“An Immense Power in the Refinement of the World”: Women Musicians in Irish Picture Houses

As the emergence of cinema in the early 1910s changed the nature of Irish popular entertainment, it offered certain women new career opportunities. Although there were some women picture-house managers and jobs in ticket and refreshment sales were generally reserved for women, the largest number of skilled picture-house jobs available to women were as musicians. Every new picture house had at least one musician, and as the 1910s progressed, the prestige of a picture house could be measured by the number of musicians in its orchestra, including known concert musicians whose solos could be advertised as discrete attractions. The boom in picture houses was also a boom in musical employment. For both men and women, these increasingly professionalized jobs required the kind of extended education available only to the middle class. The growing prestige of cinema opened up possibilities for suitably trained women of this class who needed or desired an income but who were restricted from much paid work by barriers to the professions and by such nebulous controls as the discourse on respectability, which, for example, put the menial work undertaken of necessity by many working-class women beyond consideration – or at least, acknowledgement. As such, the increasing number of women cinema musicians is also an index of the increasing acceptability and even respectability of cinema itself, which these women were helping to foster by taking these jobs.

Dorset Picture Hall’s advertisement for staff. Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

“Eva Hickie, late pianiste at the Dorset Picture Hall, Dublin, has accepted a similar position at Waterford,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent for the British film trade journal the Bioscope,in mid-April 1914 (Paddy, 16 Apr. 1914). Three years previously, the 1911 Census of Ireland had listed just one Eva Hickie: the 25-year-old head of a household of five siblings and an aged servant, who were living in the north-city suburb of Phibsboro, not far from the Dorset. This Eva Hickie’s occupation is not mentioned, but by Census night, 2 April 1911, she may already have responded to Dorset manager William Shanly’s recent advertisement for “a Lady pianist […] who can play for pictures.” Whether or not she had applied for the job, she was not counted among the 979 Irish women who used the word “music” in the description of their occupation in the Census – the vast majority of them music teachers – and the further 94 who described themselves as musicians.

Despite this lack of self-definition as a musician, Hickie in many ways resembles May Murphy, the most prominent woman musician in Irish cinemas of the early 1910s. The Census puts both women in their mid-twenties and heading households of siblings belonging to the Catholic middle class, for whom music constituted one of the limited choices for respectable employment for women. However, Murphy appears to have been the more socially secure of the two, describing herself in the Census – as did 75 other women – as a professor of music. Although her previous career is obscure, by March 1912 she was leading the Irish Ladies’ Orchestras at James T. Jameson’s most prominent venues: Dublin’s Rotunda and the Pavilion in Kingstown, Co. Dublin:

A potent factor in the success with attends the pictures in the Dublin Rotunda Rooms and the Kingstown Pavilion is the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra, under the direction of Miss Murphy. In the Rotunda there are seven instrumentalists; in Kingstown three. Combined with the crimson and white colour scheme of their dresses, their little Zouave jackets complete a picture of dainty Bohemianism. Mr Jameson is to be congratulated on securing such a permanent attraction. (Paddy, 14 Mar. 1912)

Women’s orchestras were rare but by no means completely novel, and Dublin theatrical audiences might have been familiar with such acts as Les Militaires, a 12-piece women’s orchestra led by Mrs. Hunt and wearing Hussar uniforms and tricorn hats that had visited the city in 1889 (Watters and Murtagh 109-10). Neverthless, the visual spectacle of the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra’s dainty Bohemianism, which would be perfectly understandable in a theatre, seems out of place in a picture house, where the audience should surely be focusing on the screen. However, these musicians were expected to be noticed, a fact that indicates how the live musical portion of the programme was not just invisible accompaniment but was also a visual attraction.

Even as Paddy was asserting the permanence of the attraction, it was changing to offer an opportunity for another woman musician. Just a month after his announcement that Murphy was leading the two orchestras, he revealed that she had found it impossible to manage both the Rotunda and the Pavilion, located in a suburb 12km south of the city. Murphy focused on the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra at the Rotunda, and Jameson – “in no way minded to cut off the musical treat which the people of the Premier Township always expected” – employed a Miss D’Arcy to lead the newly renamed Pavilion Ladies’ Orchestra:

To fill up the place of one who has gone in such a manner that those left behind scarcely feel the vacancy is always a laudable ambition. That Miss D’Arcy has succeeded in maintaining the high state of excellence for which the Pavilion has been famous in the past speaks well for her directorship and ability. (Paddy, 25 Apr. 1912)

 

Publicity photograph of John Bunny, signed and dated 5 June 1914 (http://theloudestvoice.tumblr.com/page/328); and Vitagraph ad including Bunny Blarneyed (with title misspelled). Bioscope 12 Jun. 1913.

Vitagraph’s comic star John Bunny praised the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra and outlined the kind of benefits women musicians brought to the cinema. Bunny made his remarks on a working trip to Britain in 1912, during which he visited Ireland to shoot the short comedy Bunny Blarneyed, or The Blarney Stone (US: Vitagraph, 1913) at Cork’s most famous tourist attraction. Taking in a show at the Rotunda, he remarked that

“Women are always an immense power in the refinement of the world. The manager who, seeking to make his show suitable for all – from the little mites up – neglects this truth is only cheating himself of ultimate end. An orchestra composed of women is an undeniable asset to every hall in the world.” (Paddy, 12 Sep. 1912)

For Bunny – and for Paddy who quoted him favourably – such initiatives as the Ladies’ Orchestra put cinema at the forefront of respectable entertainment by putting women at the forefront of the cinema entertainment. There, they were visible signs and guardians of a refined amusement suitable for all the family.

Although Jameson made a particular feature of his Ladies’ Orchestras, other women musicians were also well known to audiences, even when they were less visible during screenings. Miss Frazer, the pianist at the Pavilion’s rival Kingstown Picture House, garnered special praise for her beautiful singing during the run of The Badminton Hunt in January 1913 because “she did not sing from a platform, the film was not stopped at any time. Simply you heard her charming voice coming out of the darkened stillness at the piano” (Paddy, 30 Jan. 1913). Paddy also noted that May Louise O’Russ conducted a very able orchestra at Dublin’s Mary Street Picture House, which was managed by her husband, Bob O’Russ (ibid).

As summer 1914 approached, it appeared that women were taking a more proprietorial role in Irish cinema. On 30 April, the Bioscope published the registration details of the Blackrock Picture Theatre Company, which had been incorporated in Dublin on 20 March. The report listed four women – Mrs. R. Murphy, Mrs. L. Casey, Miss E. Lineham and Miss M. Lineham – among its five directors (“World of Finance”). Little is known of these women, but Lucy Casey was the postmistress and a shopkeeper in the seaside village of Blackrock, Co. Louth, where the company’s new picture house was to be located. Blackrock was south of Dundalk, the largest town in the region, with its population of 13,128 supporting two competing picture houses. Blackrock, by contrast, had a very small resident population of just 418 that was swelled at holiday time by a large influx of tourists. Regardless of the success of their venture, these women joined the few other female picture-house owners and musicians to whom the cinema offered career opportunities.

References

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 14 Mar. 1912: 759; 25 Apr. 1912: 275; 12 Sep. 1912; 797; 30 Jan. 1913: 329; and 16 Apr. 1914: 313.

Watters ,Eugene, and Matthew Murtagh. Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall 1879-97. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1975.

“World of Finance: New Companies.” Bioscope 30 Apr. 1914: 411.

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5 thoughts on ““An Immense Power in the Refinement of the World”: Women Musicians in Irish Picture Houses

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