A MYSTERIOUS 1931 photograph found by Barbara Turner in Louis Johnson’s offices led us to look into the history of photography and ‘moving pictures’ in the town.
The photograph shows the Mayor Jonathon Wilson holding a civic reception in the Coliseum for a Morpeth-born film star called Janice Adair.
Who was she, was she really a star and what happened to her?
Moving pictures had their beginnings in still photography, which started in the 1830s.
By the 1850s, Morpeth had at least two photographers, Mr White of Chantry Place and Mr Howe, while Mr Lewins sold Stereoscope views of the Banks of Wansbeck and Vale of Mitford from his shop in the Market Place.
By the 1870s Morpethians who travelled abroad often gave a talk on their trip, illustrated by lantern slides.
One was the Rev Reid, of St George’s, whose talk about Rome was illustrated by ‘transparencies by Italian photographers shown by the oxy-hydrogen light’ — projectors could be dangerous.
Meanwhile, several inventors were experimenting with ‘animated photographs’, one of the problems being to devise a mechanism for moving and holding the film in place.
The solution was inspired by the mechanism used in sewing machines.
Electric light bulbs and motors came along at just the right time for use in projectors; electric lamps being first used locally at Ashington colliery in 1885. By 1890 the council debated lighting the streets by electric lamps (the debate went on for years).
Moving pictures became a reality in the 1890s and the first showing in Morpeth was in 1899 when the Masonic Hall in Copper Chare hosted Craig Lumsden’s ‘animated photographs to musical accompaniment’.
A year later, a Grand Cinematograph Exhibition was advertised that included film of the Boer War – Thrilling Incidents, Skirmish at Glencoe and The Fighting Fifth Making Trenches at Orange River. Goodness knows what reception it had because there were dozens of local Volunteers fighting South Africa.
1903 saw the opening of the 800-seat Avenue Theatre at the end of Pretoria Avenue.
It had a shaky start, but around 1911 it was re-branded as the Avenue Electric Theatre, Morpeth’s first picture house.
It started with a mixture of stage acts and films, including Emily Davison’s tragic death and her funeral.
By 1917 it had three programmes a week and continuous performances from 7pm to 10.30pm, with admission as low as 2p to 6p.
The Avenue closed sometime in the 1920s, but it gave people their first exciting taste of the world of the movies.
After the Playhouse (1914, 964 seats) and Coliseum (1926,1,096 seats) were built, films gradually replaced stage acts, especially when ‘talking pictures’ came to town in 1929.
Both places had three changes of programme a week and people flocked to see the exotically named stars, such as Rod La Roque and Lya de Putti, sporting events, including 1923 motorcycle racing, and daring adventures, with heroine Pauline Johnson clinging to the side of the Flying Scot in 1929.
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This was when Morpeth’s actress, Janice Adair, appeared in her first film, the 1929 comedy Alf’s Carpet. Her story was described in the Herald.
Beatrice Duffy, as she was originally called, was born in 1905 and lived in Northbourne Avenue.
Her father was manager of the Pearl Assurance office and when the family moved to West Hartlepool she joined the local Operatic and Musical Society, starring in some of their productions at an early age.
Star-struck, she went to London and pestered casting agents so much that eventually one gave her a small part. She must have been noticed because she went on to appear in about 15 films between 1929 and 1935.
Two of her films were Red Ace, directed by Edgar Wallace, and her best known one, To What Red Hell, described as a gritty thriller. The latter featured the legendary Sybil Thorndike.
She married Alfred Roome, the son of the Daily Mirror’s owner, who was originally an actor, but who became a much respected film editor for Alfred Hitchcock and he edited most of the Carry On films. Janice died in 1996, aged 91, and Alfred in 1997.
So Morpeth really did have its own, glamourous movie star, one who lived through the birth of the ‘talkies’ and the heydays of the cinema.
Does anyone have any more information about Janice? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our thanks, as always, to the Mackay family for help and access to the Morpeth Herald, and to Barbara Turner.
Captions for images
2. Avenue Theatre 1917 poster (Morpeth Herald)
3. One of the very few photographs of Janice Adair in her prime (Morpeth Herald 1930).
4. Coliseum playbill 1931 Janice Adair.