanship or as an attempt at reconciliation. (22)

In 1939, a short article in the Gippsland Times promised patrons of the Prince Regent they could see the opening of the Sale Bowling Club, the Bairnsdale bowling green and the Maffra green. Local people appearing in the footage were named. (23) In June 1940, a Local Film News shown at the Prince Regent, and probably at other Glover venues, such as Maffra, Bairnsdale and Orbost, featured people farewelling soldiers leaving from Sale Railway Station. Some of these people were mentioned by name, such as Mr Hector Thompson of Clydebank, who was farewelling Jock Fullerton. Such features allowed Gippslanders to catch a glimpse of a departing friend or relative. For some, this may have been the last time they saw their loved one. (24) Jack Glover’s wartime Local Film News supported the Australian government’s push for Australians to be united behind the war effort. This social unity was seen by the Australian government as essential if the allies were to win the war. (25) The Glovers’ footage echoed the themes of the films produced by Cinesound and the Department of Information (DIO), such as 100,000 Cobbers. (Ken G. Hall, 1942). (26)

Other subjects filmed include horse racing, ANZAC parades, Anglican Church services, the Sale butter factory (an important industry and employer in the town) and farming scenes. In 1935, a film made by the Glovers featured the Prince Regent Theatre. The films made by the Glovers reflect their social and business interests: the Australia they depicted was loyal to the monarchy, supportive of the agricultural industry, interested in sporting events, and proud of Australian soldiers and their contribution to the war effort. But it was also an Australia that emphasized education and industry, commitment to innovation and experimentation. (27)

The picture shows supported the growth of commerce, both by trading with local businesses and by providing a compelling venue for advertisements. The growing desire for consumer goods, fed by the glamour of the screen, was reinforced by glass-slide advertisements shown every picture night at Glover venues.

The Glovers were an important customer of the Gippsland Times. Every week, the films showing were displayed in a large advertisement on the front page of the paper. This was accompanied by a brief article entitled “Prince Regent Theatre”, which was published with the section on local news. (28) This gave background information about current films and was usually laudatory in tone. About once a month, “Movie News” would appear: a “special service from Paramount Studios”. Local businesses used film as an advertising ploy. “Talkies! Talkies! Talkies!” screamed the headline of an advertisement in the Gippsland Times; “Real Talkie Bargains”. (29) Social rituals associated with attendance at the shows also involved local businesses, and often included a meal before the show at a local café, or ice creams, drinks and sweets purchased at interval from a local business, such as Mrs Ellen Glover’s shop, which had a sliding hatch opening directly into the foyer of the theatre in Sale. For those in the dress circle, a second outlet for food was available in the upstairs foyer. Products such as cigarettes experienced a growth in demand, especially amongst women, because of the glamorous images of actresses with long cigarette holders seen on the screen. (30)

Glass slides shown at the theatres were almost all advertisements for local businesses, such as cafés, petrol stations, hairdressers and drapers. The latest hairstyles and dresses, as seen on the screen, up-to-date cars and the fuel to run them were all available throughout Gippsland. The consciousness of their desirability was raised by the films themselves, by the glamour of the movie stars and through product placement. The accompanying local advertisements showed where and how the goods and services could be obtained. (31)

Social Life

click to buy “Dance Hall and Picture Palace” at Amazon.comWith changing social patterns, more physical and social mobility and the decline of the extended family, picture shows served a number of social functions. They reflected social change and also abetted it. Oral history has been used extensively in this research, particularly as a vehicle to uncover the way Gippslanders recall the experience of attending picture shows. (32) The role of picture shows in establishing and supporting social unity, and in breaking down class distinctions, has been noted by Matthews. (33) In Gippsland, shows did have this effect, as in almost all country towns there was only one cinema where people from all echelons of society attended the shows. However, as in Sydney, there were social divisions evident even within some theatres: in the larger venues, such as at Sale, seat prices could vary from 1/- to 3/-, thus preserving some social distinction. According to most interviewees, “everybody” went to the pictures. While there were exceptions to this, it is clear that people from almost all social groups and almost all walks of life did attend the shows. (34)

Matinees provide an example of how picture shows brought social change. For Gippsland families, they served several social functions, related to changing family patterns. Children could be sent, unaccompanied by an adult, and parents, who might no longer have extended family to look after children, could be assured of at least a couple of hours of child-minding. It was expected that children would be safe at the local theatre. Some parents also used attendance at the shows as an aid to discipline: if children did not conform to family expectations of acceptable behaviour, they could be denied the opportunity to meet with their friends and attend the show. For children, the shows provided an opportunity to gather together without parental supervision; they were an opportunity to challenge the expectations of adults. They also provided fuel for games to be played in the schoolyard and neighbourhood, and opportunities to discuss the wider world children had seen on the screen.

Games based on the experience of cinema enabled children to adopt adult roles and play out their experiences in the guise of Roy Rogers, Tarzan, cowboys and Indians or, during and after World War II, Nazis and Allied soldiers. While these games brought children of diverse backgrounds together, there is some evidence that attendance at shows was less frequent for children whose parents enjoyed relatively high socio-economic status than for children of working-class families. Rob Williams from Sale, for example, whose parents both had white-collar jobs, was allowed to attend shows only infrequently, because his parents were concerned about the content of the show, and that he would be mixing with a rougher element, and with Catholics. Rob felt excluded from games and conversations with other children because he did not know the serials and had only a sketchy knowledge of games based on films. The Williams’ attitude reflected the more organized opposition to some aspects of the shows evident in Sydney through organizations such as the Good Film League, a moral watchdog dedicated to censorship and uplifting content in movies. Such anti-modern movements reflected a desire to control the entertainment of the working classes. (35) For the majority of children, however, attendance at a matinee was a regular feature of life.

It was common for children to use the venue of the picture show to test the social conventions and boundaries of their society. Robert Williams attested to receiving a clip on the head with Mrs Glover’s torch for attempting to sit through “God Save the Queen” in the 1950s. In this attempt, Rob was challenging the boundaries of the adult world of his community and the traditional approach to the anthem encouraged by the Glovers. Other disruptions such as stink-bombs let off by “the boys of St Pat’s”, or the noise from rows of cast-iron seats suddenly clanging down, were also common at the shows, challenging Ruth Glover or her sister in law, who kept order in the matinees in Sale. (36) At one of the Glover venues, the Prince Regent at Lakes Entrance, the matinee was called off and the children sent home when a number of local children released an army of crabs, collected at low tide. Such disruption was rare at Lakes Entrance, for Mrs Cath Broome, whose husband Harold managed the theatre, usually kept very strict order, partially achieved by seating the girls on one side of the theatre and the boys on the other. (37)

At shows where children attended with their parents, they were usually quiet and well behaved, but in the matinees a fair degree of tolerance was exercised: for example, cheering heroes, clapping, stamping feet and booing villains was common. In Sale, where one of Graeme Glover’s tasks was to clean up after the matinee, he remembered the piles of rainbow-balls he swept up every Saturday. When he complained, his father George’s response was “no mess, no money” (38). Throwing rainbow-balls at friends and rivals was acceptable in the Prince Regent matinees. While for his contemporaries picture shows were an entertainment, for Graeme, who worked in the business from the age of nine, they were an introduction into the world of commerce.

For most young people, a first date often involved graduation from the stalls to the adult world of upstairs. This also tended to coincide with leaving school and receiving a first pay packet, several markers of adulthood that occurred together. An incursion into the dress circle by a working-class teenager with money to spend was an introduction into a new social experience, and a statement about social mobility. (39)

Conclusion

The Glovers’ business was threatened by the coming of television, available in many areas of Gippsland as soon as it was in Melbourne, in 1956. But television sets were expensive and a more serious challenge came with the establishment of the Swan Lake Drive-in, which opened in Sale in early 1959. The coming together of the motorcar, the cinema and the post-war baby-boom led to the rapid acceptance of the drive-ins. (40) Ina Bertrand, in her study of drive-ins in Western Australia, observed that, “The Western Australian public took the drive-in immediately to their hearts” (41) and a similar acceptance also occurred in Gippsland. Syd Glover met this challenge by accepting a position as projectionist at the Swan Lake, adapting swiftly to this modern innovation, but, for the rest of the family, the drive-in affected their livelihood.

George Glover’s experience on the night of a ball in the Memorial Hall in the 1960s illustrated the on-going impact of modernity and the demise of the family’s business. At the ball, a television set was raffled and who should win it but George. “I’d like to put my foot through every bloody one of them”, he was reputed to have said. “But you can’t stop the march of time.” Modernity and its advances, which had, for nearly fifty years, enabled the Glovers to make a living from showing films, was the same force that was bringing a new form of entertainment. The Glovers had embraced every change, from talkies to CinemaScope, but, in the early 1970s, they recognised the inexorable march of the new media. (42) In 1973, to the “tear jerking strains of Jane Eyre”, George Glover “flicked off the machinery and canned the last reel of film” and Sale’s picture palace era “died a silent death” (43). The Prince Regent had been sold to a company that owned the supermarket which had replaced the old Palais, and would be demolished to make way for a car park. (44)

This article has been refereed.

Endnotes

  1. M. Berman, “Introduction: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, All That is Solid melts Into Air (London: Verso, 1983), p. 15.
  2. The Glovers did not show at industrial towns such as Yallourn and Wonthaggi. The experience of cinema in these towns contrasted in many respects from that of towns where the Glovers exhibited.
  3. Jill Julius Matthews, Dance Hall & Picture Palace: Sydney’s romance with modernity (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005), pp. 12-5.
  4. Ina Bertrand (Ed.), Cinema in Australia: a Documentary History (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1989), p. 143.
  5. Matthews, p. 20.
  6. Richard Waterhouse, The Vision Splendid: A Social and Cultural History of Rural Australia (Fremantle: Curtin University Books, 2005); Ina Bertrand, Cinema in Australia: A Documentary History (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1989); Ina Betrand, “‘Bring[ing] Family Life into the Theatres’: The drive-ins of Western Australia”, Screening the Past, No. 19, 2006. Apart from these texts, a PhD thesis, Nancy Huggett’s “A Cultural History of Cinema-going in the Illawarra (1900-1950)”, in Doctoral Thesis, Vol. I, University of Wollongong, 2002, and Mary Tomsic’s “Women’s Memories of Cinema-going: More Than ‘The Only Thing Left to Do’ in Victoria’s Western District”, in History Australia, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2004, pp. 1-12, little has been written about rural Australia and the experience of cinema.
  7. Paula Hamilton, “The Knife Edge: Debates about Memory and History”, in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (Eds), Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 3.
  8. Helen Richards, “‘Something to Look forward to’: Memory Work on the Treasured Memories of Cinema Going in Bridgend, South Wales”, University of Nottingham, November 2004, at www.nottingham.ac.uk/film/scopearchive/articles/bridgend.htm.
  9. Letters, G. Carey, Melbourne Air Services, to R. A. Glover, 4 April 1925; R. A. Glover to Melbourne Air Services, 29 October 1925. Glover Family Papers: Carol Glover.
  10. “Passed Away: Cr. R. A. Glover”, Gippsland Times, 3 September 1945.
  11. Carol Glover, interview, and “Mr Glover Tells Why He Stood”, Gippsland Times, 27 October 1938.
  12. Graeme Glover, interview, 17 June 2005.
  13. Gerry Kennedy, “The Prince Regent Theatre, Sale: Gippsland’s Picture Palace”, Gippsland Heritage Journal, No. 13, 1992, pp. 47-50.
  14. Ibid.
  15. George Glover, tape of ABC radio interview, 1980s. Glover Family Papers, Graeme Glover.
  16. George Glover, interview, ABC, n.d., circa 1980-5.
  17. Graeme Glover.
  18. Service Record, George Glover, World War 2 Nominal Role, Commonwealth of Australia, Australian War Memorial.
  19. Jack Glover, Regal Theatres Pty Ltd, to Mr V. H. Cooper, Secretary, Maffra Mechanics Institute, 22 June 1942, Maffra Mechanics Institute Library.
  20. Bertie Gilmour, Rosedale, 19 July 2005.
  21. Gippsland Times, 19 September 1940.
  22. Peter Synan, Gippsland’s Lucky City: A History of Sale (City of Sale, 1994), pp. 135-7.
  23. Gippsland Times, 16 November 1939.
  24. Jack Glover, documentary, Sale, June 1940, ScreenSound, Cover Title No. 37976.
  25. The Australian government, along with its counterparts in the US and the UK, recognised film as an important tool for propaganda messages.
  26. 100,000 Cobbers, Department of Information and Cinesound, 1942, Australian War Memorial, F01301, Canberra.
  27. ScreenSound Catalogue.
  28. Ibid. There does not appear to be a history in Australia of local exhibitors who became filmmakers, but it was not uncommon in the US. An item in Billboard suggests that “the roadshowman who knows how to handle a 16mm camera has a mint within his reach.” Billboard, 18 October 1939, p. 27. Cited in Gregory A. Waller, “Robert Southard and the History of Travelling Film Exhibition”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 2, Winter 2003-4, pp. 2-14.
  29. Gippsland Times, 24 March 1930.
  30. A number of interviewees commented on the effect of this product placement in films.
  31. Glass slides from the Prince Regent in Lakes Entrance: Lakes Entrance Historical Society. A discussion of advertising and particularly of product placement can be found in Kerry Seagrave, Product Placement in Hollywood Films (North Carolina and London: McFarland and Company, 2004).
  32. Eleven interviews conducted with Gippslanders who experienced shows in Glover venues provide evidence for this aspect of my research.
  33. Matthews, pp. 245-6.
  34. Some interviewees attended shows less frequently than others, because of ethical objections, lack of money or difficulties with transport. Bertie Gilmour commented that a Brethren group near where she lived never attended picture shows. Indigenous people had limited access to most venues.
  35. Matthews, chapter 6, “Heroes of Civilisation”, pp. 191-218.
  36. Graeme Glover, 17 June 2005.
  37. Eric MacKay, Lakes Entrance, 30 July 2005.
  38. Graeme Glover, 17 June 2005.
  39. Brian Blake, “They Can’t Burn Memories”, Cinema Record, The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society Inc., Issue 48, Ed. 3, 2005, p. 36.
  40. Ben Goldsmith, “The Comfort Lies in All the things You can Do: The Australian Drive-in – Cinema of Distraction”, Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 153-63.
  41. Ina Bertrand, 2006.
  42. Graeme Glover, 17 June 2005.
  43. “The Prince Regent Quietly Dies”, Gippsland Times, 1973 (n.d.), Glover family papers, Graeme Glover.
  44. Gerry Kennedy, “The Prince Regent Theatre, Sale: Gippsland’s Picture Palace”, Gippsland Heritage Journal, No. 13, 1992, pp. 47-50.

About The Author

Anne Helen Wilson grew up in New Zealand, where, for 25 years, her parents ran a travelling picture show, hence her interest in picture shows and rural communities. Anne has lived in Gippsland for four years and is in the second year of her PhD at Monash University. The title of her thesis is “From Talkies to Television: Picture Shows in Gippsland, 1930-1956”.