July 15, 2024

Australia’s First Movie Screening

Australia's first movie screening came courtesy of a vagabond English magician, and a local promoter looking for a get rich quick scheme.

The Prince of Wales Theatre, shortly after opening.
The Prince of Wales Theatre, shortly after opening.

In 1872, the Prince of Wales Theatre was opened on Bourke St, in Melbourne. Featuring an elaborate facade and seating for more than 2 000 people, the theatre was instantly established as one of the city's largest, and grandest, buildings.

As was usual at the time, the Prince of Wales presented a variety of live entertainment; everything from vaudeville and three penny opera, to live music, local comedians and animal acts. They also showed more notable works; the first performances of 'HMS Pinafore' and 'The Pirates of Penzance' in Australia were staged at the Prince.

Melbourne promoter Harry Rickards
Harry Rickards

Harry Rickards was a Melbourne actor with large ambitions. In 1895, he quit acting and borrowed enough money to take the lease on the Prince of Wales, re-launching it as 'The Melbourne Opera House.'

Keen to differentiate his theatre from others in the city, Rickards was always on the lookout for new attractions. He was particularly enthusiastic about novelty acts; anything that was exotic and different that he could use to generate publicity.

Rickards quickly forged a name in Melbourne's competitive arts scene, as one of the cities most aggressive and outspoken promoters.

The Lumiere Brothers
The Lumiere Brothers

The Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis, were born in the 1860s in regional France.

Their father, Claude-Antoine, ran a photographic plate and film development firm near Lyons. Both brothers went into the family business after attending university, and showed an immediate aptitude for photographic processing, helping to refine and advance the still developing medium.

The brothers were fascinated by Thomas Edison's 'Kinetoscope', a viewing device that flashed a series of still images in sequence into a single eyepiece, and so gave the impression of movement. Inspired by Edison, the young brothers set themselves an ambitious new task; to design and build a proper 'moving picture' camera, capable of capturing live action, and then broadcasting it onto a screen.

The 'Cinematographe'
The 'Cinematographe'

A process of experimentation, engineering and testing followed, spanning the years 1892 - 1895. The end result was a squat, box like structure on an A-frame stand, which they dubbed the 'Cinematographe'. The Lumiere's remarkable invention was an all-in-one film studio, capable of filming, and projecting, images.

The movies had arrived.

The first public screenings involving the Cinematographe took place in Paris in September 1895, where the Lumiere's screened short films they had shot themselves. Amazed audiences flocked to the 1 minute long silent projections, which depicted scenes from everyday life (sadly, the famous story of audiences fleeing a film of a train are probably just fiction).

Magician Carl Hertz
Carl Hertz

Carl Hertz was an American born magician based in England, who had toured the world extensively and had already visited Australia. Down on his luck and living in London, Hertz saw a Cinematographe when the Lumiere's brought one to England, in early 1896.

Amazed by what he had seen, Hertz was determined to acquire one of the Lumiere's devices, and add it to his act.

But the Lumiere's British agent, Felicien Trewey, had been instructed that they would not sell the devices under any circumstances.

Robert W. Paul
Robert W. Paul

Repeatedly rebuffed by Trewey, Hertz then turned his attention to Robert W. Paul, a British inventor who had created his own copy of the device, which he imaginatively named the 'Theatrograph'. While similar in design and construction, Paul's version was less sophisticated and was considered inferior to the Lumiere's model.

Nevertheless, Hertz was determined to have one of Paul's machines. Again told that they were not for sale, Hertz convinced Paul to show him his workshop and demonstrate the workings of the device in person.

'He (Paul) took me on to the stage and showed me the whole workings of the machine. We were there for over an hour, during which I kept pressing him to let me have one of the machines.


Finally I said, "Look here! I am going to take one of these machines with me now!"


And with that, I took out a hundred pounds in notes, put them into his hand, got a screw driver and unscrewed one of the machines from the floor.'

- Carl Hertz

Paul would later claim that Hertz had stolen the machine from him.

Harry Rickards had been in England at the same time, booking acts for the Australian summer. Having also witnessed a Cinematographe in action, he was anxious to have one for his Melbourne theatre; a pioneering coup that he thought would make him a fortune.

Rickards learned that Hertz had acquired a device, and offered him a series of engagements in Melbourne. Hertz accepted, and departed England in June.

An ad for Australia's first screening
An ad in the local press, for Hertz's show.

Hertz arrived in Melbourne in August, 1896.

He commenced his run at the Melbourne Opera House on the 15th of that month, and unveiled his Theatrographe to a private audience of city officials and VIPs on the 17th. Hertz had brought five short films with him; Highland Dances, Street Scenes in London, Trilby Dance, Military Parade, and Soldier's Courtship.

Of these, 'Soldiers Courtship' was an early attempt to shoot a movie with a simple, comic narrative, and 'Trilby Dance' was a scene from a play, popular at the time. The others were all documentary style shorts, depictions of scenes from everyday life.

On August 22nd, Hertz incorporated the films into his magic act, playing them for a public audience for the first time in Australia.

An ad for magician Carl Hertz and Australia's first movie screening

And just like everywhere else that the early cinema had ventured, they caused an immediate sensation.

Promoted by hyperbolic advertising, and some excited word of mouth, large crowds flocked to the Opera House. Long queues formed to get into the twice daily shows, egged on by excited patrons leaving the theatre in a highly agitated state. Hertz and his films were the talk of the town, dubbed 'The Attraction of the Century!'

Their success was so great that Rickards would immediately set about sourcing another Cinematographe.

Once he had obtained one, details are sketchy, he set sail for Sydney, determined to capitalise on the time when he was the only promoter in Australia with moving pictures. By mid September, Rickards was running several screenings per day in both Melbourne and Sydney.

His dreamed of success had materialised.

An ad for magician Carl Hertz on tour
An ad for Carl Hertz on tour

Hertz continued to perform his show in Melbourne for the rest of the summer.

Such was the clamour surrounding his performances, he was subsequently able to book himself into a world tour, and after Australia he would perform in South Africa, Japan, New Zealand and Fiji, among other exotic locations. He took his cinema projector with him, and so became the first person to screen movies in all of those places as well.

But his appearances in Melbourne left the biggest legacy.

By the end of the year, three more Cinematographes, one of them a genuine Lumiere designed model, would be in operation in the city. A frenzy erupted among local promoters to secure the scarce machines, and then source ever more exotic and unique films to screen on them.

Purpose built cinemas quickly followed.

The country visitor who returns home from Melbourne still in ignorance of the marvels of the Cinematographe must have gone nowhere and seen nothing.


- 'The Australasian,' 7 November 1896

The movies had arrived in Australia.


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