Picture Show Man

The way we were:
There is no room for Allan Osborne’s car in his carport. The space is filled with a carriage from the original Big Dipper from Melbourne’s Luna Park.

You can also forget about a swing-chair on the front porch. A garden gnome would have a hard time finding space to dangle a fishing line among the stacked assemblies of gears, sprockets and shafts; the internal organs of amazing machines that first made pictures move.

Allan Osbourne, picture Paul Knight

Allan Osbourne with his Edison Projecting Kinetoscope, c. 1910

Machines like the hand-cranked movie projector that dominates the Osborne living room. It is an Edison Projecting Kinetoscope from 1910. It used limelight to bring images to life. A small, cylindrical block of lime was heated by a flame fuelled by a volatile mixture of oxygen and hydrogen until it gave off an intense, white light. Limelight was then by far the brightest artificial light ever created.

This Kinetoscope is not to be confused with the “peep-show” Kinetoscope. Rows of its rival, the more familiar Mutoscope once adorned amusement piers and parlours from Brighton to Bondi. Instead of a strip of film, it used flip cards – like a Rolodex with pictures. And yes, there is one of those here. A British model of about 1899.  I smile as I recall a row of such machines on Manly Pier and standing on things to put a hoarded penny in the slot to see what the butler saw.

“I’m not a collector.” Osborne is emphatic about that. Surprising considering that this modest two-story house in the outskirts of Melbourne groans at its seams with picture-show history; more than a hundred movie projectors and magic lanterns, a thousand classic original posters, a hundred more lime-burner, arc lamp assemblies and lamp houses , theatre sound and lighting equipment, ancient vending machines and more than 120 different kinds of speakers from drive-in theatres (now laid out for sorting and cataloguing in what, in most households, would be the dining room).

“Collectors collect only things they like or interest them. I’m more of an archivist.” he explains.

With his passion for unearthing and understanding how things were, he is perhaps as much an archaeologist as anything. Allan Osborne is as interested in how the whole industry worked and interacted with society at large as he is about the optics, mechanics and physics that made it possible.

The Historical Committee of the august Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), has invited him to list his collection, alongside the only other Australian invitee, the National Film and Sound Archive. Allan is still thinking about it.

“People make mistakes with history. They think they know what’s important from ten or twenty years ago. But in 50 or a 100 years we might know they were wrong – by then what is really important has been left behind and lost.”

“People make mistakes with history. They think they know what’s important from ten or twenty years ago.”

When he is not illustrating a point with some exquisitely-made item of ancient equipment, his gestures are sharp, tight and, like the man, straightforward and to the point. The smile that flickers on his face is a thinly-disguised challenge. His clear, bright eyes glint from a smooth, taught face. Perhaps is it the decades of hard physical labour to support his collection that are responsible for these youthful attributes, or perhaps his kind of energy just defies lines and wrinkles. Only the total whiteness of his shoulder-length hair lends credence to his 53 years.

“You know what this is?” Allan Osborne holds out a small metal pail, a cardboard box that might have come from a turn-of-the-century laundry, and a broad, coarse, horsehair brush. It was a challenge as much as a question.

“This is a gluepot, glue powder and brush that people used to paste posters around towns to advertise movies. No glue, no posters, no audience, no movies, no industry. Everything is important. Everything is joined up.”

Point made, he leans back against a very large, very beautiful machine of highly polished brass and mahogany. Curiously, it seems to have two projecting lenses pointing 90° apart.

Urban Bioscope Projector c. 1905, picture Paul Knight

Urban Bioscope Projector c. 1905

“A horizontal bi-unial magic lantern”, he explains. “Made by A. Abraham & Son, Liverpool. The firm went out of business in 1879. There are prisms in front of each lens so that the pictures converge on the same screen and the operator could dissolve from one slide to the next and it needs only one limelight lamp house.”

Allan saw it for sale in 1993 but it was ten years before he had the cash together to acquire it. It has taken more than twice that long to locate all the parts for some historic projectors he is rebuilding.

A few paces from the back door is a big padlocked shed occupying a third of the back yard. If anything, the shed is crammed fuller than the carport or the house. There is no question of even attempting to get inside for a closer look at the shelves of projectors, lights, spools and reels.

“You used to be able to walk in to the end but then I had to look after my father’s workbench and the only place it would fit was the walk space in the shed.. But everything is tagged and catalogued. I know exactly what is here and where everything is.”

You believe him. He reels off dates from two centuries, often down to the month. Names and models and amazing facts continually spice and season the flow of conversation.

“During the silent era, There were seven companies or individuals making 35mm movie projectors in Australia. By 1915, the Simplex, the “Rolls-Royce” of American projectors, was being sold in here. It was actually very complex. In 1922, Australia started making one called the C&W. It was like an FJ Holden*. Simple, but it worked great and it just kept on going.”

Allan works these nuggets into conversation with everyone he meets. Sometimes it pays off – big time.

“The guy didn’t know! He was bullshitting as usual.
It was all an incredible coincidence.”

“I was working at a cheese factory. There was this knockabout sort of bloke. He was mostly full of crap; had to go one better than anyone else. If you rented a dingy to go fishing, his mate owned a bloody yacht. Anyway, he saw me reading second-hand ads and wanted to know what I was looking for. Thinking I could put him off I said ‘hand-cranked, 35mm movie projectors’. ‘Ha!’ he says. ‘I know a guy got three of them things.’

“I didn’t really believe him but I tracked this guy down in West Wallsend in N.S.W. and he did have the projectors! But he was really confused. They had belonged to his father and were in trunks in the barn untouched for 40 years. ‘How did he know about the projectors?’ he asked.”

Right now, to support the collection, Allan puts in a twelve-hour shift at a recycling plant from 3:00 am each day. He would rather be working on an Australian equivalent of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) such as the one in New York, or, formerly, in London (highly acclaimed and hugely popular until it was closed by the British Film Institute in 1999 citing lack of funds.)

He sees this as a living, interactive environment in which equipment and historical objects are given equal place with films.

“I would like to lease the collection to that kind of museum, use the lease fees solely to acquire new items to build the collection – and support myself with a fee or salary as curator. I don’t believe in handouts or having things like this as a drain on the taxpayer. I believe in things that pay for themselves.”

In the chilling rain of the night outside a streetlight makes kaleidoscope patterns on Allan Osborne’s car shouldering the curb. I hunch my shoulders against the cold and rain.  In the carport, the 1923 Big Dipper car sleeps snug and safe and dry.

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* An iconic Australian car of the ’50s

Copyright © Russell Cawthorne 2003
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