University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘Make your public curious’: The highs and lows of being a cinema manager

In this blog Dr Rob James, Senior Lecturer in History, discusses the challenges of being a cinema manager in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. Rob specialises in researching society’s leisure activities and teaches a number of units on film and the cinema, including, as part of the Problems and Perspectives unit, ‘History at the Movies’ in the first year, ‘The Way to the Stars: Film and cinema-going in Britain, c. 1900-c. 2000’ option in the second year, and a Special Subject on ‘Cinema-going in Wartime Britain, 1939-1945’ in the third year.

Going to the cinema is the result of a series of choices. A number of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors operate in those decisions. Simply put, ‘push’ factors are things like bad weather, where patrons would go to the cinema in order to keep cosy and warm; ‘pull’ factors are those that draw cinema-goers in, such as the film being shown. In the first half of the twentieth century, when cinema-going was, to use the often quoted phrase by A.J.P. Taylor, the ‘social habit of the age’, cinema-goers were offered a wide variety of films to watch and a large number of cinemas in which to watch them. [1] Here in Portsmouth, for example, there were 29 cinemas located across the town at the start of the Second World War. [2] On top of this, consumers had a host of other leisure activities – pub-going, dancing, reading – competing for their free time, so going to the cinema was a conscious decision made after taking a series of choices. Cinema managers knew that if they were to run a successful and profitable business, they had to respond to the needs of the public. As a result, they paid close attention to their patrons’ film preferences, and many managers ran extravagant publicity campaigns in order to attract customers into their cinema halls.

Image taken from: http://photos.cinematreasures.org/production/photos/37908/1331124215/large.jpg?1331124215

Odeon Cinema, North End, Portsmouth

Across the country cinema mangers went to significant lengths to promote the films their cinemas were due to screen,    and their campaigns were often mentioned in the film trade papers. One of the most important cinema managers’ journals of the period, Kinematograph Weekly, ran regular features that detailed the techniques local managers employed to advertise a film, using feature titles such as ‘What managers are doing’ and ‘Showmanship’. [3] The paper often awarded prizes to managers who ran the most enterprising campaigns. One particularly active manager operating in Portsmouth during the 1930s and 1940s, Patrick Reed, won a prize for the campaigns he ran while managing the Odeon cinema in North End in 1938. As part of his film promotion strategies he arranged tie-ins with a large number of shops to advertise fashion house drama Vogues of 1938 (1937), and overprinted the pay envelopes of the employees of several large companies in the town with notes about the musical film Something to Sing About (1937). [4]

Image taken from: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/48821

Queens Cinema, Portsea, Portsmouth

Cinema managers faced a number of challenges, however, and not just competition from other cinemas operating in the area. One particularly sad event took place in April 1931 when the manager of the Queens cinema in Portsmouth, Mr H. E. Bingham, took his own life after a film failed to arrive in time for what would have undoubtedly been a busy Easter weekend, leaving a note written in chalk on the wall reading ‘NO SHOW. FINISH’. [5] The cinema was situated in Queen Street, near the naval barracks and Dockyard, and had attracted cinema-goers who lived in the immediate vicinity along with those working in and around the Dockyard and naval barracks. Problems started for Mr Bingham when the Council initiated a policy of slum clearance and moved lots of the district’s working-class residents to a new housing estate in Hilsea. [6] Mr Bingham had repeatedly complained to the Council about the effects of their policies on his business, and threatened to close the cinema a number of times due to the fall in takings at the box-office. [7] The failure of the film to arrive clearly tipped him over the edge.

Image taken from: http://www.granthammatters.co.uk/sanders-harry/

Harry Sanders

For many managers, though, the cinema industry offered a long and productive career. One particularly successful manager, Harry Sanders, ran a number of cinemas in England from the early 1920s until the mid-1960s, most notably the State cinema (later renamed Granada) in Grantham, where he served for over 20 years until his retirement in 1963. [8] Sanders recognised the importance of film promotion and, in October 1933, wrote a piece for Kinematograph Weekly in which he advised managers to ‘Make your public curious’ in order to obtain ‘big box-office business’. [9] Many of Sanders campaigns were highly flamboyant, but one particularly  noteworthy campaign occurred in 1952 when he arranged for a herd of elephants to be paraded through Grantham in order to promote the circus film The Greatest Show on Earth. What a sight it must have been for the residents of that modest Lincolnshire market town to see elephants roaming through their streets! The stunt was, of course, remarked upon for making quite an impact, and it is still mentioned in popular histories of the town whenever ‘Uncle Harry’ – as Sanders was affectionately known – is remembered. [10]

Image taken from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044672/

Promotional poster

Cinema managers like Sanders expended considerable energy ensuring that their businesses were successful. Unfortunately, most of their activities have been forgotten and the material they collated over the years has been lost to the historical record. I will, therefore, end this blog with an appeal. Harry Sanders kept much of the material that documented his life as a cinema manager – cinema ledgers, promotional material, exhibitors’ diaries, etc. – and his papers were donated by his son Howard to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. If you have (or had) a relative who worked as a cinema manager, or know of any such material, please get in touch with me on robert.james@port.ac.uk. It would be a great way to add to our limited knowledge of cinema managers’ lives in the twentieth century.



[1] Cited in Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain 1930-1939, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 11.

[2] Robert James, ‘Cinema-going in a Port Town, 1914-1951: Film Booking patterns at the Queens Cinema, Portsmouth’, Urban History, 40.2, 2013, pp. 315-335, p. 317.

[3] See, for example, Kinematograph Weekly, 12 February 1931, 35 and ibid., 30 June 1938, p. 52.

[4] Kinematograph Weekly, 7 April 1938, p. 50; ibid., 23 June 1938, p. 62.

[5] Sue Harper, ‘A Lower Middle-Class Taste Community in the 1930s: Admissions Figures at the Regent Cinema, Portsmouth, UK’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24.2, 2004, pp. 565-587, p. 566.

[6] For an analysis of the Council’s housing policies in this period see C.P. Walker, ‘Municipal Enterprise: A Study of the Interwar Municipal Corporation of Portsmouth 1919-1939’ (unpublished University of Portsmouth MA dissertation, 2003).

[7] Evening News, 8 April 1931; Kinematograph Weekly, April 16 1931, p. 29.

[8] Harry Sanders Collection, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See ‘Sanders, Harry – Uncle Harry put the fun into Grantham’, http://www.granthammatters.co.uk/sanders-harry/ (accessed 21 March, 2018).

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply