A curious photograph of Will Onda was once published in the Lancashire Evening Post in 1989 by the music hall and cinema historian Geoff Mellor. Onda is shown sitting in a De Bion motorcar with three men and a woman. Two of the men were identified by Mellor as the juggler James Atroy (from Lancaster) and the ventriloquist Professor William Edward Gillin (from Rotherham). Mellor states Onda, Gillin and Atroy founded Preston Film Service but sadly cited no references to support this claim.
Despite many trips into the archives so far I can find no evidence that the three men founded Preston Film Service but I haven’t ruled out that these men were once connected in some way.
Gillin was the first of the three men to use a bioscope and publish wanted adverts in The Era in 1898 offering to buy and exchange films. Atroy’s early involvement in films is less clear but he did go on to set up cinemas and an exchange company in Lancaster. Onda started to publish wanted adverts for films in 1905 and set up Prize Pictures in around 1908.
The three were certainly known to each other. Will Onda acted as an agent offering big star variety acts to accompany his shows. Atroy and Gillin appeared with Will Onda & Co from time to time but they never shared the same bill. Evidence is growing to connect Atroy with Onda and Onda with Gillin. The photograph so far is the only thing that connects all three.
In my opinion the photograph is likely to be a publicity photograph taken in 1906 when Will Onda and Company was touring with the sketch Motormania. The car has a UI number plate for Ireland. (Thanks to Peter Vickers for tracking this down). If this picture was taken in Ireland then it is interesting to note that Atroy appeared as part of the bill with Will Onda and Company at the Alhambra in Belfast between 19 and 24 March 1906. But where was Gillin?
One possibility is that Gillin was the originator of the films and bioscope shows that regularly appeared with Will Onda and Co on their tours. Gillin had been showing films since 1898 and when Gillin appeared with Onda, a bioscope film show appeared on the bill. This occurred at the Grand Theatre in Chorley, Lancashire in December/January 1904 and then regularly from June 1905.
It would seem that Onda, Gillin and Atroy were entertainers who were on a similar journey with the bioscope. They were already connected through the wider music hall culture which required acts to network to improve their opportunities for work. The bioscope gave them a way of extending their acts and offering a more varied and up to date programme. As time went on this may have been what shaped the development of their respective cinema and film exchange businesses.
I am sure more will be discovered as we research the interesting lives of these three men.
For further information about Professor Gillin and James Atroy see Peter Vickers blog.