All the Fun of the Fair
By the late 1700s, moving images had taken hold as a popular form of entertainment. Phantasmagoria (illusionist ghost shows) were all the rage! Modified mobile magic lanterns projected frightening images onto walls or screens and delighted audiences in drawing rooms and showgrounds across the country. In the late 1800s however, these popular ghost shows were replaced by a new type of moving image: film.
The first travelling film show was presented by showman Randall Williams at the World’s Fair in London in December 1896. Over the next few years bioscope shows appeared throughout the UK in menagerie or circus show tents, fairground booths or the more opulent booths traditionally used by ghost show proprietors. Canvas tents, bioscope equipment, wooden seating and elaborate frontages were transported by traction engine. As demand grew, some shows became lavish affairs known as the “Great Shows” and often incorporated large fairground organs made in Europe.
There were showground sites across North Lanarkshire, including the old Motherwell fairground, which hosted a Christmas carnival. At Calderbank near Airdrie, the showman would bring a camera and canvas and encourage the local children to get involved in “acting” down by the steel works. There was also an old site near the colliery houses at Buchanan Street in Coatbridge where fairground families like the Greens and the Swallows took their shows around the end of the 1900s.
Rise of the Picture Palace
Static film performances were introduced by George Green of Glasgow, who converted halls into “picture palaces” as early as 1902. Travelling shows continued to be popular over the following decade but peaked by 1914. More proprietors were converting to static performances by this time and the outbreak of the First World War brought with it increased travel restrictions. Showground films were gradually replaced by permanent picture halls.
Cinema conversions often took place in theatres but all manner of buildings were utilised. In Airdrie’s Hallcraig Street, bioscope shows had been run in the former public hall since the turn of the century. In 1906 J.J. Bennell opened it as the Coliseum Picture House. The cinema changed hands twice in the following decades, during which time it was renamed the La Scala. The building was destroyed by an overnight fire in 1957 and later demolished.
Also in Airdrie, the Pavilion Picture House stood on nearby Graham Street. It was converted into a cinema from a roller skating rink by Richard Singleton in 1911. The building was largely demolished in 1917 after sustaining extensive fire damage but the original entrance was left intact. The Pavilion was bought by Odeon in 1936 but retained its name until being sold to Classic in 1967. It closed in 1970 and was demolished three years later to make way for the construction of the new Sheriff Courthouse.
Another cinema that Singleton took over and ran for a short time was situated in the Salvation Army Citadel on Sunnyside Road, Coatbridge. Not much information exists about this cinema but some locals recall pictures being shown there before the First World War.
The First Purpose-Built Picture Houses
The first purpose-built cinemas opened shortly before the First World War, complete with orchestra pit and sometimes a fairground organ. Like the Greens, who later opened a Playhouse in Wishaw (1940), the Kemp family were Scottish picture house pioneers. They made a successful business transition from travelling shows to purpose-built cinemas with the opening of the Johnstone Pavilion (1911) and La Scala in Saltcoats (1913).
In North Lanarkshire the first purpose-built cinema is likely to have been the Electric Theatre (later the Empire) in Motherwell, which opened as a cinema in January 1911. It switched to live theatre in 1917 but brought back films over the summer seasons. It finally closed in 1958 and was converted into a garage, before later being demolished.
The Picture House on Wishaw’s Main Street was opened by Provost Nimmo on 1st March 1913. The cinema was run by a local syndicate. It closed briefly in the 1920s for an extension and new frontage. Another overhaul came in the late 1930s. The frontage was dismantled and replaced with a new tiled tower elevation and neon outlines in 1938 and the auditorium was modernised in the summer of 1939. The building was sold twenty years later and demolished for shops and car parking but the Picture House is fondly remembered for its “penny howler” screenings.
In 1914 the Picture House in New Stevenson opened. When the building was modernised in 1939 it became the Regal but was known locally as “the Scratcher”. The cinema closed in the early 1960s and lay derelict until it was demolished in the 1980s but the nearby bridge is still remembered as “the Scratcher Bridge”!
The Coatbridge Cinema in Bank Street was the first purpose-built picture house in Coatbridge. Like the Picture House in Wishaw, it was started up by a local syndicate, opening on 6th October 1913. The Cinema was among the first cinemas in North Lanarkshire to fit “talkie” equipment. However, it was regarded locally as having been rather badly built. The seats were placed so close to the screen that the audience in the front rows had a virtually side-on view and the pictures appeared distorted. The Coatbridge Cinema closed in the mid-1960s and was later demolished.