by Andy Dougan 

Glasgow has always been in love with the movies. The bright lights of much-loved venues like the old Odeon in Renfield Street, the Regal, the Gaumont or the La Scala in a pre-pedestrianised Sauchiehall Street, or local picture houses like The Lyceum in Govan, The Princes in Springburn, or The Granada in Parkhead are a vital part of the city's social heritage. It’s hardly surprising that Glasgow was known as Cinema City.

Lots of cities make similar claims but Glasgow has a strong case. The history of moving pictures in the city goes back to the summer of 1896, less than six months after the world’s first cinema screening in Paris. In 1929 Glasgow had 127 cinemas, which was reckoned to be more than any city of its size outside the United States, and by 1937 the city had 137,000 cinema seats. More recently, in 2003, the UGC in Renfrew Street, now run by Cineworld, was the busiest cinema in the British Isles with 1.8 million admissions. Even now more Glaswegians go to the cinema and they go more often than almost anywhere else in the UK.

Glaswegians love cinema and in turn cinema has played a big part in defining Glasgow as a modern, vibrant, city. The invention of moving pictures in the late 19th century is seen as such a symbol of technological advancement that it became one of the talismans of the modern era. The Glasgow Herald went so far as to say that the arrival of moving pictures put Glasgow on the same footing as London, Paris, or New York.

Actually The Herald got its dates wrong. The article was written in 1937 to celebrate 40 years of the movies and claimed cinema had first been seen in Glasgow in 1897; it had in fact arrived the previous year and very quickly established itself as a firm favourite across all sorts of social groupings. Few cities embraced the movies as quickly and as comprehensively. Even so there are lots of myths, half-truths and popular misconceptions about the development of Cinema City.

It’s often been claimed, for example, that the first person to screen movies here was George Green, the man synonymous with the famous Green’s Playhouse in Renfield Street. It’s suggested that moving pictures made their debut at his Winter Carnival at Vinegar Hill in December 1896 but this is not the case. Green was important but his role has been overstated.

If we are putting the record straight we need to give much more credit to a man called Walter Wilson, a previously unheralded pioneer who brought together two things Glaswegians love – shopping and movies.

Wilson was a charismatic figure. He was a pioneering retailer who owned the Colosseum Warehouse at the corner of Jamaica Street and the Broomielaw. He started out in the Gorbals as a hat maker, and opened the Colosseum in 1878. Wilson was a friend of retail giants such as Harry Gordon Selfridge and, like him, he was a fan of the giant Marshall Field’s store in Chicago which effectively invented the department store. Bringing these practices to Glasgow Wilson developed a flair for publicity and promotion to drive customers to his warehouse which specialised in selling retail goods at wholesale prices.

Having come from humble origins he was noted for his philanthropy, especially in providing for the city’s many underprivileged children. To mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Wilson chartered a flotilla of steamers to take 20,000 of the city’s poorest children on a trip ‘doon the watter’. In the same year he also threw an open-air picnic in Glasgow Green for 40,000 deprived children.

Wilson was an innovator. He was one of the first major retailers to use newspaper advertising, for example, with his massive ads dominating the front pages of the city’s newspapers. He brought some of the first motor cars to Glasgow and used them to deliver goods to his customers in fine style.

He was also the man behind one of the high spots of the year for Glasgow’s children, the annual Christmas World’s Fair at the Jamaica Street store. This lavish display of toys amid fountains, grottos and assorted tableaux provided free entertainment while, more important for Wilson, luring their parents and their money into his store.

The highlight of his Christmas event in 1896 was an exhibition of moving pictures which the Glasgow Herald later credited as ‘the first motion pictures ever seen in Glasgow’ and which proved to be an instant success. According to the newspaper: "The show, as may be imagined, was a great curiosity in which interest was whetted by news of the excitement it was causing in London. The animated pictures had definitely arrived in London, Paris and New York in the previous year."

Given his love of the new and the modern it is no real surprise that Walter Wilson would be drawn to moving pictures. On December 3, 1896 adverts appeared in The Herald promoting The Colosseum Fancy Fair which featured several novelties including The Cinematograph. Wilson’s shows screened at 11.30am, 1.30pm, 4.30pm, and 6pm and significantly there was no admission fee. The shows were free to begin with – a 3d charge was later introduced - and this undoubtedly played a part in popularising cinema.

Moving pictures became such a key component of Wilson’s operation that he opened a 500-seat theatre inside his store which remained in use until 1904. Wilson’s in-store cinema was the first of its kind in Britain despite similar claims by Selfridges in London when it announced plans for an in-store cinema in 2014, more than a century after Wilson had closed his.

That fortieth anniversary article in The Herald was mistaken in claiming that the Colosseum event was the premiere screening of motion pictures in Glasgow. The mistake probably comes from a biography of his father written by Arthur Wilson, which claimed Walter was the first. There’s no doubt Wilson Senior made a big splash but in fact movies had been showing in Glasgow for more than six months previously.

The first screening of moving pictures in the city was on May 26, 1896 at the Ice Skating Palace on the corner of Scott Street and Sauchiehall Street which would go on to become the site of the much-loved Regal, latterly the ABC. The Skating Palace had only opened two weeks previously and was described by The Herald as ‘a palace of pleasure’ and ‘Glasgow’s most fashionable rendezvous’. Admission was 2 shillings which meant they were aiming for a higher class of customer, even spectating cost a shilling which was twice the price of a decent seat at the theatre or a variety hall.

The Cinematographe, as that first screening was billed, promised ‘scenes from actual life’ and was described in various newspaper ads as ‘The Century’s Sensation’ and ‘The Rage of the Season’.

The Skating Palace screening came a few weeks after the first showing of cinema in Scotland at the Empire Theatre in Nicolson Street in Edinburgh. That event had not gone well for various technical reasons so the manager of the Skating Palace, Arthur Hubner, hedged his bets.

Also on the bill in Glasgow was a demonstration of ice skating by world champion George Meagher. That turned out to be unnecessary because the show was a rousing success and within weeks the Skating Palace was featuring films twice nightly and drawing big crowds.

When he acquired the lease of the famous Britannia Panopticon in Trongate the following year, Hubner started to include films on his variety bill at his new premises. This is one of the earliest examples of cine-variety, a form of entertainment which played an important part in the development of cinema in Glasgow.

Hubner may have preceded Walter Wilson by six months but it is worth pointing out that while Hubner’s screenings were priced beyond the reach of many working people, Wilson’s were initially free. Even when he charged it was only 3d which still made it affordable. In that sense Wilson did more to popularise the new medium making him an unsung hero of Cinema City.

It’s also worth pointing out that Wilson’s screenings came almost three weeks before George Green’s Winter Carnival which didn’t open until Boxing Day of 1986. Green is frequently considered to be the father of cinema in Glasgow but in fact his adverts for the Carnival make no mention of moving pictures. The big attractions in his two-week run were fireworks and electric illuminations. We know from letters from his son, Herbert, that some very expensive projection equipment had been bought and that films were shown but they were not publicly promoted.

George Green was exploiting an existing trend rather than necessarily pioneering a new one. But his entry into the market means that in the first two weeks of 1897 films could be seen regularly at three different sites catering for three different clienteles in three distinct parts of the city. This was undoubtedly a major factor in the rapid spread of cinema’s popularity.

One of the attractions in those early days was that this new technology made the world a smaller place. Events which were beyond the ken of the Glasgow audience could be screened within days. The 1896 Derby, for example, was screened in a London cinema only hours after the race and seen around the country shortly after. The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria was covered by almost every film maker in the country and historian Charles Oakley described it as ‘the first film to really excite Scotland’. Thanks to the movie camera someone in Glasgow could share in one of the great occasions of state that would previously have been beyond them.

The Diamond Jubilee film was screened by the Glasgow and West of Scotland Amateur Photographic Association. It was packed every night for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks the enterprising projectionist, John Chalmers, booked the film into the Athenaeum in Buchanan Street. It ran there for several weeks before he toured it around the country to great success.

The timing of cinema’s arrival in the city was perfect for another form of entertainment. Bawdy music halls with their raucous atmosphere and low-class reputation were being replaced by expensive, relatively luxurious new sites known as Palaces of Variety. Places like The Alhambra in Waterloo Street were very keen to incorporate cinema, with its connotations of modernity and social acceptability, onto their bills. This ‘cine-variety’ – a mixture of films and live acts – pioneered in Glasgow by men like Arthur Hubner helped to establish moving pictures as a key element of the entertainment landscape.

Soon moving pictures could be found on variety bills all over the city and it was inevitable that they would need dedicated venues all of their own. Ralph Pringle opened his Picture Palace in Watson Street in The Calton in 1907 and this is generally regarded as the first site dedicated to cinema exhibition in Glasgow; not long afterwards Pringle opened a second site, the Bijou Hall in Cowcaddens close to where the Theatre Royal is today.

Two other factors played a big part in the growth of Cinema City. The first was the increase of variety halls and the growth of cine-variety which meant that admission prices came down. Movies were accessible for threepence or less so housewives and children, could afford to go. These were important new audiences, especially children who found themselves targeted by cinema owners with special matinees like JJ Bennell’s ‘Bright and Beautiful’ Pictures at The Wellington Palace in the Gorbals. Municipal concerts put on by the Corporation, where admission was only a few pence or even free, also featured moving pictures which added to the demand.

The second factor was the passing of The Cinematograph Act of 1909. This meant cinemas had to be licensed by local authorities and needed to meet a minimum standard of safety. The upside was that any cinema owner who complied knew they could not be closed down. This commercial certainty made cinemas very attractive investments. A boom in building and investment on the back of the Act saw some very luxurious venues being opened, especially in the city centre.

The Charing Cross Electric Theatre in Sauchiehall Street was the city’s first purpose-built cinema, previously warehouses, halls, or other venues had been adapted to show movies. It opened in May 1910 and the first screening featured several films in colour. A few months later came the cinema which was a byword for luxury. The Picture House in Sauchiehall Street featured a marble foyer, liveried staff, a palm court orchestra, and an ornamental pond – all before you had even got in to the theatre.

As well as the city centre, suburban cinemas were also booming with almost every area having its own local picture house – more than one in some cases – to provide a touch of movie magic among the tenements. This meant that the city centre sites existed for those big, first-run films while the local picture house cultivated a habit of going to the pictures once, twice or even three times a week as programmes changed to meet demand.

Cinema began in Glasgow with one screening in May 1896. Figures produced by Glasgow Corporation in 1913 showed that not twenty years after that first event there were 85 sites – including municipal halls – licensed to screen movies and a total of 86,995 potential cinema seats in the city.

Glasgow’s love affair with the movies had blossomed and Cinema City was here to stay.

Dr Andy Dougan is a lecturer in Film Studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.