Researching film advertising posters

BY KATHY ROSE O'REGAN

Film archivist Kathy Rose O’Regan recently visited the NFSA on exchange from George Eastman House in the US. While at the NFSA, she investigated a 100-year-old collection of advertising posters from The Palace cinema in Orpington, London.

Kathy Rose O'Regan

What does an archivist do for you? A bartender serves you drinks, a banker handles your money, but people don’t always understand what I do. Film and media archivist is not necessarily a position people can automatically interpret.

In essence, we are cultural caretakers. We find, repair, restore, conserve, and, most importantly, provide access to moving image in all its formats, as well as related stills, documentation and artefacts. We delve into the histories of others on a daily basis, and can gain touching insights into lives and times gone by through the artefacts which remain.

During my month-long stay at the NFSA, I worked with a small collection of posters that gave a window into another time and place. These 14 posters came from The Palace Cinema in Orpington, Bromley, Greater London.

The Palace, Orpington cinema poster:Mary Pickford

Poster advertising screenings for the week of 6 September 1915 at The Palace Theatre, Orpington, London. NFSA title: 1278522

 

They are printed advertisements for the coming weeks’ programs at the cinema, and they span 1915-1927. The programs generally consisted of two feature films, at least one short and, of course, the weekly episode of whichever serial was popular at the time. The serials covered a wide variety of genres and had some marvellous names. Who wouldn’t want to tune in to next week’s episode of The Masked Rider, The Ghost City or Wolves of the North?

Archival discoveries reveal more than the content of the object itself, but also what it represents, what life it led, and what it meant to people in the time of its use. These posters tell us not only what the people of Orpington were watching, but how much they paid for tickets, where they left their bikes and buggies if it rained, who owned the cinema, and where he got the posters printed.

 

 

The size of the text is a clear indicator of which players were most popular at any given time. Unsurprisingly, stars like Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Tom Mix regularly top the bill.

Almost 100 years later the posters are in excellent condition, without creases. As they span a 12-year period, they were probably collected by someone with a long association with the cinema. Albert Spencer May opened The Palace in 1911. The Spencer May family opened another cinema, The Commodore, at the other end of Orpington High Street in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, while I found photos of Spencer May’s wedding, and discovered pictures of The Palace in its heyday (and that it was called ‘The Bug-Hutch’ by locals!), I did not learn who owned the posters and transported them to Australia.

Like I said, people don’t always understand what archivists do. But being afforded the opportunity to dive through a window into another world, if only for a moment, is all the reward we need.

These posters are now conserved in the NFSA for future study. If you think you may know who brought this unique collection to Australia, please email enquiries [at] nfsa.gov.au.