Past, Present & Beyond – A night at the movies with Mr. Russell

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly column brings the area's early history to the silver screen.

One hundred years ago Ashcroft was a bustling town, and perhaps nothing displayed its modernity quite like Mr. Russell’s Movie Tent, located on 2nd Street (which runs between Safety Mart and the Credit Union). The exact location of the tent is undetermined; a likely spot seems in the area of where the Royal LePage office now stands, but further research is necessary.

Edith Rive, who worked in the British Bank of North America in Ashcroft in 1916, recalls that at night she sometimes went to the movies, which were held “in a huge tent with a dirt floor. The music was supplied by an electric player-piano . . . While this went on children and dogs crept about on the floor, sometimes crawling over our feet.” Her account makes it clear that modern-day distractions in movie theatres – persistent cell phone users, or patrons who insist on talking to their companions throughout the film – have their echoes in the past. She adds that “On basket days [when First Nations women from the “rancheree”, or reserve, came to town to sell their “beautifully made” baskets] there would be quite a number of Natives, adding a touch of colour to the scene.”

The electric player-piano had arrived in 1913, and was worthy of a news item in The Journal, with R.D. Cumming noting that “Mr. C. Russell, the movie man of Ashcroft, has recently added to his up-to-date plant a Sherlock-Manning player piano, and is now prepared, with his A1 equipment, to give the public the best evening entertainment obtainable in any part of interior British Columbia.”

In the days of silent pictures, musical accompaniment was a necessity, adding atmosphere to films and supplying the audience with important emotional cues. Pianos were common in more modest establishments, while big-city theatres boasted pipe organs or even full orchestras. When, in August 1914, the film “Shon the Piper” – set in Scotland – played at Russell’s movie tent, Cumming wrote that “The accompanying Scottish music was very appropriate.” It’s likely that the music used during the film would have been stock music, supplied to many theatres; classical music was also used.

When the player-piano arrived in 1913, Cumming stated that “The pictures [Russell] is showing are high class, and the exhibition of art and splendour which they display is marvelous. The moving picture is an education if you go after it in that attitude.” In April 1914 he returned to this theme, commenting on the educational nature of films: “The moving picture theatre is not only amusing and a means of passing a pleasant evening but it is instructive in many ways.”

Perhaps Cumming felt the need to reassure readers that “moving pictures” were educational because they were still something of a novelty in the Interior, and like any new form of entertainment had their doubters and detractors. In their early days, movies were denounced by many as a poor influence, which posed moral risks to audiences, even as people flocked to this amazing new medium. It is also true that many of the films that residents would have seen a century ago were more along the lines of what we would now call documentaries. Movies were still in their infancy, and all involved were still finding their way when it came to telling a story over more than a reel or two. (Films were limited by the amount of space on a reel of film – about 11 minutes – so many movies then were one- or two-reelers, shorter than a half-hour television program today.) Thus it was that movies, in those early days, were often looked on as “living newspapers”, with contemporary audiences eager to see – rather than just read about – people and events in far-off countries they would never be able to visit. Filmmakers were eager to oblige, sending their cameras and crews to all corners of the globe to record the new, the exotic, and the different. Cumming realized this when he wrote, in April 1914, “A three reel scenic feature conveys as much education as an actual trip into the country in which they were produced . . . you can be transported from one continent to another in a few seconds of time.”

Not that the residents of Ashcroft lacked for more purely entertaining films. “The Fight for Millions” was praised for its “dare-devil ‘stunts’, one of which is the crossing of a large river, hand over hand, by means of a telegraph wire.” If that sounds less than thrilling, in this day of CGI special effects, remember that in 1914 there would have been no “green screen”, no safety nets, and no fakery: the actor (or a stunt double) would really have been going across that river hand over hand on a telegraph wire, with dire consequences should he slip (and more than one early Hollywood stuntman was killed when something went wrong, as it often did).

Other films on offer at Mr. Russell’s tent, during the summer of 1914, included “Les Miserables”, “Brewster’s Millions”, and “Zu Zu the Bandmaster”, described as “the greatest two reel farce comedy ever produced by the Keystone Company.” The Keystone Studios had been founded in Los Angeles by Quebec-born actor and director Mack Sennett, famous for his celebrated “Keystone Kops” comedies. Anyone who has seen the Ashcroft Rodeo Parade in recent years has seen the “Keystone Kops” in action, roaming up and down the street in their distinctive blue uniforms and rounded hats. Charlie Chaplin was an early Keystone Kop, as was famed comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle; so next time you’re at the Rodeo Parade, give the Kops a big cheer and recall that Ashcroft residents of a century ago would have been cheering their real (reel?) life ancestors in Mr. Russell’s movie tent only a few hundred feet away.

Barbara Roden