Empire cinema’s entertainer
- Credit: Archant
HE was a visionary. To be more precise, he was a tele-visionary, announcing it to Yarmouth Mercury readers as far back as 1931. That is eight decades ago, long before most people had even heard the word “television” or envisaged the impact it was to have on our lives from the mid-Fifties.
Who was this man of remarkable foresight? Edward Bowles, who was manager of our Empire Cinema when he gave this newspaper an in-depth interview five years before the BBC transmitted the world’s first public television service in 1936.
His two daughters, Valerie Jordan and Sandra Buckingham, still live hereabouts, and Mrs Jordan has sent me the press cutting.
The Empire, on Marine Parade, was one of our principal cinemas in the era when picture-going was a weekly habit for many. Its terra-cotta frontage with twin pairs of imitation tall classical pillars made it an attractive addition to the sea-front scene.
Today the Empire, 102 years old and part of the Jay family entertainment business, is a sad sight at its prime position on the Golden Mile, long closed, forlorn and looking its age. After the curtain came down on its cinema use, it became a bingo hall, then morphed twice - into the multi-bar Bourbon Street and the Zen nightspot.
It was officially “listed” as building of special interest in 1991, conservation officers being smitten with its distinctive frontage and “sumptuous” Louis XIV-style interior.
Eighty-two years ago the Mercury featured a column headed “Our Entertainers,” and one interviewee was Edward Bowles who predicted: “A shilling-in-the-slot cinema, where patrons will he shown automatically to their seats for a talkie-television programme, probably relayed from some spot hundreds of miles away, will be the entertainment of the future.”
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The Mercury described him as a man capable of anticipating entertainment trends: “He ought to know, for besides being conversant with the cinema business from A to Z, he is a competent electrical and wireless engineer. In addition, he forecast the popularity of the talkies several years before this form of cine entertainment wrought a revolution in the cinema world (the pioneer was Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1927).
“Also, he is a very close observer of the latest mechanical developments in the trade with which he has been associated almost since its infancy.”
Mr Bowles had worked at the Regent for part of the 1914-18 war, moving to the Empire a month after that conflict ended.
The Mercury wrote: “Mr Bowles has found his knowledge of wireless of great use to him. ‘I think I can safely say that I was the first showman in the district to put over any amplified sound,’ he said. ‘Several years ago I introduced the whole of the vocal items in Faust for one day at the Empire.
“‘One of the notable occasions on which my own-design amplifier was brought into use was in 1928 when I introduced all the animal sounds in Chang, the great jungle film. We were then the first theatre outside the London area to do so and the only cinema, I believe, to introduce noises on apparatus invented and built by the manager.
“‘It was a difficult job as at that time we had no electrical turn-table and had to use a clockwork motor to carry the records. These last sometimes numbered as many as five at one time, calling for very deft manipulation in changing from one disc to another. One particular sound occurred 72 times in the picture.’”
The manager continued: “Many visitors have enjoyed the gramophone concerts relayed in the mornings through two speakers in the vestibule. My apparatus was often used in the intervals in the performances.”
The Mercury stated: “A visionary in the fullest sense of the word, Mr Bowles is confident that all cinemas will one day be equipped with the new Wide Screen.
“‘Almost as quickly and unexpectedly as the silent film was overtaken by the talkies, so will the talkie be eclipsed by television,’ he declared. At the same time, Mr Bowles is a staunch supporter of the talking film.”
Edward Bowles, a Yarmouthian born in 1885 and educated at the Priory School, was 14 when he began his working life as an assistant at the W H Smith book stall at Vauxhall railway station but “the idea of a showman’s life was paramount in my young mind” so he left his home town for nearly 12 years to gain enough all-round experience to be able to follow his dream.
During his absence he worked in catering, became secretary-valet to a millionaire and travelled to America with him, was a movie cameraman, freelanced for a Fleet Street photo-press agency (achieving several notable scoops), launched a photographic enterprise, put his pianist skills into practice with a variety group, and finally broke into film management in partnership with Alf Veo in 1909, building up a cinema circuit in Hereford, Nottingham and Derbyshire.
But Edward Bowles, seeking new challenges, became advertising inspector for chocolate manufacturer Rowntree’s, based back in his home town of Yarmouth. The job gave him wider knowledge of publicity. Still restless, he returned to the variety stage before heading back to Yarmouth in 1914 to manage the local photographic studio opened by a friend who also had one in Gorleston.
Then war broke out, his friend closed the two studios “and I joined the much-depleted staff at the Regent, doing all sorts of jobs to fill the gaps. Then, in December 1918, I came to the Empire, leaving the Regent on a Saturday and starting my new job on the next Monday. I don’t believe in standing still.”
According to Mrs Jordan, after he left the Empire he again reverted to photography, then became secretary to Pleasure Beach owner Albert Botton. Mr Bowles died in 1967, aged 82.
Edward Bowles, visionary and even tele-visionary...but I doubt that even in his most far-seeing moments he imagined today’s scenario where folk strolling the streets can indulge in the pointless practice of watching high-definition movies on a pocket phone screen half the size of a TV remote control.
Personally, I would prefer a seat in the cinema, or at least on the sofa in front of the television in Peggotty’s Hut!