ON October 1, 1896, there was “the first appearance in Darlington of the Latest Wonderful Invention: the Cinematographe – Living, Moving Photographs”. It was the start of a love affair that reached the heights of its passion at the start of the Second World War, but which endures to this day with this week’s opening of the town’s first multiplex.

The beginning was in Central Hall, now part of the Dolphin Centre, when Herr Rosenberg arrived for three nights in 1896. He charged 2s, 1s and 6d admission, and met with a “large and appreciative audience”.

The Northern Echo said: “The pictures shown included the interior of a blacksmith’s shop, Henley regatta, a silver dance, the dentist’s chair, a sou-westerly gale at Dover, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Armley railway station at Leeds, Persimmon winning the Derby…”

This really was ground-breaking stuff. The word “cinematographe” had only entered the English language five months earlier; Persimmon’s popular victory at Epsom for his owner, the Prince of Wales, had only taken place on June 3 in what is believed to have been the first horserace to be filmed.

The Echo said: “The realistic and lifelike manner in which the various figures were exposed was little short of marvellous.

“The cinematographe was preceded by a wonderfully clever ventriloquial séance by Prof Albert Trillo, who in addition to speaking, singing and laughing automata, gave surprisingly faithful imitations of musical instruments.”

This first film review concluded: “The whole entertainment is one of the most delightful ever seen in Darlington.”

It was another three months before Darlingtonians got another glimpse of moving pictures – on January 8, 1897, a showman appeared at the Mechanics Institute in Skinnergate promising to drive his “audiences wild with excitement”.

After that, touring showmen popped up with increasing regularity at any sizeable venue – for example, at the North Road Institute in April 1897, and at Central Hall, the Thomas Edison Animated Picture Company appeared on many occasions.

And then there were marquee men: Paine’s Panorama, Pedley’s Pictures or Randall Williams’ organ and cinema theatre. They turned up for the annual hirings fairs in May and November, pitching their tent in the Leadyard (where the town hall is now). They had dancing girls and “barkers” outside – men shouting loudly about the brilliance of the show – trying to entice paying punters inside, although young boys, of course, took delight in sneaking under the canvas for free.

Among those travelling cinematographers were George Fenton, who had been Buffalo Bill’s agent in the late 1880s when the Wild West showman embarked on a tour of Europe, and William Fuller, a Cherokee Indian. They settled in Darlington, and converted the Central Hall into a proper cinema.

The hall had been built in 1847, and men like Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Franz Liszt and Charles Dickens had addressed townspeople from its stage. Now a screen was affixed, a balcony with 164 seats to augment the 550 on the main floor was installed, and Fenton’s Pictures opened at the Central Palace with the Cherokee Indian in the projection box.

Of course, they were silent films accompanied by a female pianist, a male narrator and a chap behind the screen banging together a couple of coconut shells in the horse scenes.

Other venues also tried to become cinemas: the Drill Hall in Larchfield Street, the Livingstone Assembly Hall and the Theatre Royal, which were both in Northgate and, perhaps most successfully, the Temperance Hall in Gladstone Street.

This austere building had opened in 1903, but in 1910, local tailor Frank Hastwell converted into the Electric Picturedrome. Opening night was October 3, with huge queues into Northgate and hundreds unable to gain admission to the two showings of Love of a Chrysanthemum.

“It tells of a Japanese girl who fell in love with an American,” said the Echo. “He seemingly returns her affections, but subsequently the girl discovers that he already has a wife. The sequel is very pathetic.”

Despite not looking at all Japanese, American actress, Norma Talmadge, one of the very first movie stars, played Chrysanthemum.

Also on the bill were Scenes from the Life of Napoleon and Over the Garden Wall. “Mischievous children’s actions, which have incongruous consequences, are the substance of this film, and it creates roars of laughter,” said the Echo.

But these converted cinemas were not ideal, and not just because at the Picturedrome they tried to synchronise the silent movie with a gramophone record.

In Central Hall one night, the wooden projection box caught fire. It was directly above the main entrance and so blocked people’s way out. They had to escape via the stage and in the panic, one woman broke her arm.

A purpose-built cinema was required, and at the end of 1910, the Darlington Cinematograph Company was formed by Henry Atlay and CN Walton. They had raised £3,000 through a share issue, had bought a piece of land opposite the library, on the corner of Quebec Street and East Street, and given instructions to architects Clark and Moscrop (they’d build Barnard Castle School in 1886).

The result was the Empire Picture Hall where Wilkinson’s superstore is today. In a Victorian Quaker town where only the sternest architecture had been allowed, it must have looked very exotic with its strange towers and dark arches which hinted at the Arabian promise that lay within.

It was built “on the most up-to-date lines, and it will compare very favourably with the leading London picture halls”, said the opening day announcement.

“There are four exits on the ground floor, and the seats are so arranged that a panic is absolutely impossible.”

There were tip-up chairs to accommodate 1,000 people – 765 in the stalls and 235 in the circle – plus nearly 1,000 electric lights to illuminate the darkness.

It opened on June 23, 1911, the day after George V’s coronation, and one of its first films was footage of the great ceremony.

With the Empire plus Central Hall, the Picturedrome, the Drill Hall, the Livingstone Hall (which was also called the Astoria, the Plaza, the Assembly and the Ritz) and the two theatres, you would have thought Darlington had enough cinema seat.

But, no. The boom was just beginning, as we shall see next week.

LAST week’s taster of our cinema season brought many interesting responses. Many thanks for them all. Once people had identified Darlington’s eight purpose-built cinemas, there was the “bonus” cinema: the one in a village in the borough. It was, of course, the Lyric at Middleton St George, but we’ll come to that in the near future.

Eric Shuttleworth started going to the cinema from the age of eight, and remembers going to the Central Hall in 1937, when tickets for under 16s were only 3d.

“They were not too fussy about admitting under age youngsters to films categorised as for adults by the censors,” he says.

Gerry Simpson can remember a perfect evening out the Empire. “Horror film on a Saturday, meat and potato pie from Cowan’s in the Market Place, then bus home from the Leadyard to Hurworth – all for five bob,” he says.

And then comes a critical comment from Mr GH Grieveson in Richmond: “I had the great pleasure in film entertainment in all but one of Darlington’s cinemas – the Central was a bit before my time.

“’Going to the pictures’, as was the expression of those times, was a real social occasion.

“Each picture house had its own atmosphere, of scent and spray, real or fake, and tobacco smoke.

“These multiplex palaces are, in my opinion, soulless and dead by comparison.”

All memories of the old theatres are welcome.