In today’s modern world of Netflix, digital downloading and 24-hour television, it’s almost impossible to imagine the impact of cinema on earlier generations. For communities in rural or remote areas, with limited radio and mail services, most entertainment was simple and home-made. Sing-songs around the piano, card nights, wind up gramophones and locally organised dances, plays and variety shows were enjoyed, but movie stars on the silver screen – having adventures in exotic, faraway places – proved irresistible.
No-one is absolutely sure when the first ‘moving pictures’ were seen on Norfolk but, from the early 1900s, Mr Koster presented weekly Magic Lantern Shows, lit by kerosene lamps, in the old Rawson Hall at Longridge. This stone building was sacrificed during World War II, along with Pine Avenue, to make way for the air-strip. Mr Koster charged sixpence to see this entertainment – a series of slides, shown on a simple projector, which created the illusion of movement. By World War I the first silent films were being shown at the old Hall; admission had risen to one shilling (10 cents).
Movies continued to be screened during the 1920s and 1930s: black and white ‘talkies’, musicals and cowboy flicks were shown once a week. Half a dozen films might arrive by ship, in these pre-aeroplane days, providing a month’s worth of cinema outings for Islanders. Dan Yager fondly recalls “gwen dar pitchers” at the old Hall from 1937 to 1942. A large screen stood on the stage, with chairs arranged on the dance floor and about six rows of tiered seats at the back. The projectionist ran the film behind the audience and a diesel generator, set up outside, supplied electricity.
When he was really little Dan sat right in front and remembers: “…conducting the music…” which played as the audience arrived and found their seats. The population was smaller in those days, but there was always a good crowd at the ‘Rawson Hall Talkies’. When they played the National Anthem, God Save the King, everyone stood up and, after a cartoon and newsreel (with exciting, if slightly dated, happenings and events from the world beyond Norfolk), the main feature began.
Dan loved Road to Singapore; a musical comedy starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and the sultry Dorothy Lamour. There were dramas, and westerns, and Dan also enjoyed The Ghost Train, a comic thriller with Arthur Askey. He walked to the pictures, while others came on horseback or in sulkies, but Dan later rode his own horse. As he grew older, he’d go to the snacks stand, at the entrance, and buy Jaffas. He and his cousin, George ‘Boofhead’ Quintal, then sat up the back and rolled the little, orangey-chocolate balls “…down the aisle to hear them rattle.”
Dan remembers going to an Outdoor Cinema, near the airport, which was set up for New Zealand soldiers stationed on Norfolk in the 1940s. They charged two shillings so he and ‘Boofhead’, if they had no money, would carefully ‘pinch’ two bottles of beer from the Army Stores, near Dan’s home, and barter their way in to watch war films!
Vera and Norm Lewis holidayed frequently on Norfolk in the 1950s and by then: “The pictures were in the Old Girl Guide Hall (now the School Library) at Middlegate and you sat on forms with no backs and the machine kept breaking down. One Saturday night it broke down fourteen times and when we came out, at one o’clock in the morning, the second house was waiting to go in!”
Dan remembers this venue, too: “Carl Schmitz and another feller ran it and everyone dressed up to go out – there was no tiered seating, so you just had to look over, and around, people.”
By the 1960s, as cameras and projectors grew smaller and lighter, more people began to shoot, and show, their own home movies. Equipment became affordable, with better image quality and sound, so enthusiasts could hire and screen commercial productions, too. In 1964 Pauline Turton’s parents, Roy and Monica Smith, came back to Norfolk and began showing films at the new Rawson Hall.
Roy was passionate about motion pictures and built a special, sound proof booth for his projector, which was positioned upstairs. With no television on the Island, going to the ‘Rawson Hall Talkies’ was a special treat for many people. Pauline returned home in 1966 and sold tickets for the show each weekend; ‘coming attractions’ were advertised in the Saturday paper. Movies were flown in from Sydney every fortnight; including animated shorts and newsreels. Roy sometimes screened his own footage of local events, footy matches and trips to Phillip Island too.
Rossco Quintal, Meg Meers and Sue Randall have wonderful memories of those days. The young ones had to behave at the ‘Talkies’, Sue recalls, or the lights would go on! Jaffas were rolled along the floor and, on colder nights, patrons brought their own blankets to keep warm. Rossco, and his friends, walked from Middlegate every week to watch the movies, unless Joe Jenkins stopped and gave them a lift. Sometimes he paid for his ticket by helping tidy-up afterwards. Meg camped at Red Road in the holidays, but still walked down to see the ‘Talkies’; films like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were popular and she loved them.
Ria Howell worked for Monica and Roy in the ‘70s, selling tickets and sweeping the floor, and had a great time: “I was paid a dollar each night and saw the movies for free.” Ria was impressed by the way Roy documented events on Norfolk; “…he was like a roving reporter!” Sadly, Roy and Monica’s house burnt down in 1973 – also destroying many of Roy’s beloved films – but they built a new, two-storey place on the original site. This allowed them to run a small, ground level cinema in their home: The Mission Road Theatrette. Pauline enjoyed the social atmosphere and helped out again by selling tickets.
For a decade, the Smiths provided entertainment for Islanders and tourists of all ages. The theatrette held 30-40 people and allowed families to have a ‘good night out’ for a reasonable cost. Drive-ins, popular in Australia during the ‘70s, never made it to Norfolk, but Mission Road had a similar relaxed feel. Pauline remembers the padded red seats, small children in pyjamas and sleeping bags at the front, and her mum’s little dogs running around. Teddy ‘Toy’ Christian loved ‘dar pitchers’ and was a regular. He only had one leg, so Teddy always sat in the foyer, on a special comfy chair, and watched the movies through an open door.
Roy still showed his own films now and then, along with a variety of features: anything from the latest James Bond to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Black Stallion Returns. Occasionally, the film broke and the audience would go outside for a quick cigarette, or chat, while Pauline’s dad spliced the tape together. Roy also taught his grandsons, David and Robert, to use his projectors and Pauline has lovely memories of going upstairs, afterwards, for late-night suppers with friends and relatives.
Roy Nobbs vividly recalls watching Jaws at Mission Road:
“My daughter, Deb, pinched me ‘black and blue’; clutching my arm whenever the shark appeared. Later, just as the shark attacked someone, I leant forward and prodded Joan, my sister-in-law, and she nearly jumped through the roof!”
Pauline says: “Dad definitely showed some ‘fraedy’ (scary) films, like Frankenstein and The Hand, and I’ll never forget my Aunty, Rosemary Schmitz, throwing a blanket over her head because she didn’t like watching horror films.”
The memory of going to Mission Road to see Born Free, as an excited five-year-old, has stayed with Jason Evans, but times were changing on Norfolk. Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s the introduction of inexpensive, user-friendly projectors had allowed more clubs, hotels and home-movie devotees to host their own film evenings for visitors, locals and friends. Historical features such as: Life on Pitcairn and Norfolk Past and Present were also screened for tourists.
People could now see more films but there was still no TV coverage. Then, in the mid ‘80s, the arrival of video technology allowed Islanders to access mainland television shows and productions. They could hire, and later buy, video players and televisions to watch tapes sent in from Australia or New Zealand. Local video shops opened and, by the late ‘80s, television broadcasting (via satellite) finally reached Norfolk.
Initially there was just the ABC, but videos (Beta and VHS) meant locals could tape, hire or buy whatever they liked to see in their own homes. The Mission Road Theatrette closed in the mid ‘80s and films on the big screen, along with cards, live music, dances, sport and plays – home-grown entertainment – suddenly faced competition from videos and TV. Eventually, in the ‘90s, television and videos became part of Island life until they too, faced competition from new technologies.
In the last twenty years DVDs and Blu-rays replaced videos, and were themselves superseded by digital downloading and Netflix. The internet, YouTube, iPads, Facebook and smartphones permit us to make, broadcast and view films whenever we want; while interactive gaming allows people to experience fantasy worlds first-hand. Home theatre systems, surround sound and massive televisions let us bring the wider world into our lounge rooms at the flick of a switch.
Nowadays, the very idea of running a cinema might seem outdated…but Norfolk’s Ferny Lane Theatre still operates every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Ian and Monica Anderson have been showing films there since March 1st, 2007. Patrons sit back, in comfortable chairs, and enjoy movies on the big screen. Wine, soft drinks and snacks are on sale, but you can bring your own, too, and on chilly evenings, they even provide blankets. So, ‘gwen dar pitchers, morla?’
Image Credit: Image supplied by Jenny Jauczius
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 03 Issue 02, 2019. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.