Who screened the first talkie in Cheltenham?

by John Elliott. First published in Cheltenham Local History Society Journal in 2013.

I had always believed and, indeed, have quoted in talks I have given that the first screening of a talkie in Cheltenham was that of Ronald Colman in Bulldog Drummond at the Theatre and Opera House. The Gloucestershire Echo of October 1, 1929, gave a full review of the occasion, noting that the preceding day ‘witnessed the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Cheltenham Theatre, for it was the first day of the talking pictures and the various changes that have marked their advent , including continuous performances and the disappearance of the orchestra.’ 

The same issue also included a lengthy account of the dinner held at the Plough Hotel in the High Street to commemorate the opening of the ‘talkie era at the Cheltenham Theatre’. Mr Eric V Hakim , managing director of the Cinema House Ltd of London, which had recently acquired the Theatre from its local owners, had invited a large company of guests interested in the Theatre. These included the Mayor (Ald C H Margrett) and many of the Directors of the old Theatre company. It is interesting to note that in his opening speech, the Mayor expressed some concern that many of the inhabitants of the town were very fond of the drama and commented that ‘I should regret exceedingly if our only Theatre were to be formed into a place of variety entertainment only’ (applause). He also regretted the displacement of the orchestra. Nonetheless he congratulated the new owners on their enterprise and wished them every success. In his reply Mr Hakim confirmed that while he was responding to public desire for talkies, he was aware of the long history of the Opera House and he was able to reassure those present that the Theatre would retain its character as a centre for stage productions.

The new owners were clearly aware of the value of advance publicity. In the Echo of the 27 September, there is a lengthy description (by presumably a suitably briefed local reporter ) of the changes to the Theatre that the introduction of talkies had necessitated. He described, inter alia, the large white screen and the ease with which a touch on a pulley lifted it away to the ‘flies’, the mighty loudspeakers, the modernisation of the old orchestra stalls into a ladies room with lavatories and the appearance of two additional ladies lavatories for the gallery (he was clearly particularly impressed by the toilet arrangements!), the generating room and its five dynamos, and the operating and rewinding chambers. The paper’s representative had also heard, but not officially, that the business of the changeover had cost ‘anything up to £15,000’. The architect concerned in the changes was Mr Leslie Kemp, a partner in the architect practice of Kemp and Tasker which was best known for their cinemas in the London area. 

However the inhabitants of Cheltenham were intrigued when, In the issue of the Echo on October 2, another candidate for showing the first talkie appeared in a letter from the formidable Mr Shakespeare Shenton, manager of the Winter Garden New Kinema [built in 1876-8, demolished 1942] and also at this time proprietor of the Palace Cinema in the High Street. He wrote that ‘as a pioneer of cinematography in Cheltenham he was not going to sit down and see a London syndicate cutting the ground from under his feet’. He went on to point out that ‘off my own bat I have installed at the Winter Garden New Kinema two of the finest British-built talking machines on the market, equal in every respect to the much-boosted American made machines and opened on Monday afternoon several hours before the above remarks were made’. (That is, before the dinner given by Mr Hakim).

Mr Shenton also confirmed that he had ‘retained my orchestra, who will accompany the silent films which will be screened together with a talkie each week, thus not throwing my musicians on the labour market’. He was as good as his word. The following week while the Theatre was screening the well-known talkie Al Jolson in The Singing Fool, Mr Shenton was showing two silent films with full orchestra, Three Week Ends with Clara Bow and Louise Dresser in Not Quite Decent, as well as the all singing, all talking Syncopation with Ian Hunter. In addition to his involvement with entertainment, Mr Shakespeare Shenton was well known in the town as director of Shakespeare Shenton Billposting Company and Shenton’s Printing Works (the former at 23 Grosvenor Place South and the latter at number 22). 

Clearly, we need to determine which venue was the first to screen a talkie. Both were having their initial showing on the Monday. However, a look at the starting times of performances does confirm that the Theatre was indeed the first but only by half an hour. At the Theatre performances started at 2.00 and screening was continuous until 10.30 pm, while at the Winter Garden the start time was 2.30 and continuous until 10.15. So not only did the Theatre’s performances start earlier but also finished later by quarter of an hour!

It is worth having a look at the relative merits of the systems used and the popularity of the talkies screened. On the second point there is little doubt the the Theatre’s film was the more popular and better publicised of the two. Bulldog Drummond was an exciting story of a British officer, bored with civilian life, who investigates an extortion case for a beautiful girl, adapted from one of the popular stories by Herman C McNeile (better known as Sapper). It had the major advantage of starring Ronald Colman, who was already well-known for his roles in more than twenty films, including Stella Dallas and Beau Geste and who remained a star of the screen into the 1940s. The cast also included Claud Allister and Joan Bennett (a popular actress whose career also lasted for many years into the sound area: Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, for example, both directed by Fritz Lang). Bulldog Drummond was later nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ronald Colman) and for Best Art Direction. In the event the best actor award went to George Arliss for his performance in Disraeli.

Mother’s Boy, the advertised all-talking and singing picture at the Winter Garden was a sentimental tale of a young singer who has worked hard and is just about to embark on his first Broadway show when a former sweetheart brings him the news that his mother is dying. He returns home and by his presence his mother’s life is saved. The publicity given to this act of self-sacrifice is sufficient to save his career. The film starred Morton Downey (the father of the later well-known talk show host, Morton Downey Junior) a popular radio performer and prolific recording artist, voted American Radio Singer of the Year in 1932 (known as ‘The Irish Nightingale’). Mother’s Boy was not Morton Downey’s first singing role. That was Syncopation the same year, which also made use of his popularity as a vocalist and was RKO’s first sound musical. The cast also included Helen Chandler and Brian Donlevy, the latter a stalwart of numerous cowboy films of the thirties and forties. 

The sound systems employed, Western Electric at the Theatre and Opera House and RCA (Radio Corporation of America) at the Winter Garden, were two of the major competing technologies that emerged in the film industry in the late 1920s for synchronising electrically recorded audio to a motion picture image. The techniques employed by these two (and indeed the other two major systems) are complicated and the following brief descriptions are, I hope, not too confusing.

The ‘RCA Sound Recording’ Technique, as advertised by Mr Shenton (also known as Photophone or Vitaphone), was the last but most successful of the sound-on-disc processes. The sound track was not printed on the actual film but issued separately on 12-16 inch phonograph records. The disc would be played while the film was being projected. The sound-on-disc system had advantages both in amplification, allowing sound to be played to a larger audience at higher volume, and also in fidelity, with its superior dynamic range. It had, however, serious disadvantages in, for example, the requirement for separate distribution of the discs (not helped by the need to replace the discs after about 20 playings) and in synchronisation if, for example, the film became damaged.

The ‘Famous Western Electric System’ as promoted by the Theatre and Opera House (also known as Movietone) was a sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures that guaranted synchronisation between sound and picture. It achieved this by recording the sound on a variable density optical track on the same strip that records the picture. Western Electric also created the Western Electric Universal Base, a Device by which early silent cinema projectors could be adapted to screen sound films. In addition, the firm designed a wide-audio-range horn loudspeaker for cinemas. This was estimated to be nearly 50 per cent efficient and allowed a cinema to be filled with sound from a 3-watt amplifier. This was an important breakthrough because high-powered audio valves were not generally available at that time. 

Both systems (and the films screened) were reviewed in the local reports of the two occasions. The Echo noted that, at the Winter Garden, though ‘the sound production was not all that could have been desired, the entertainment was certainly of a pleasing character’ and went on to comment that a ‘wonderful feature of the picture is the collection of night club and cabaret scenes’. The local critic found more to comment on in his review of the presentation at the Theatre. He was clearly surprised at its quality and praised the clarity of the speaking, commenting that ‘in the course of a long performance one lost very few words’, although he observed that while the chest resonation is more than natural, the head resonation is somewhat flat and colourless and consequently voices tended to lose some of their natural character. Taken as a whole, ‘the work of the new installation was so good that it must have been a great surprise to many having their first experience of speaking pictures’. It does seem that the critic gave more attention to, and found more to praise, in the presentation at the Theatre than that at the Winter Garden.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the introduction of talkies. There were doubts about the quality of the sound and the kind of films to be screened. There was extensive correspondence in the local papers deploring the loss to the town of a major venue for live theatre and the replacement of live English voices by American standards of speaking, which caused local criticism. For example, in the same issue of the Echo which gave space to reporting the dinner given by Mr Hakim, there appeared a letter from Mr Edward Burrow (Printer of Imperial House) complaining that his experience of talking pictures in London was that they were ‘usually disastrous expositions of the American idea of correct speaking, which is not very agreeable to anyone loving the English language properly used’ a view which was repeated in numerous letters over the following weeks and months. Indeed, on October 3, there was an advertisement in the Echo addressed to depressed Cheltenham play-goers, noting that the original ‘talkies’, the human voice, can never be surpassed and could still be heard at the Gloucester Hippodrome in big London successes!

There was also dismay at the loss of the orchestras, and the consequent reduction in employment for trained musicians. It is certainly true that a major consequence of the advent of sound film was loss of employment for many musicians. Before the arrival of talkies, a musician of age 16 or 17 could be earning £5 or £6 a week in one of the larger cinema orchestras. Some idea of the extent of employment opportunities for musicians to work in ‘silent’ cinema can be calculated from the increase in the number of cinemas in London alone. Between 1909 and 1912 the number leapt from 90 to 400. At the height of the silent film era, movies were the single largest source of employment for instrumental musicians (certainly in America and also to a large extent in the UK), But the introduction of talkies, which happened simultaneously with the Great Depression, was devastating to musicians. Many of them went to radio and bandstands. Some became teachers, but a large number had to take to the streets as buskers or abandoned the craft altogether. The American Federation of Musicians calculated that within three years of the introduction of talkies, 22,000 theatre jobs for musicians who accompanied silent film were lost in America. In Cheltenham, considerable attention was given to the plight of unemployed musicians, and there were many letters over the next months protesting at their treatment and suggesting possible ways in which they could be employed.

What of the future? Talkies were clearly here to stay, and more cinemas converted their equipment to screen talkies until only the North Street Cinema devoted its shows exclusively to silent films, and even this closed in July 1931, when there was a shortage of such films. Live shows and variety also continued to play a major part in what was provided for the theatregoers of Cheltenham. The Coliseum [later a bingo hall, snooker club and The Springbok, a sports bar: demolished in 2011], for example, presented live shows as well as films and even the Theatre by the end of the month was advertising a live musical show, although it continued to be a cinema for some years.

It soon became clear that Cinema House Company, and Mr Hakim, had over-reached themselves. With more cinemas screening ‘talkies’, they were forced to to sell the Theatre to the original owners , the Theatre and Opera House Company, and the event was celebrated in a first page report in the Echo of August 6 1934. After some structural seating and decorative alterations, the Theatre was formally reopened by the Mayor ,who welcomed the return of the Theatre to local owners and ‘rejoiced that a company of local gentlemen of courage and enterprise had once more been able to acquire that beautiful building which had such historic associations’. 

And Mr Hakim himself ? Clearly Hakim was a smooth and persuasive conman. At the time he gave the dinner, he was merely an employee of the board and had little money of his own, certainly not enough to fund an occasion of the opulence quoted in the Echo. According to the Kinematograph Weekly, Hakim first came to light as a violinist in a South London cinema. He became interested in the burgeoning cinema distribution companies, and became involved in a group including Cinema House London and The Electric Theatre Company (with offices in Oxford Street) and became Managing Director. He founded a Film Production Company, and having gone into partnership he invested in prestigious offices in Soho and bought the rights to Metropolis. He went into film production and persuaded MGM to back the production of three films (not quota quickies, apparently, but expensive productions). The first was successful: the other two lost money, which led to the sale of major company property. [The ones we know about are The Outsider, 1931, starring Harold Huth and Joan Barry and Diamond Cut Diamond, 1932, starring Adolphe Menjou.] By this time Hakim had resigned and founded another company, National Film Distribution! In 1935 he was deemed bankrupt in but later was charged with obtaining credit while bankrupt. Surprisingly, he was acquitted.

He had disposed of the Theatre and Opera House in 1933 (at the same time he had disposed of properties he had acquired in Gloucester, including the Picturedrome in Barton Street, still standing but in disarray, and the Kings Theatre, which may or may not be the building still in operation in King’s Barton Street). Little is known of his later career although there were rumours that he had married a Russian ‘actress’.

[Editor’s note: more than a rumour, and she wasn’t an ‘actress’, but an actress. I believe she was Nina Yasikova. Born in 1899 in Minsk, Belarus, she fled after the Revolution. On arrival in England, she appeared in Scrooge (1923). Ivor Novello, who starred in The Man Without Desire (1923), in which she played a young socialite, told her to change her Russian name to something ‘less emetic’, and she became Nina Vanna. Later she played the title roles of Lady Jane Grey: or, the Court of Intrigue (1923) and Lucrezia Borgia: or, Plaything of Power (1923) and appeared in School for Scandal (1923). In 1937, after a long break, she made her first – and last – sound film The Show Goes On (1937), with Gracie Fields. She was married three times: to Robert Kind, to Eric Hakim (in 1933), and finally to an art dealer, Peter Provatoroff, from 1946 until her death in 1953.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *