Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 44, September 2000
In this day and age the T.V. stands in all it's splendour in almost every living room in the land. Video Parlours are in most reasonable sized towns and video hire can bring some of the latest video films into our homes. What was it like in the time B.T.V. (Before T.V.)?
We have had books since the 1600s. We have had newspapers in New Zealand since about 1640 and then in the late 1900s came the advent of the wireless set. The grown ups had their great big boxes with all the knobs and dials on them but for the kids it was the crystal set that after a bit of manipulation of the "Cat's whisker", through the earphones came the sound of voices and music, over the scratching and static that is. We had the voices over the air and we had news that could be heard just as it was happening hundreds of miles away and that was almost a miracle to us at the time. What we did not have was the ability to see those events for ourselves within a reasonable time of the events happening.
From the very earliest of times various people had experimented with lights and images but until the invention of the movie camera the early moving pictures shown were of a very poor quality. In October 1896 films were shown at the Auckland Opera House using Edison's Cinematograph machine. That was the beginning of public showing of films in this country. As for us on the Hauraki Plains we had to wait, not only for the films but also for the drains and the development of the land. The first ballot for farms was in 1910 and by 1912 Pipiroa had a hall built although it was never used for showing Moving Pictures. Gradually more halls were built and so in this area it was now possible to have pictures. Mr Arger Hamilton came into the district and began his Picture circuit by travelling around from hall to hall and showing films on different days of each week.
If anybody has ever seen a very old hall with what appears to be a trapdoor on the outside wall just to one side of the front door, well that is the wall to the projection room. The room itself was the operator's truck parked outside. For a start the truck was backed up to the wall then the back wheels jacked up and a belt run from one wheel to a generator on the truck. Next the trapdoor on the wall was opened and the lens of the projector poked through the opening. A long pole was used to hang the screen from the hooks that were a permanent fixture on the hall ceiling. All was now ready and with the ticket booth being manned at the door the patrons could troop in to their evenings entertainment.
The Waitakaruru hall was built in 1917 and on November 16th, 1920 the first regular film showing was made. Seating was not very luxurious to say the least. All that was available were forms with no backs so Mr Arch Henderson, the local blacksmith, manufactured the iron supports that were necessary for backs to be made for the forms. Actually only some of the forms had backs and the adults had those. The children had to make do with the remaining backless ones.
When the film was ready to roll the truck motor was started and so its generator gave the power to run the projector. The films themselves were silent films with moving pictures and sub„titles at the bottom of the screen. Anyone who had not learned to read at school was in trouble and would probably find it hard to follow the plot. To give the filming some atmosphere a local person would sit at the piano and play music to fit in with the mood of the scenes showing on the screen. Loud music for the dramatic passages and soft and low for the love scenes and so forth.
To keep away the gnawing pangs of hunger there was usually a booth selling a small array of sweets and also peanuts. These were not shelled peanuts but raw, in their shells. One can only imagine the noise of all those peanuts being shelled and eaten and then of course the problem of what to do with the shells. This was usually solved by throwing the shells around the hall. Hard seats, silent movies, piano music, flickering screen and flying peanut shells.
Silent movies continued until the late 1920s and then, wonder of wonders, along came "The Jazz singer" with A L Jolson. In that film Jolson sang and you could hear his singing right there in the hall. Gradually talkies were introduced to all the halls with Turua having its first showing on October 10th, 1930. As the years passed Waitakaruru, Ngatea and Turua fitted permanent projection rooms and equipment in their halls while Arger Hamilton continued his round of the other halls in the greater district. It was Waikino on Monday night, Hikutaia on Tuesday, Te Hoe on Wednesday, Thursday at Tahuna and Friday at Patetonga.
Mr Max Cornish who worked with Arg Hamilton from the 1940s remembers the little Chev. van and the trailer, on behind. All the gear was packed away in those vehicles and carted to the halls. Each hall had an upstairs projection room usually with a very narrow staircase leading to it. The projectors and other gear were broken down into manageable loads carted up the stairs and reassembled up there. The curtain was hung from the ceiling hooks and the picture theatre was then ready. Arger and Max would arrive at an empty hall, set up their gear, show the films and then pack up and go afterwards leaving the bare hall. By this time the gear used was more reliable but earlier on hardly an evening went by without the film breaking down and the showing stopped. It was then that the younger population of the theatre fans really gave voice with cat„calls, yells and whistles. The noise was deafening but I do believe that if at the end of the evening there had been no breakdowns then the patrons went away dissatisfied.
Projectors for years were run with carbon arcs to give a light bright enough for the screening. These sparking arcs were running only a short distance away from the flammable celluloid films and were quite dangerous. The reels of film were delivered in galvanised iron boxes and the idea was that if the film ever caught alight the projectionist would toss it in one of these boxes, close the lid, and so contain the fire.
At the Turua hall the projectionist forgot this rule and threw the burning reel down the stairs and that, unfortunately, was the end of that hall. For the local population in areas such as Waitakaruru, Ngatea or Patetonga picture night was the one night of the week that everybody in the district went out. It was a real social occasion and district gathering. Today there are no Movie Theatres in the smaller centres while in the cities a big six or eight theatre complex is the rule. In our local hall Arger and Max would work away to keep one theatre going while now in the big complex one man sits in his chair, bored to tears, while the computer runs the eight films all from one central location.
There are those of us who can remember the very early days of films from the silent films through to the talkies, from the cold old halls to the luxury of the modern Ngatea theatre. We remember the half time walk down the road to the shops at Waitakaruru and the extra long interval to accommodate that walk. At Turua patrons had only to cross the road. Later at Waitakaruru, Hori Fair put up a booth at the hall so the long walk was finished. At most of the other halls similar booths were put in place. For us today T.V. is a fact of life and is here to stay but to those of us who can remember the days of "Saturday night at the Flicks" something of the glamour and excitement has gone out of life. Flickering films and peanuts. Hard seats and us noisy kids. The serial each week that always ended with the hero or heroine on the brink of disaster only to just miss out the following week. Cowboys like Buck Rogers and Kit Carson and those men with their wonderful Space Ships that our parents told us would never fly like that. We had Tarzan and Jane flitting around the trees and Shirley Temple being much nicer than we could ever possibly be.
We thought that when T.V. came that films were dead and gone. Even though we can't get our own district theatres back again at least Jurassic Park, Titanic and now Godzilla have shown us that even if we can't get unshelled peanuts back again we can still have a good "Night out at the Flicks."