EVERYONE loves the movies, don't they?
Today people get their entertainment fix in a variety of ways, from TV and DVDs to streaming services, such as Netflix, delivered to their homes.
But in happier, pre-pandemic times, many people chose to enjoy their new favourite films in a communal way, sharing the darkness while munching popcorn and watching a huge screen in the comfort of a modern cinema complex.
But long before many permanent suburban cinemas were erected in the 1920s, there were the pioneers, or "screen gypsies".
These original travelling showmen, with primitive projection equipment, roamed rural NSW bringing the novelty of early silent black-and-white movies, the "flickers", to remote towns.
My memory of this bygone era was jogged recently by the sad sight of the orphaned facade of the old Lyrique/Showcase Cinemas in Newcastle's Wolfe Street as re-development occurred around it.
Built as a Masonic Hall in 1910, to then operate as the Lyric Theatre from 1915, it is forever linked in my mind though with its former operators and the classic 1977 Aussie film, The Picture Show Man.
Theatre proprietors Margaret and Theo Goumas had invested in the film, which was seen at the time as heralding the re-birth of Australian cinema.
The movie ran for 26 weeks in Newcastle, with the late Margaret Goumas once saying proudly: "So much of the early history of the cinema is in it."
The film, telling the life of an early travelling picture show man in NSW, was fictional, but it was based on the biography of old-time showman "Pop" Penn who became Pop Pym in the film.
The long out-of-print book was written by Pym's son and once travelling companion, the late Lyle Penn, of Booral, near Stroud.
His remarkable memoir, a real slice of early 20th century Australiana, is a rare glimpse into a forgotten time.
The film starred John Meillon as Pop Pym (probably better known now as offsider Wally in Crocodile Dundee) and Rod Taylor.
The real Pop Penn's love affair with early celluloid started about 1907 when he acquired a derelict movie plant and took it (and his son) on the road for years.
Travelling initially in a horse-drawn van with an early limelight projector, Penn's Pictures much later become Penn's Touring Talkies with a heavier, motorised van, and even electricity.
To make a living, Pop roamed over a vast area. The tour circuit lasted up to four months.
He travelled with his son and initially a pianist, who dramatically accompanied the silent black-and-white on-screen antics of a Les Darcy fight film, or later the Keystone Cops, Max Sennett or Charlie Chaplin comedies, to the westerns of Tom Mix.
The cranky, unstable mixture fuelling the limelight plant was 'an early domesticated version of the hydrogen bomb'.
Based at Tamworth, the travelling trio and their faithful dobbin visited small towns, roaming as far north as the Darling Downs, then south west towards Wagga, west to Bourke and Brewarrina on the Darling River and north-west to Goodooga, on the Queensland border, then down to Newcastle.
Later, Pop instead worked the profitable Northern Rivers circuit.
They even stayed in Newcastle for a year from 1909 running what may have been Newcastle's first permanent picture show, before he got itchy feet again.
On the road, life was always unpredictable and tough.
While the gifted pianist plonked away nightly in the darkened spaces to suit the action above, the projector had to be hand-cranked for up to three hours.
This, however, allowed the projectionist to speed up, or slow down, the film to match the action on screen above.
These early black and white silent film outings had the nickname of "frying pan pictures" (pre-WWI) because of the pan-shaped retorts cooking the hissing and cackling oxygen needed to be mixed with industrial ether.
The top of the oxygen tank was even loaded down with house bricks to stop it going through the roof.
The cranky, unstable mixture fuelling the limelight plant was "an early domesticated version of the hydrogen bomb".
It was quite capable of blowing out the side of a hall, which did happen once. Luckily, it was empty at the time.
The audience for these then miracle moving pictures - six days a week at different locations - ranged from farmers, townsfolk and drovers to opal gougers.
IN THE NEWS:
The most loyal and appreciative customers were the local Aborigines.
Then, the next day, it was on the road again, often sleeping out rough at night and boiling a billy.
One Christmas dinner even consisted of eating herrings from a tin by the roadside.
The mundane routine was only interrupted twice a week by the hated task of greasing the wagon's axle.
They plodded all over the countryside, from hall to hall through rain and hail, fording flooded rivers and seemingly impassable soggy black soil plains after storms.
At night, their van's two buggy lamps, each lit by a single candle, showed the way ahead like fading car headlights.
The showmen occasionally stopped in bush pubs or sometimes in boarding houses where the wooden floors were covered with tanned kangaroo skins.
Later, when it was showtime, young Lyle Penn was sometimes expected to be the film's noisemaker, a crude special effects man with revolvers and blank cartridges, a sheet of galvanised iron for thunder, plus coconut shells and a marble slab for hoofbeats.
Eventually, the father-and-son duo did away with their pianist, buying a bulky phonograph that played primitive wax record cylinders.
The crowning glory was a highly polished brass horn, at least two metres long, suspended from a tripod and which made a tremendous noise.
It also wasn't unusual for the concentrated heat of the projector lamp to set fire to the film in the limelight machine during screenings.
Then there were the unexpected dangers, like the time a patron walked past one of the naked acetylene gas lights in a hired hall and his heavily-oiled long hair caught fire.
Then there were Penn's fellow travelling entertainers in rural NSW a century ago, long before TV and even radio existed.
They included hypnotists, vaudevilleans, a man with a troupe of performing monkeys, turbaned mind readers and axe-jugglers.
After World War II, Pop Pym's touring show was put into mothballs and he operated a permanent theatre in Coffs Harbour, but he was prone to fast-talking swindlers.
But one lasting memory by his late son Lyle was of their adventurous earliest travelling days, pre-World War I.
With a limelight projector placed among the audience in a tinder-dry hall and loaded up with 2000ft of highly inflammable nitrate film on open spools, it was a volatile combination of ether and oxygen.
Add a film operator who smoked all the time, and it was like playing with dynamite.
Yet, despite this, and all their years on the road, they never lost a customer.
Our COVID-19 news articles relating to public health and safety are free for anyone to access. However, we depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe below. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.
Do you know you can subscribe to get full access to all Maitland Mercury stories? Subscribing supports us in our local news coverage. To subscribe, click here.