The Cinema Business

The family was growing and beginning to prosper. Maurice and his older children travelled with the show from Monday to Friday, and returned home for Friday evening Shabbat services at the synagogue.   Life on the road, however, was wearying.  Maurice, now a father of seven, took a hard look at Dublin’s entertainment scene, and decided to try and break into a growing industry.

He was competing in a rich scene.  In these years, the Mansion House was presenting Butler’s Biophone Entertainment, which it described as Living Pictures and Pictorial Songs.  The Rotunda was showing A Picture and Music Repertoire Season by the Animated Picture Company.  The Theatre Royal was offering matinée performances by the celebrated Australian opera singer Madame Melba, with seats priced at 15/-, 12/-, 10/-, 7/6d and 5/-. The Kingstown Pavilion had a Viennese Band Concert.  At the Rathmines Palace Rink, The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa was playing its military marches (admission 3/-, 2/- and 1/- ).

The Abbey Theatre company was touring the US, so John F. Larchet’s Grand Concert gave Saturday night orchestral concerts on the Abbey stage.  A highly respected musician and composer, Dr. Larchet was professor of Music at University College Dublin, and later first president of Ireland Opera.

Maurice’s experience with his travelling show had convinced him of the potential of cinema.  In November 1911, he rented disused premises at 30 Great Brunswick Street, and opened the Cinema Theatre, the first of 34 movie houses that the family would run in Ireland.  It was one of 120 cinemas and dedicated venues that screened films in Dublin from 1896 to the present; they ranged from converted shops to lavish purpose-built cinema theatres.  

From this first picture-house, Elliman cinemas were all on the upper end of the scale. The Cinema Theatre was spacious, comfortable, handsomely fitted, and electrically ventillated and heated throughout. It accommodated 450 people in roomy seats, for 3d and 6d admission, and served them tea upstairs.  The cinematography machinery and accessories were the most modern available.   Proceeds from the opening day, November 30, were donated to the new St. Patrick’s Church in Ringsend, Dublin.

In his book, Dublin’s Little Jerusalem (2002), Nick Harris, who was born into Dublin’s Jewish community writes: “It is almost impossible to think of theatre and cinema in Dublin during those years without remembering the Elliman family. When Maurice Elliman landed in Dublin in 1900 [it was 1892] with little or no money, he could not have foreseen the influence that he and his family were to have on the people of Ireland. He had come from Latvia [it was Lithuania] to escape from the Tsarist regime. He was fortunate in his choice of Ireland as a place of safety, and Ireland gained form his spirit of enterprise. His first business venture was a greengrocer’s shop, but he had a vision about the motion picture industry which was then in its infancy. Where he obtained the equipment is not known. What is known is that he began his career in the motion picture business less than a year after his arrival in Dublin [it was 13 years] and never looked back.

“He rented a room in Camden Street and showed films with a hand-operated projector on a makeshift screen erected on one of the walls. He usually had an audience of fifteen to twenty children who paid one penny each to see the movies. Corrigans the undertakers and Rourkes’ Bakery, two of his neighbours in Camden Street, must have wondered what was going one when they saw boys and girls coming and going from Mr. Elliman’s premises. when thy found out more about it, they were very impressed and decided to invest in building a cinema with Maurice Elliman as manager. The Theatre de Luxe in Camden Street was Maurice Elliman’s entry into the cinema business.” [The de Luxe opened in 1913. It was Maurice’s third cinema.]

The Camden Cinema, Dublin

Early in 1912, a Dublin paper ran a story headed Popular Cinema Theatre:

The growth of the number of cinematograph theatres all over the United Kingdom shows this that particular form of entertainment has got a firm hold on the favours of the public. Dublin is no exception and there are several houses all doing good business.  One of the best equipped and most up-to-date is the Cinema Theatre, Gt. Brunswick Street.  In addition to the latest pictures being shown, the important element of music is not overlooked, and the Cinema Theatre’s Ladies Orchestra is rapidly making a reputation in musical circles.”

It was then normal practice for cinemas to field small orchestras to play between screenings.  While films were shown, the orchestras offered dainty selections, appropriate to the pictures on screen.   Over time, Maurice’s daughters Rosie and Henny took their turn playing in the cinema orchestras.  His youngest daughter Queenie would man the box office.

With picture-houses ever more firmly established in Dublin, their Sunday opening came up for discussion at a meeting of the Dublin Corporation in April 1912, five months after the Great Brunswick Street cinema’s opening. The arguments for allowing cinemas to remain open on Sundays were several.  It was pointed out that only selected pictures were shown on the Lord’s day ­— such as the Passion Play, scenes from the lives of Moses, Saul and David, and travel footage.  Sunday opening drew in large numbers of young people who would otherwise aimlessly wander the streets in the afternoons and evenings.  It would be admirable, it was proposed, if a scheme could be devised which combined popular educational lectures on Sundays with the cinematograph.  The educational potential of the cinematograph was increasingly recognized at all levels of society.

With the growing volume of films being shown, film censorship also became an issue.  Under the Cinematograph Act of 1909, cinemas had to be licensed by local authorities.   Now, however, greater control was debated.  Articles about the content of films began appearing in the popular press.  The Home Secretary was asked whether his attention had been drawn by the stipendiary magistrates to the extraordinary increase in juvenile crime traceable to the melodramatic films shown at picture palaces, and whether he proposed introducing legislation to address this evil. The Home Secretary replied that a private committee was currently in formation to examine films before they were screened, and he hoped this step would not be without good results.  He did not, however, see his way to legislate by way of establishing an official censorship. 

In 1912, the film industry formed the British Board of Film Censors (today, the British Board of Film Classification), to manage their own censorship, taking the process in-house and establishing its own system of self-regulation, rather than be policed by national or local government.

Maurice’s fledgling enterprise was doing well, but it faced fierce competition.  Percy French, ‘the Irish Mark Twain’ was appearing at the Antient Concert Rooms.  Lennox Robinson’s new play, The Patriots, opened at the Abbey with Sara Allgood, J. M. Kerrigan, Arthur Sinclair and Frank O’Donovan.  And the Barnum & Bailey Exhibition Company announced that:

“The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show (President, Colonel William Cody) will appear at the Jones Road Grounds for a month, from April 15, 1912, with 400 Indians (Different Tribes), 800 Cowboys and Cowgirls, and 2,000 Horses!  Excursions from all parts of the country!”

In April 1912, Maurice opened his second cinema.   It was the Coliseum at Redmond’s Hill near Aungier Street, and was just about established when it was totally destroyed by fire — luckily in the early hours of the morning, without loss of life or even injury.

But with the opening of the Coliseum, just weeks earlier, Maurice had sold his fruit business, and moved with Leah and his five sons and two daughters to a larger home at 45 Raymond Street, off the South Circular Road. The cost of the move, together with the destruction of the cinema, combined to push him into deep financial straits.  His sound reputation came to his rescue.  After some bleak and worrying weeks, he obtained the backing of two businessmen-neighbors from Camden Street, O’Rourke and Corrigan.  Together, they formed the Dublin Kinematograph Company, and appointed architect Frederick Hayes to design a modestly sized, narrow-fronted cinema on a vacant site at 86 Lower Camden Street.  

On January 4, 1913, just eight months after the opening of the ill-fated Coliseum, Maurice’s Theatre De Luxe opened its doors. .Nothing remains of the original cinema, though it was probably quite compact. Heated and ventillated throughout, this luxury facility boasted vestibules, lounges, a confectionery stall, upholstered seating and an attractive first-floor oriel window. A modern projection room furnished with the latest equipment screened performances daily from 2.30 to 10.30 p.m., with admission at 3d and 6d. A balcony was added in 1919.

Maurice was back on his feet: in 1920, he spent ₤30,000 on refurbishing the De Luxe, creating ceilings of richly decorated plaster-work and extending it to encompass next-door 85 Camden Street and seat 1,200 people.  A decade later, redesigned once more and enlarged to accommodate 1,400, the cinema was given an Art Deco façade of terracotta tiles, embellished with geometric gold quartzite patterns and dark green marble, encasing the ground floor walls. A short flight of white-marble-clad steps led to the octagonal entrance foyer, which featured an eye-catching clock set in a dramatic painting of a multi-coloured sunburst. Patrons parted with the admission fees of between 9d and 1/9d to view the 16-foot by 23-foot screen.

A Dublin newspaper gave statistics about the international cinema trade “that had commenced in 1898:”

While there are no separate figures for Ireland, it was clear to anyone that Irish cinema was thriving — its most public manifestation being the famous Dublin cinema queue.  A decade later, in March 1933, it was estimated that more than half Dublin’s children visited the cinema at least once a week, with 50,000 people nationwide in the cinemas every day. 

The famous Dublin cinema queue

“Depression or no depression, the cinema grows more popular every day in Ireland,” pronounced The Irish Times of June 29, 1935. “Already there are more than 30 cinemas in Dublin… and more to come.”

In addition to Maurice’s establishments on Great Brunswick and Camden Streets, there were cinemas at the Rotunda, Rathmines Town Hall and Abercorn Hall on Harcourt Street, as well as on Grafton Street, Sackville (later O’Connell) Street, Henry Street, Mary Street, Capel Street, Dame Street, Ellis’s Quay, Dorset Street and Talbot Street.  The Volta and the Phoenix had opened as purpose-built cinemas.  All were doing good business

Former Dublin City Manager Frank Feely, who grew up in Dublin in the 1930s, wrote in his memoirs:

If we were asked to list the most important people in the community, the cinema usher would have been high on the list.  He was G-d!  Queuing up, the dreaded words were ‘Three seats left!’ when you were fourth in the queue . . . usually wooden seats but we never complained.

By the late 1920s, cinema-going had become the essential social habit of the age in Ireland, an epoch-making invention, a social institution and the pinnacle of popular culture. It was dynamic and vibrant, urban and modern, church and theatre all in one. For the masses it was an escape from an often harsh and hungry reality, and it played an enormous role in people’s lives.

In 1936, statistician Thekla Beere wrote that in 30 years, cinema had risen…

…from a little-known new invention to one of the greatest social institutions the world has ever known. [You have only to look at] the many new buildings erected in recent years in [Dublin’s]main thoroughfares,the large capital investments which these undertakings represent and the employment which they provide, the long queues patiently waiting for admittance, the sum paid for admission and the share the exchequer collects by way of entertainments tax, and the enormous amount of space devoted to cinema advertisements, both in our newspapers and on the hoardings.

By instinct and by sheer good fortune, it was a social institution that Maurice had entered at its very beginnings, and he and his sons were there to help shape the way it developed.

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