Story: Whitehouse, Alfred Henry

Page 1 - Biography

Whitehouse, Alfred Henry

1856–1929

Motion picture exhibitor and producer

This biography was written by Clive Sowry and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

Alfred Henry Whitehouse was born on 15 September 1856 at Birmingham, Warwickshire, England, the son of Abel Whitehouse, a warehouseman, and his wife, Matilda Craddock. He is believed to have come to New Zealand with his parents about 1864. Very little is known of his early life. When he married Eliza Davis at Auckland on 22 October 1878 his occupation was recorded as bootmaker. Eliza died at Te Aroha on 17 June 1888, leaving Alfred with five children.

About 1894, possibly after a visit to the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Alfred Whitehouse began touring New Zealand exhibiting the Edison phonograph. Late in 1895, having just returned from a four-month trip around the world, he became the first person to exhibit motion pictures in New Zealand by means of Edison's kinetoscope, an apparatus that allowed a loop of film to be viewed by one person at a time. He opened his kinetoscope exhibition on 29 November 1895 at Bartlett's Studio in Queen Street, Auckland, where he had four machines on show. For the admission price of 1s. (children 6d.) patrons could view four scenes: 'The barber's shop', 'The fire rescue scene', 'The Chinese laundry' and 'Annabelle's graceful butterfly dance'. These were replaced by a second series of scenes three weeks later. During the season Whitehouse introduced the kinetophone, a combination of the kinetoscope and the phonograph, which enabled the viewer to see, for example, Annabelle dance the butterfly dance to music by the Paragon Trio.

In February 1896 Whitehouse closed his Auckland season and took the kinetoscope exhibition on tour through the North Island, ending at Wellington in January 1897, when he sold his kinetoscopes. By this time the limitations of the medium would have been all too apparent to Whitehouse. On 13 October 1896 the Auckland Opera House had been the venue of the first presentation in New Zealand of the kinematograph, whereby motion pictures were projected on a screen, enabling a large number of people to view a single exhibition of a film. Whitehouse's kinetoscope exhibitions had, however, proved sufficiently lucrative to enable him to travel overseas again, this time to Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee celebrations in London in June 1897. He returned to New Zealand later that year, and on 14 September, at Auckland, he married 22-year-old Ada Baker.

On his way to England Whitehouse had visited Thomas Edison in New Jersey, USA, and he brought back with him Edison's projecting kinetoscope, which he proceeded to exhibit throughout the North Island as 'Mr Whitehouse's Kinematograph'. His itinerary kept him mainly in the greater Auckland area; there were at least 12 other kinematograph machines travelling in the North Island in the early part of 1898. To counter this competition, Whitehouse imported a camera to enable him to make his own moving pictures. Lacking the technical skill to operate the camera and develop the film, he enlisted the help of Auckland photographer W. H. Bartlett, whose studio had provided the venue for the first exhibition of the kinetoscope in 1895. On 1 December 1898 Whitehouse and Bartlett filmed the opening of the Auckland Industrial and Mining Exhibition. The film was screened at Bartlett's studio on Christmas Eve – the first public screening of a New Zealand film. Two days later Bartlett filmed the Auckland Cup race at Ellerslie, and this film was shown at his studio on 30 December. Early in 1899 Whitehouse began an extensive tour of the North Island with the first 'Animated Pictures' taken in New Zealand. Touring and exhibiting films occupied Whitehouse's energies more than production, but by mid 1900, when he left Auckland to travel to the Exposition universelle internationale in Paris, he had produced 10 films.

When he returned from Paris Whitehouse had with him the biochronoscope projector and more new films. He continued to tour his picture show through the Auckland area, occasionally venturing further south. However, he did not produce any more films of his own. He was still showing films in 1908, but probably retired shortly afterwards as permanent picture theatres began to flourish.

About 1919 Whitehouse moved to Knox Home for Incurables at west Tamaki, where he died on 7 April 1929. His wife, Ada Whitehouse, had died on 14 August 1910. They were survived by two sons and a daughter. The passing of New Zealand's first film exhibitor went largely unnoticed. The past was forgotten as audiences of 1929 greeted the introduction to New Zealand of a new era in motion pictures – the 'talkies'.