WILLIAM Herbert was once Newcastle's original picture show man.
The former American pioneered bringing moving pictures permanently to Newcastle, first with silent flicks from 1907 and then "talkies". In his heyday, the canny entrepreneur (1867-1947) operated not one, but three profitable picture palaces with his wife Shirley.
To prevent thefts, he even imported a special 'gangster' car with a secret built-in safe and a concealed revolver.
He owned Herbert's De Luxe Theatre at Broadmeadow (later rebuilt in art deco style to become the iconic Century theatre), Herbert's Roxy Theatre at Hamilton (which later became a live theatre) and the still surviving old Regent at Islington (formerly Herbert's Islington).
While the heritage-listed and classically designed Regent Theatre, in Maitland Road, is no longer a cinema but shops, private films are shown here occasionally.
Built in 1928, the Regent is regarded as rare, being one of the few remaining 1920s picture palaces in Australia that is still largely intact, both inside and outside. Despite peeling paint, the building's distinctive curved green ceiling with elaborate lattice panels (pictured) instantly brands it as a former theatre. While all seating has gone, the film projection box remains after 91 years with its tiny windows poking out of the wall at the back of the stalls (not dress circle) once providing unusual 'head-on projection'.
Back in 1961, three years before the cinema (under new ownership) finally closed, the Regent was billed as the third largest theatre in Newcastle, beaten only by the Civic and Century.
So, who was William (Will) Herbert, the man with enough foresight to create his own movie circuit in Newcastle?
Born in the American state of New Hampshire, he left home at 16 to become a circus hand. Two years later he settled in Boston and became a master baker, before moving to New York to open a French-style café. After many adventures, Will Herbert toured Australia with an early silent boxing picture. He settled permanently in Newcastle in 1907 to develop his well-known theatre circuit.
Herbert began screening pictures at Newcastle's Victoria Theatre in Perkins Street. In May 1908 he leased Central Hall (later the Mission Theatre) for 18 weeks in nearby King Street to screen pictures and also leased the King's Hall, upstairs on the corner of King and Perkins streets (later the City RSL until destroyed in the 1989 earthquake). Another site close by was the Lyric Theatre in Wolfe Street.
Having an indoor venue was crucial, as Will Herbert knew all too well. In the early 1900s going to the 'flickers" often meant going to an open-air, or canvas-top, theatre with wooden benches and braziers burning at night.
In October 1910, Will Herbert started an open-air picture show at Hamilton Rugby League Ground and hoped it didn't rain. In 1911, Herbert opened a big tin picture palace (his original Islington theatre), although it had no roof until a year later. That same year he built a theatre in Broadmeadow to accommodate 2000 people.
In 1923 he got Hamilton's Roxy Theatre and in 1924 re-modelled his Broadmeadow site and called it Herbert's Theatre De-Luxe. This cinema then closed in April 1941, demolished, rebuilt and re-opened in April 1942. It was a landmark at Broadmeadow's Nine Ways until after the 1989 earthquake.
The old showman, however, had sold his film interests in late 1933, after wisely switching to the new "talkie" movies in 1929.
Owning cinemas for Herbert had been a roller-coaster ride. By 1924 and owning three theatres - at Islington, Broadmeadow and Hamilton - meant he employed boys on push bikes to race between his theatres carrying film reels. During his silent movie days, pre-1929, Herbert employed pianists to provide the right show atmosphere. He also employed a man to provide sound effects behind the screen.
Merewether's John Murray knows more.
"Will Herbert was my grandfather. Besides the old Victoria Theatre, very early on he also rented cinema space ('Elite Pictures') in an old, empty swimming pool in Newcomen Street, Newcastle," Murray said.
"I don't think he was there very long. When this pool was earlier used as a public baths, salt water was pumped in from the harbour.
"My grandfather once said that one of the best inventions of all time was the motor bike. That's because when his early three-reeler movies were being screened, a motorbike rider could deliver the next reel to a waiting theatre in five minutes, not 40-minutes as a pushbike might. It meant an extra film screening each day at each theatre," Murray said.
"Grandmother's home (at Hamilton South) had the area's first refrigerator. It was to keep ice creams cold for film patrons, of course, but it made her very popular with kids in the neighborhood."
But one story about Will Herbert has been generally unknown to the general public until now.
"My grandfather also had this big, special Packard motor car especially imported from America. He came back on the boat with it," Murray said. "When I say it was like a gangster's car, I'm joking, but it was a monster for its era.
"It had a built-in safe in the back seat to hide his film proceeds. Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, he'd collect the money with help from a bodyguard. And that money stayed in the hidden car safe.
"The car also had a wind-up window between front and back seats. The car was so big (in the late 1920s) there was also a built-in seat in a side door.
"For protection against theft, I remember a silver .38 revolver hidden in a compartment in the back of the front seat. I know because we kids would play with it. I don't know if it was loaded or not. After grandfather's death, the Packard eventually returned to America."
Meanwhile, the Regent, Herbert's old Islington theatre still survives, but with stallholders these days selling retro and vintage items. Theatre co-owner these days is Terry Harrison who said the old cinema still held secrets.
"In the old days, everyone smoked inside. There was an ashtray behind every seat. Not very PC these days," he said.
Harrison also revealed why the theatre's 1928 ornate ceiling had so many lattice panels: "It was to let the cigarette smoke out."
Late in life the old showman Will Herbert was described this way: "Most afternoons he goes to a Newcastle picture show, sits down and goes to sleep.
"He isn't so interested in the picture, but he likes the atmosphere."