Towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the supposedly magical technological gimmick and cheap amusement of motion pictures had become, in the words of a Daily Evening Review reporter, a “form of entertainment which is very apparently meeting with the rapidly growing appreciation of the public.”
To a certain extent motion pictures were expanding cultural possibilities across lines of class. You might not have been able to afford the 50 cents admission required even to climb up into the “gods” for Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Grand Opera House in March 1909 (let alone the 75 cents or $1.00, $1.50, and $2.00 for the better seats), but for a dime or nickel over a period of two days in April 1911 you could at least see a filmed version of the opera – a one-reel (or 10 to 15 minutes) “Colored Film D’Art” (France, Pathé Frères, Jan. 27, 1911) – along with other short films on the program. Not only that, but “Special music to fit scene for scene has been arranged from the score of Verdi’s great opera and will be played as the picture is being shown.”
On an early August evening in 1912 you could go out to hear, for free, the 57th Regiment Band playing its version of “Il Trovatore” at Victoria Park. A couple of decades later, for a few cents more, you might have been able to briefly escape the Depression years by going to watch Groucho and the other Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935), which uses the familiar "Il Trovatore" to great comic effect. At one point late in the film a performance of the opera is all set to happen until Harpo replaces the music sheet with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Groucho, finding himself a seat in an elegant box as the opening chords resound, asks, “Who’s ahead?” before heading off to sell peanuts in the aisles. By that time the days of the Grand Opera House, at least in Peterborough, were well over.
Still, as the influential Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams once remarked, the twentieth century, with the advent of motion pictures, radio, and television, represented a major (and irreversible) shift to a “dramatised society”:
In earlier periods drama was important at a festival, in a season, or as a conscious journey to a theatre; from honouring Dionysus or Christ to taking in a show. What we have now is drama as habitual experience: more in a week, in many cases, than most human beings would previously have seen in a lifetime.
Despite their lasting and growing power, for quite a while not everyone agreed that motion picture theatres were adding lustre to the local scene. People far and wide tended still to be sceptical about the newest amusement diversion that was not yet quite an “art,” just as eighteenth-century culture “looked askance at fiction.” Many critics were concerned about the effects of the motion picture on the “impressionable minds” of the younger members of the audience and calling for regulation, if not censorship.
Among those voices was the social democrat and future leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), J.S. Woodsworth, who wrote in 1911 about the “remarkable” and “rapid spread of this type of theatre,” but cautioned that while the majority of the pictures were “simply cheap and vulgar or silly,” a few of them were “abominably vile and foster crime and immorality of all kinds.” He suggested that “every city or community ought to maintain a strict censorship by which all immoral or debasing pictures could be absolutely prohibited.”
In Peterborough, Police Chief George Roszel got a phone call one morning in February 1910 from a man who expressed much the same kind of complaint. The man, after venturing out to see a picture at the Royal the previous evening, had taken a firm dislike to what he had seen. The picture, he said, “was not conducive to elevating the morals of the audience.” The chief went over to the Royal and saw the film in question: a comedy, Hector, the Angel Child (France, Pathé Frères, released Dec. 18, 1909). The man who had phoned had objected in particular to a scene showing people carousing in a café, which featured both men and women being “represented as intoxicated.” He also did not appreciate a finale in which a supposed “wise uncle” of Hector’s picks up one of the women and carries her about. “Later,” according to the account, the men “could be seen in a room sprawling about, and a huge bottle was always prominent.” In his wisdom, the police chief decided that, although the picture was certainly not one of the best he had seen, it was “all right” and he need take no further action. (While he was at the Royal he took the opportunity to see another “very interesting and instructive” film on gathering honey.)
That was not the only local rumbling about the evils of the motion picture. In February 1911 dignitaries were worrying about how the youth of the city were overindulging in certain extracurricular activities – which included frequenting the five cent pictures. “At seven and eight o’clock each evening,” warned a report from the Board of Education’s Supervision Committee, “one sees the streets thronged with young folk going to amusement in one form or another.” High school principal H.R.H. Kenner fretted about education “being retarded” because of this phenomenon. The Supervision Committee viewed “with alarm the many counter attractions that detract from the child’s mind, and injure the body physically rendering them unfit to do their school work.” The activities its members had in mind included not just “late parties on evenings of school days, excessive sports . . . and boys on the streets til late selling newspapers,” but also “small boys and girls attending 5¢ shows.” The committee’s Col. J.W. Miller “did not think any good arises from the 5¢ shows,” and Trustee Vincent Eastwood (manager of the Royal Bank of Canada) suggested that city council increase the licence of five cent shows “threefold.” The theatre proprietors would certainly not have been pleased by this discussion, and appear to have redoubled their efforts to bring “respectability” to their programs and to present the content as “wholesome” for all.
Somewhat ironically, appearing directly below the news article about the Board of Education meeting was an ad for the misbegotten five cent theatre. The recreational temptations of town would not go away, and it was not always pure entertainment that lured the youngsters to the theatres. On a Saturday evening in late October 1911 two “Scotch lads,” age fourteen to fifteen, strolled into a motion picture theatre and “touched the till” in the office there for $49. They were caught and duly hauled before the court. Sadly, the police recovered only $10 of the take – “the remainder having been ‘blown in’ on chocolates, pastry, picture shows and other sources of gratification to youthful appetites.”