Missing issues of the Dungog Chronicle do not allow us to read an account of the first moving pictures presented by the Dungog Electric Lighting Company on James Stuart’s land in December 1912 where now stands Dungog’s James Theatre. We do know that the seating was for 1000 people ‘comfortably’, with prices at 1s [schilling] and 6d [pence]. The advantages of an electrical company presenting moving pictures lay not only in their being able to carry their electricity easily across to the site, but also in their being able to provide ‘festoons of lights’ in a town that was then otherwise unlit. The townsfolk were also assured they had no need to worry about ‘explosions or sudden conflagrations’ with the modern equipment that was installed.
While accounts of the very first screenings of December 1912 are missing, we do have a review of the screenings that took place one hundred years ago on the first Thursday and Saturday nights of January 1913. With glaring electric lights showing everyone the way, and the town band providing support, the audience was one that no management could complain of, according to the Dungog Chronicle. However, assurances that the ‘operator’ would know his machine in future, and that if the films were not the most up to date this was due to the Crystal Palace fire (not the London one, but a Sydney theatre housing the film exchange), provide hints that all did not go as smoothly as the management might have hoped. The following Wednesday the program was described as ‘a varied, interesting and amusing series of moving pictures’, only marred when a ‘vagrant shower dampened many of those present’.
The impact of the ‘vagrant shower’ reminds us that these first cinema showings on Brown Street were in the open air, with the fully enclosed cinema we know today not erected until 1918. This was done by James Stuart who had set up in the thriving town of Dungog as a tinsmith, an occupation that involved the local manufacture of such items as charcoal buckets, the curving of tin for water tanks and bullnose verandahs, and the making of honey tins and cream cans for local produce. James was an energetic man who was a leader in the founding of Dungog’s first Masonic Lodge in 1894. It was this James Stuart who obtained the rights to show the moving pictures from the Dungog Electric Lighting Company and subsequently established the Dungog Picture Palace.
By the early years of the new century James Stuart’s tinsmithing business had evolved into that of plumbing and galvanised iron work, and was successful enough to enable him and his wife Marion to build a fine modern brick house in Brown Street. This house was just down from the, then, Catholic Church and Presbytery, and just up from what was soon to become Dungog’s railway station. It is not known if this position was by luck or forethought, but, luck or not, James also owned a large block between his new house and the new railway station. This was the land that in 1912 the new Dungog Electric Lighting Company was happy to use to establish an open air picture theatre. In 1912, both electricity and the moving pictures were relatively new and both were only just entering small towns such as Dungog. The power needed for the carbon arc lamps made the picture shows a very suitable commercial development for this very local electricity company.
The open-air cinema set up at the end of 1912 by the Dungog Electric Lighting Company under manager Mr C H Hill, and next to James and Marion Stuart’s new house, was not the first venue for moving pictures in Dungog. Dungog had a number of community halls suitable for the moving pictures that were being shown by companies travelling from town to town. These included the Carrington (previously known as the Protestant Hall, and now the Dungog Medical Centre), the Centennial Hall (now Chillbillies Cafe) and the Victoria Hall (now the Bank Hotel car park).
Only the Victoria Hall continued after 1912 to screen pictures in competition with the new Brown Street establishment. In its first year, the ‘Dungog Electric Light Co Pictures’ presented shows three nights a week; on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday nights. However the ‘local Picture Co.’, as it was now referred to, was determined to keep up the thrill of the new, and before the first month of operation, it presented a special program consisting of a film of a popular Irish play called Con, the Shaughraun followed by a lecture ‘interpreting the representation’ by Mr Allen McGowan. Con, the Shaughraun was a popular melodramatic story of an innocent man (of course) transported to Australia who escapes back to his Irish homeland and for whom, after many cliff hanger escapades and with help from Con the ‘shaughraun’ (the wanderer), all ends well. It is not known how Mr McGowan was able to interpret this or why his interpretation was felt necessary.
A few months later in March 1913 came the Dungog Agricultural Show, and advertising as ‘Dungog Pictures – where everybody goes’, a special full week’s program of six straight nights (nothing on Sundays naturally) was presented with ‘Dramas, Cow Boys, Scenic and Comic’. The bill included: Justice at Last – a Monte Cristo-like tale of revenge that had appeared in the Sydney theatres only the Christmas before; The Broken Sword – a military drama set in the England of James II; and His Lost memory or The Lighting Flash – reputedly the first time real lightning had been captured on film. The Broken Sword was a 3,000 foot film, or a three-reeler, and so was relatively long with the story running at well over 30 mins.
This first year of exciting shows was only the beginning of a history of entertainment for the Dungog Picture Palace – now the James Theatre – that today exceeds 100 years. The many ups and downs of this history and the role this venue came to play in the social life of Dungog is described in Entertaining Dungog – a book that can be obtained at the James Theatre or through the Friends of the James (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Dungog is fortunate to have maintained the James Theatre not only as a link with its past but as a thriving part of its present that we all hope will continue to play a role well into the future.