As has been mentioned in other threads, the first ‘movie’ show in Birkenhead, using pictures projected onto a screen as opposed to the ‘peephole’ Kinetoscope and Mutoscope, was in the Argyle Theatre on Monday, 9th November 1896. It is likely that an Edison Vitascope projector was used for this. The Vitascope had been developed by Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat in 1895, and on April 23, 1896, the Vitascope made its debut at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in Herald Square, New York City.
In 1896 the Argyle Theatre had only gas lighting, so to power the projector it was necessary to lay electric cables through the streets of Birkenhead. The film show lasted just 5 minutes and was supported by live entertainment.
The projector was placed on the stage and the pictures were projected onto a sheet hung in the auditorium, which must have made it difficult for some of the audience to see the film.
Entrance prices ranged from £1-0-1 for a private box to 6d for a seat on the balcony. Amongst the films shown during that first week were titles such as “Railway Train Arriving at Woodside Station”, “English Cavalry in Aldershot” and “Teasing the Gardener in Birkenhead Park”.
The event was an enormous success, the Birkenhead Advertiser reported:
“The unusual attractions held out to his patrons by Manager Mr Clarke, drew to his cosy hall on Monday and last evening, audiences that filled the hall from floor to roof.
The Monday performance is believed to be the first public showing outside London.
By July 1897, the theatre was using Vitagraph equipment, this was a modified Vitascope projector developed by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert Edward Smith.
By 1912 the Argyle had acquired a Kinemacolor Projector and was advertising films in ‘natural colour’ as opposed to hand tinted films.
The Kinemacolor process was developed by George Albert Smith, and Charles Urban, it worked by recording colour information on black and white film stock. The camera was fitted with a filter wheel in front of the lens, alternate frames were filmed through red and green filters. The projector had a similar filter wheel. The 35mm film ran at 32 frames per second, twice the speed of normal film.
The Kinemacolor projector from the Argyle still exists, although in modified form. When the remains of the theatre were demolished in 1972, the projector was presented to the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum by Mr Gerald Clark.
The projector is number 19 and was manufactured in 1910, two years after the process was first demonstrated.
In 2008, to celebrate the centenary of Kinemacolor, David Cleveland, former Director of the East Anglian Film Archive and Brian Pritchard started a project to show Kinemacolor films using an original projector. The Williamson were prepared to lend them the Argyle projector, as long as any modifications made could be removed so that it could be returned it to its original museum condition.
The Argyle projector had, at some time, been converted to show black and white films (probably about 1916) so the filter wheel and various other parts had to be re-manufactured to restore the projector to working condition. It was also necessary to replace the old carbon arc lamp with a modern light source.
The restoration was completed, and a selection of films was shown at the British Film Institute National Archives at Berkhamsted on 25th February 2008, one day before the centenary of the first public performance.