The Salvation Army was certainly progressive and innovative in its early approach to spreading the Gospel; the Brass Band - the pop-music medium of the time - is a prime example.
However, it is in the area of multi-media presentations that The Salvation Army showed itself as most inventive.
Birth of the Limelight Department
Captain Joseph Perry, whilst manager of the Ballarat Prison-Gate Home, set up his own photographic studio and dark room. He produced and used his own glass lantern-slides to emphasise his sermons and lectures.
Such was the impact of his lantern shows that in November 1891 he was brought to the Melbourne Headquarters by Major Frank Barritt to produce a set of lantern-slides to advertise the forthcoming visit of William Booth to Australia. Thus, led by Major Barritt and Captain Perry, the "Limelight Department" of The Salvation Army was born.
LIMELIGHT: THE WORLD'S 1st FILM STUDIO
The Limelight Department was the Salvation Army’s pioneering film production and presentation unit in Australia. Between 1892 and 1909 it produced many productions, including 300 films and the major multimedia presentations Soldiers of the Cross and Heroes Of The Cross. The unit also documented Australia’s Federation ceremonies in 1901.
Australia's first dedicated film studio was created by The Salvation Army at 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne, in a room that still stands preserved much as it was at the turn of the century.
By 1895 Perry, with his Limelight equipment, had visited nearly every Corps in Australasia, journeying some 46,500 km, presenting religious illuminated shows to some 522 astounded audiences.
Commandant Herbert Booth was appointed as Australasian Territorial Commander in 1897. Upon meeting Joseph Perry he saw the possibilities in an expanded Limelight Department. He enthusiastically authorised the purchase more equipment, including three gramophones, and importantly, a Cinematographe machine. This led to the establishment of Australia's first permanent film production unit and saw some astonishing pioneering achievements, including:
- Australia's first film studio built at 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1898.
- First Australian narrative film on social work, entitled Social Salvation, 1898/99.
- First narrative drama film presentation, consisting of an ingenious mix of moving film, glass-slides, oratory and music. Soldiers of the Cross premiered at the Melbourne Town Hall in September 1900.
- First feature-length documentary film, Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth, 1901.
- First registered film production company, the Australasian Kinematographic Company, 1901.
- First Australian history documentary, Under Southern Skies, 1902.
- First bushranging drama, Bushranging in North Queensland, 1902.
"Soldiers of the Cross" - The World's First Dramatic Film
On September 13th, 1900 the world's first dramatic film was a key attraction in a pioneering multimedia production "Soldiers of the Cross" at the Melbourne Town Hall. The film was the latest in a series of developments by Australia's first film production company: the Limelight Department of The Salvation Army. They had produced prior to this a series of short movies about the social work of The Salvation Army.
Film historian Chris Long wrote, "It would be difficult to find an Australian film icon attracting more extravagant claims than Soldiers of the Cross. Described as 'Australia's first full-length film'... or even 'the world's first motion picture play'... its saga dominates many chronicles of early Australian cinema".
Soldiers of the Cross depicted the lives of the early Christians; it ran for over 2½ hours and comprises fifteen 90-second films and 200 slides, accompanied by oratory and music. It was an illustrated lecture rather than a "true" feature film.
Filming Australia's Inauguration
The Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth was the first Australian film to exceed the 90-second reel limitation. It was five times the length of any earlier Australian film and was the first Australian film to use simultaneous multiple-camera coverage; it was the most widely distributed Australian film of its time.
The 35-minute film was commissioned by the Government of New South Wales to record the Commonwealth Celebration Day, and the moment when federated Australia became a nation.
The Limelight Department's commercial company went on to produce other commercial films and also films for Salvation Army use, including Heroes of the Cross and The Scottish Covenanters, and built a new studio at Caulfield, Victoria.
When Herbert Booth was succeeded as Australasian Commander by Thomas McKie, able support for the Biorama Company continued from Headquarters. However, this support was not forthcoming when Commissioner James Hay succeeded as Territorial Commander 1909. He quickly closed down the Biorama Department because he felt there was "a weakness and lightness incompatible with true Salvationism."
With over 300 films to their credit, and with many 'firsts' in production and technique, The Salvation Army turned its back to this exciting medium for promulgating the Christian Gospel.
Soldiers of the Cross and other publications have forever disappeared; only glimpses of the early films and lantern slides remain.