Nfld. & Labrador·Atlantic Voice

This movie-loving minister brought Hollywood to Fortune Bay in the '50s — and his projector still works

In a faded coat of red velveteen, an unassuming bit of Newfoundland history sits at The Rooms in St. John's, holding the story of how two men spread cinematic magic in the pre-electricity era.

Listen to a new Atlantic Voice documentary, The Minister and the Movies

Sydney Bradbrook is pictured in the 1950s, walking from Belleoram to St. Jacques by dirt road in his work as the Anglican minister for that area of Fortune Bay. (Submitted by Liz Batstone)

In a faded coat of red velveteen, an unassuming bit of Newfoundland history sits on a work table at The Rooms in St. John's.

Underneath the fabric is a Victor 16 millimetre movie projector at least 70 years old. But its seven decades also hold another story: of two men who spread cinematic magic in the early 1950s, when many of the province's outports had neither roads nor electricity. 

Beside the table, at the tail end of 2021, stand those men's children, reliving memories of film reels gone by as they dust the projector off to fire it up.

"When the movie was playing, if you looked away from the screen and looked at the beam of light, it was filled with dust particles. And to me, that was magical — that was fairy dust," said Liz Batstone.

The beam — and the projector it came from — belonged to her father, Sydney Bradbrook. He left England in 1931 for St. John's, where he studied to become a minister in the Church of England. But alongside his calling, came an addiction, said his daughter.

"He only had one, and that was the movies," said Batstone.

His diaries show he watched 70 movies amid his studies. "I would go so far as to say is that the times that he didn't do well at college, it was because he spent his time in a movie theatre," she said.

Sydney Bradbrook and his wife Mary Bradbrook are pictured on their wedding day in 1942. (Submitted by Liz Batstone)

'The brink of ruin'

When Bradbrook became a full-fledged minister and set out from the big city, his movie addiction met the reality of his vocation.

He served only in isolated outports, using a boat to get from road-less community to road-less community for masses, weddings, baptisms and funerals. There was no electricity, let alone a local cinema.

By the early 1950s, settled in Belleoram with his wife and three daughters, Bradbrook took steps to end his movie drought. Batstone estimates it was either the summer of 1951 or '52 that her father returned from an annual meeting of Anglican ministers in St. John's with two mysterious crates in tow.

"He would not tell us what was in the crates. He made it clear it was not for us," she said.

After her father tucked her in that night, however, Batstone crept to the air register for an earful of her parents' conversation in the kitchen below.

"I heard her say with a tone of disbelief, 'You bought what, Sydney?'" said Batstone. The "what" was the Victor projector.

Sydney Bradbrook's Victor projector, built some time between 1948 and 1952, still works. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Batstone heard the gasp her mother made after asking about the cost, but not the price tag itself — although her investigations much later in life peg it at perhaps as much as $250, an astronomical sum at the time.

"Mom said to Dad, 'your love of the movies, Sydney, has brought us to the brink of ruin,'" Batstone said.

"And he said, 'But I've got a plan, Mary, I've got a plan for how this is going to work.' And he did. He did have a plan."

Rev. Sydney Bradbrook had one addiction: movies. This is the story of his plan to feed his movie need, in a pre-electricity era of 1950s outport Newfoundland.

Reliving the past

The plan was adapted from the friend and businessman Bradbrook bought the projector from: Michael Jones.

Jones, according to his son Andy Jones, "was a great salesman," who sold everything from suits to hemorrhoid creams ("Dad was always saying that he started from the bottom up," said Andy). 

During his Second World War military service, Michael got involved with the army's internal film reels and training movies. When the war finished, he became the sole Newfoundland distributor for a Canadian company that peddled 16-millimetre Hollywood movies and Victor projectors — a smaller format than the cinematic 35-millimetre film, and one used for showings in schools, community halls and churches.

Michael Jones, seen here in the 1950s, was the sole Newfoundland distributor of 16-millimetre Hollywood movies and Victor projectors in the post-war era. (Submitted by Andy Jones)

Andy Jones said his father would lug a Victor and a generator around the outports, showing movies in local parish halls and, afterward selling the kits to priests and ministers.

"People would just come out of the woodwork from everywhere to see a movie. They'd never seen a movie before," he said.

Eventually, Michael Jones switched to selling out of his St. John's storefront — the place Sydney Bradbrook walked out of with a kit bound for his Fortune Bay parishes.

Back home, "the rule was this: if you didn't go to church, you weren't allowed to go to the movie," said Batstone,

Her father charged 10 cents a ticket in Belleoram, and a nickel in smaller outports. It wasn't a hard sell.

"They paid for all that equipment in less than a year. It was amazing," she said.

Batstone recalls her childhood filled with now-cinematic classics: Singin' in the Rain, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, High Noon. She and her sisters became movie addicts just like her father, she said, and they weren't the only ones.

"When you think of it, the people of Fortune Bay and other areas of the province where this was done, they not only got entertainment, but they got an education," she said.

"I got an education … because of these movies, they were exposed to places in the world and ways of life and things that were totally foreign to their own experience."

Liz Batstone and Andy Jones load a 16-millimetre film reel into Batstone's father's projector, now housed at The Rooms. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Reliving the past

The projector stayed with the Bradbrook family long after they moved on from Belleoram. After Sydney's death in 1981, Batstone kept it in a closet until she moved to Halifax in 1999, when she decided to donate it as a piece of provincial history to the Newfoundland and Labrador archives at The Rooms.

She thought nothing more about it until a few years back, when she cracked open her dad's diaries to riveting accounts of his outport experiences, including his mass-and-a-movie showings..

"I knew that there was absolutely a book to be written about that. In fact, the first thing that occurred to me was, 'Dad, your diaries would make a perfect movie,'" she said.

Wondering about the Michael Jones connection, she speculated that perhaps Andy — a well-known comedian, writer, and actor — was his son. She and Andy began emailing each other, and hatched a plan to dig the projector out of storage and relive a few memories of their fathers.

Batstone and Jones say being able to fire up the projector and relive old memories was emotional. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Andy and a mechanically inclined friend stopped by The Rooms to see if the projector could even hold a showing after decades in storage. It could, and he and Batstone met up one afternoon a few days before Christmas, with Batstone ready to attempt to thread the film reel the way her father had showed her how as a child.

After a few attempts, a movie kicked into gear. Andy, himself a projector and 16-millimetre enthusiast, had brought along a reel from 1948 and it played before the cheers and hugs from its small audience.

"It was very emotional. I was a little bit surprised," said Batstone.

"I just think they would be so thrilled to think it's still operating," said Andy. 

"People buy something nowadays and it lasts 10 years. And this machine started up! It's 70 years old."

Batstone is still working on her book about her dad's exploits. She's also making sure the next generation carries on his love of the movies — days after firing up the Victor projector, she took her two granddaughters to see the newest Disney movie.

They're "movie addicts!" she wrote in an email.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Danny Arsenault

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