The only permanent cinema in Bonnybridge was established by one of the early pioneers of picture houses in Scotland. Henry Harris belonged to a travelling family accustomed to putting on shows and young Henry started to screen films alongside the variety acts. Around 1911 he set up his caravans on open ground near Bonnybridge Toll (later the site of the war memorial). His sister and her husband lived in one of the caravans and helped with the business. The success of the venture encouraged him to look around for a more permanent site and he was able to take the lease of a large area of land on the south side of Main Street not far from the bridge over the River Bonny. Here, when he was 29 years old, he built a wooden hall which he called the Bonnybridge Picture Palace and it opened on 23 December 1912. It was very timely, for in the last week of November the old picture palace was levelled to the ground by the winds of a great storm. The flimsy nature of even the new building and the fact that Harris and his family lived in a caravan next door where he also kept his traction engine made it feel like a showground. The engine had cost him £1,000 and was a major investment. It is probable that in the early days it provided the power for the cinema.
Harris was of a generous nature and on the first anniversary of the opening he provided a free evening for the children and elderly of the village. This generosity extended to charitable causes and during the First World War he made collections for the Prince of Wales’ Fund, the Cinema Mobile Ambulance scheme, the Red Cross and many others. The hall was also made freely available to local charitable groups to assist their fundraising efforts.
Strangely, at a time when his neighbours were being fined for failing to restrict their lights during the black-out, Harris was fined 10s for failing to have a light attached to his traction engine at the showground at 8.45pm on 22 April 1916. He was back in court in July that year, this time for speeding. He was clocked in his motor car doing more than double the speed limit – a massive 22½ miles per hour. The fine this time was £2, but the speeding and love of cars was to come back to haunt him.
Since around 1905 Henry Harris had employed Thomas Hall, then only 15 years old. Hall, a native of London, enlisted in the Royal Scots Fusiliers in February 1916 and that November Harris received official notification that he had been killed in action aged only 26 years. Harris himself was called up in June and in July appeared with his solicitor in front of the Military Appeals Tribunal. He pointed out that he had two different cinema houses to look after and that most of his employees had already been called up. He had invested heavily in the traction engine and projecting machines, which would be left unused causing serious financial hardship. The Military Representative at the meeting asked “Could not your wife look after the business?” To which he answered “If she were to look after it the business would not last five minutes.” Laughter. “But you say she does all the writing.” “Yes, when I tell her what to write.” Laughter again. Temporary exemption was granted for two months and was presumably extended beyond that.
Illus 2: Bonnybridge Picture Palace, c1920. Photo courtesy of Ann Strand.
Henry Harris was a hardworking showman and claimed that he was not much of a businessman, but that was probably a ploy to explain his poor bookkeeping and other tricks of the trade. He took over the running of picture houses at Bainsford and Dalmuir, as well as having interests in several others.
The war years had been ones of high inflation and having bulk bought tickets with the price of 8d on them he continued to use them after the war even when he had reduced his prices in order to avoid entertainment tax. His admission prices in 1928 were 3d, 4d and 6d (8d for reservations which he claimed he did not really operate as they were subject to the tax). Inevitably this led him into trouble. Customs officials attending the cinema for reserved seats were issued with the 8d tickets which were not properly stamped and then torn to indicate that the tax had been paid. From the ensuing court case we learn that the pay box girls were Jane Aitken and Annie Strand, and that Michael Poeitti was the manager. Harris was only fined £3 because the judge reckoned that the amount of tax due was miniscule (Falkirk Herald 4 February 1928). However, when he reappeared within a year for a similar offence the fine was £5.
On 27 February 1926 the garage adjacent to the Bonnybridge Picture Palace belonging to James Alexander, motor hirer and repairer, was destroyed by a fire. Fortunately there was little wind and the fire brigade were able to stop the fire from spreading to the wooden cinema. In 1930 the picture house was rebuilt in brick to seat around 650 and sound equipment was installed.
Tragedy of another form occurred in September 1935. Henry’s sister, who had still been living in a caravan next to the cinema with her family, died. Thomas Harris, the younger son of Henry, was driving his cousin, Blanche Strang, to Falkirk to pick up a mourning dress for the funeral. They were accompanied by his sister Lily, but had not gone more than half a mile when the car skidded into the path of an oncoming bus. All three occupants of the car were killed. On being informed of the tragedy William Harris, an elder brother of two of the victims, drove to Glasgow to inform his father who was managing a picture house in the Muirhead district. Upon his return, quite evidently in shock, they found that the Picture Palace had just opened for the evening’s entertainment and with great difficulty Henry stood on stage to cancel the performance. Thomas was 21 years old, Lily 15 and Blanche 15. Their three ornate coffins, along with Henry’s sister, were displayed in the court in front of the cinema, before being taken to the cemetery at Falkirk.
Henry Harris continued his charitable work and his annual free Christmas entertainment, collecting money for the Old Folk’s summer outing. In October 1939 plans for a new veranda were submitted to the Dean of Guild Court by Thomas Copland, architect, Falkirk. It was not an auspicious time and building work was put off until the end of the war. During the Second World War money was given to the Aid to Russia Fund, the Red Cross Prisoners of War Fund and others. It is claimed that Harris was the only cinema proprietor in Scotland to admit free of charge to his entertainments all members of HM Forces. Soldiers were billeted in the village and those wearing their uniforms got free entry each weekday.
After the war Henry Harris moved to Bishopriggs and the assistance of members of his family meant that he was able to enjoy partial retirement. He died at Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow, 3 August 1948. In 1956 the Picture palace passed to the ownership of Mrs Leonard, Glasgow. A new frontage was put onto the Bonnybridge Picture Palace around 1958. By that time cinemas were on a slow decline and from the 1960s the Denny Picture Palace switched to a regime of part-time bingo and part-time film. Then, from 1969, it was on bingo full time and one commentator wryly asked why it was still called the “Picture Palace.” Indeed, by 1978 it was called “The Bingo Social Club” and “Taylor’s” was added. Shortly afterwards it was acquired by the Bonnybridge Co-operative Society in preparation for an expansion of its main shop and was demolished in December 1980.
Bonnybridge Picture Palace SMR 2218 NS8232 8030