Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Advent of Bioscope

The fact that just over a year after Cinématographe was invented in 1895, it was demonstrated commercially first in Joburg and then in Port Elizabeth, is indicative of the pervasive nature of technology. Moving pictures had finally been invented albeit without embedded sound. 

In spite of these restrictions, people flocked to witness the latest invention which, like all pioneering devices, would be used both for good and ill. Think of Geobbels, the Communist states and even Donald Trump with his fake news. 

Main picture: A little gathering outside the theatre  that became the Grand

Cinématographe and the first movies

The Cinématographe was a camera, printer and projector system designed by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. It was first demonstrated at a scientific meeting in March 1895. The Cinématographe was used to present the first cinema show to a paying audience on 28th December 1895 at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.

Lumiere's Cinématographe

Lumiere’s Cinématographe

Unlike Edison’s electrically powered Kinetograph camera, the Cinématographe was small and hand-cranked, so films could be shot anywhere – in town or country, in exotic foreign locations, even from moving vehicles. The Lumières quickly seized the commercial opportunities of their invention, establishing agencies in many countries.

Around 450 Cinématographes were made. This particular model, from the Sarosh Collection, shown on the left, was purchased by an Indian photographer, Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar (known as ‘Save Dada’) at a cost of 21 guineas, after seeing a demonstration by a Lumière agent in Bombay.

In 1901, Bhatwadekar used the camera to make what is thought to be the first Indian news film – showing an Indian student’s return from Cambridge University. Bhatwadekar went on to film the 1903 Delhi Durbar, organised to celebrate the Coronation of Edward VII.

If you are looking for the first movie ever made, you can look back to The Horse In Motion, created by Edward Muybridge in 1878. Muybridge was asked by Leland Stanford (railroad magnate, California senator, race-horse owner, and eventual founder of Stanford University) to answer a popularly debated question: When a horse trots, do all four hooves leave the ground simultaneously? Muybridge’s stop motion film made it clear that they do.

Video of first movie:

A great film tradition – the Western – started in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter’s ten-minute film that combined western themes with innovative cinematic techniques (narrative storytelling, parallel editing, minor camera movement, location shooting, etc.). The film famously took its inspiration from an event that became the stuff of legend: Butch Cassidy’s 1900 train heist, which ended with Cassidy blowing open a safe and escaping with $5,000 in cash. Starting in the 1920s, John Wayne began shooting the first of many Westerns and took the genre to new heights.

The first Western:

Bioscope in Port Elizabeth

At the turn of the century, Port Elizabeth was no longer at the forefront of developments in South Africa like it had been twenty years previously. That honour went to Johannesburg. Ironically the first Lumiere Cinématographe might well have been imported through Port Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the first cinematographic show was presented in the Empire Palace of Varieties in Johannesburg on 9th May 1896. The performance, led by a stage magician Carl Hertz, culminated in the showing of the movie.

The Empire Palace of Varieties, Joburg

The Empire Palace of Varieties, Joburg

Port Elizabeth’s turn to be entertained by this new-fangled innovation, was on Thursday and Friday the 9th and 10th July 1896. Margaret Harradine records these shows as follows: “The first cinema show to be shown in Port Elizabeth was given at the Opera House by illusionist and prestidigitaleur Carl Hertz. It was the first production out of England of the London sensation, the Cinématographe, the most startling and scientific marvel of its age.”

Certainly, the Marketing Men might not have worn ponytails in those days, nevertheless they were well versed in plying their trade by generating excitement about this novel product.

Carl Hertz - Magician and cinema pioneer

Carl Hertz – Magician and cinema pioneer

The advertisement in another local newspaper, “The Port Elizabeth Telegraph and Eastern Province Standard” on the 9th July 1896 announced after details of Carl Hertz’s own performance the following:

Advert for Cinematographe

The same newspaper in its issue of the 11th July, gave an account of the show.


Carl Hertz

 But perhaps the most entertaining of all was the exhibition of the “Cinematographe”, the latest invention in photograph. By means of lantern pictures, moving objects were thrown onto a sheet and active life was exhibited. For instance, a scene of a street in the City of  London was splendid. Buses, cabs, carriages etc rushed along. All sorts of conditions of men and women moved along the pavements. The picture was lifelike and so exact a reproduction that it elicited loud cheers. Equally good was the scene on London Bridge, the flirtation scene between  a soldier and a lass, the ocean scene, the skirt dance etc. The pictures were greatly appreciated and brought an interesting entertainment to a close.”

After the initial show

From 1898 onwards, shows were announced, at first every few months, and then more and more frequently, usually at the Opera House, but occasionally in the Town Hall, and once in the Drill Hall.

In April 1899, it was reported in the newspapers that patrons of the Delroy season at the Opera House also saw the “new” bioscope “absolutely free from flicker or vibration

The first motion picture production company to be established in the world was the Biograph Company was founded in 1895 and active until 1928. It was the first company in the United States devoted entirely to film production and exhibition, and for two decades was one of the most prolific, releasing over three thousand short films and twelve feature films.

In September 1900, one of their production was show in the Feather Market Hall. The fact that the movie comprised some two and a half miles of film was marvelled at.

The Feathermarket Hall c. 1906. The museum lower rooms being used as bond store for P.E. Wine Association. Early electric arc-light standard

The Feathermarket Hall c. 1906. The museum lower rooms being used as bond store for P.E. Wine Association. Early electric arc-light standard

Port Elizabeth only acquired its first purpose built bioscope when 32 Main Street was converted into a movie house in February 1910. It was known as the “Electric Theatre” and amazingly occupied the site adjacent to that where the Grand Cinema would ultimately stand.

By July 1910, the growing popularity of the bioscope became evident when the Opera House starting including a film show after the live entertainment.


With the bioscope craze sweeping Port Elizabeth, a veritable mushrooming of halls were used for or converted for the purpose of showing movies. The first to open on the “Spot” on the 1st March 1911 in the Mutual Hall, North End. The theatre was under the management of Mr W.A. Grace until the 1950s but as a cinema for non-whites. It had two sessions a night and admission was 3d & 6d. In July, the “Hill Palace” opened in the Liedertafel in Western Road and the “Electric Bioscope” opened in St. Patrick’s Hall. Also in July, the “Crown Bioscope” opened up in Queen Street in the old Olympia Rink almost opposite the former St. Paul’s Church. August 1911, saw additional bioscopes open. First to open was the theatre with a mundane uninspiring name, “The Russell Road Bioscope” and then the first café bioscope, “The Balcony Café Picture Palace” at the corner of Constitution Hill and Main Street. In December 1911, the “Tivoli Theatre” was added to the venues offering movies except that they offered live entertainment as well. Being immediately post Victorian era, one presumes that live entertainment did not include strip shows or even pole dancers.

1912 also proved to be a hectic year as regards the bioscope business.The year commenced with the opening of the “Excelsior Bioscope” in January in the premises of the skating rink of that name. In April, the “Star Bioscope opened in the Odd-Fellows Hall on Russell Road.

Edna Flugrath and Holger Petersen in Der Voortrekkers (1916)

Edna Flugrath and Holger Petersen in Der Voortrekkers (1916)

May 14th saw that opening of a purpose built bioscope instead of extemporised facilities. On that date, the Grand Theatre opened in Main Street. Designed by Victor Jones, the theatre was owned by the Grand Theatre Co and seated 1100 people. A journalist described it as “a little bit of London in our midst.” On the 2nd September, the Grand Café on the upper floor, with a balcony overlooking Main Street, was opened.

As if there were insufficient movie houses in Port in Port Elizabeth, in October the “Empire” opened in South Union Street and then in November just to provide additional competition in Russell Road, the “Royal Cinema” opened there.

Probably opened just in time for Christmas, Port Elizabeth first alfresco bioscope opened in December 1912 in an enclosure next to the Beach Hotel.

Beach Hotel in 1923

Beach Hotel in 1923

Competition was having an effect on the bioscope business. 1915 witnessed consolidation and the first closure of a cinema. Mr WA Grace of Crown Bioscope took over the running of all the premises of the Theatre Trust in Port Elizabeth, the Grand, The Gaiety and the Spot. Simultaneously, the Crown reverted to a skating rink.

In order to control bioscopes, licences were issued for both bioscopes and theatres. In 1926 the Grand, Tivoli, Spot, Record and the Opera House were issued with licences. Presumably this implies that the numerous bioscopes that had sprung up in the early days, were now defunct.

Grand Theatre, Interior Detail

Astra Theatre, Interior Detail

Phonofilm is an optical sound-on-film system developed by inventors Lee de Forest and Theodore Case in the 1920s. On the 13th April, the citizens were able to hear sound on film at a showing at a crowded Feather Market Hall for the first time.

With competition fierce in a crowded cinema market, The Orient Bio-Café on the first floor of Birch’s in Main Street opened in June 1930 with a different business model. Owned by United Bioscopes, it showed silent films non-stop from 10:30am to 10:30pm with refreshments.

Replicating this idea, the Popular Bio-Café billed as the first talkie bio-café in the Cape Province, opened in September 1933.

The next proper cinema to open in Port Elizabeth, was the Metro Cinema on 26th October 1931 in Jetty Street. Owned by Sam and Monte Richardson, with the irrepressible W.A. Grace in charge, the Metro showed MGM talkies. It was situated on the upper floor of the Drake Building. Initially the entrance was in Commerce until, in 1933, a new entrance was constructed in Jetty Street. The Metro was modern, comfortable and very attractively decorated in eau-de-nil, a pale greenish colour, and silver with bas reliefs of jungle scenes around the screen and in the long entrance passage. It was demolished in 1971 to make way for the construction of the Settler’s Freeway.

Grand Theatre, Art Deco,built 1935, demolished

Grand Theatre, Art Deco,built 1935, demolished

The next cinema to be constructed in Port Elizabeth opened on 1st January 1935 as the Astra Theatre also in Jetty Street. It was designed by Jones and McWilliams and was owned by the Richardson Brothers. The colour scheme was white and silver while the foyer was faced with Italian marble. Destroyed by fire on 1st June 1947, it was rebuilt and completed in April 1948.

The lack of a cinema in the North End area was set to rights in 1939. The Embassy Theatre opened at the end of Adderley Street on 17th August 1939 by the Mayoress, Mrs McLean. It was the second theatre to be air-conditioned and showed 20th Century and United Artist films. In the 2nd half of the 1970s, it was closed.

AstraTheatre design sketch, Art Deco, built 1934, demolished

AstraTheatre design sketch, Art Deco, built 1934, demolished





The First Bioscope Show in P.E. in Looking Back dated June 1969

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)


  1. Pingback: Melanie Glastrong
  2. I, Colin Browne, 88 years old, (2019) have sweet memories of visiting the Grand Theatre in Port Elizabeth every Saturday morning during my school days, where the song ‘Happy Days’ was the opening song: “Happy days are here again, every Saturday’s a happy day, happy days are here again…” Lekker ol’ PE.

  3. I have ‘happy’ memories visiting the Grand Theatre in Port Elizabeth every Saturday morning during my early school days, (Circa 1945) where the song ‘Happy days are here again’ was sung.


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