Life for the members of the Limelight Dept. was nothing if not varied. Late in 1900, just three months after terrifying audiences with a graphic multi-media depiction of the martyrdom of the early Christians in Soldiers of the Cross, they began producing the official films of Australia’s Federation Inauguration Ceremonies in Sydney and the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne after contracts were negotiated with the Governments of the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria.
In 1901, shortly after filming a visit to New Zealand by the future King George V and Queen Mary, at least one of their number was arrested for marching with a band and banners through the small town of Walhalla, in Eastern Victoria, where such activities were prohibited by local by-laws.
Across its ground breaking life span, the Limelight Department chalked up a string of achievements. It built Australia’s first film studio, produced social documentaries and Australia’s first fictional narrative films, including the first bushranging drama. Its extensive touring brought the novelty of film to communities across the nation, while the Department provided facilities, training and experience for many of Australia’s film industry pioneers.
The event that triggered these achievements was a small one. Salvationist Joseph Perry purchased a magic lantern, an early type of slide projector, to raise funds for the Army’s Prison Gate home in Ballarat, a provincial city in the colony of Victoria.
Perry and the lantern were brought to Melbourne late in 1891 to promote the visit of the Salvation Army’s founder General William Booth and his Darkest England poverty relief scheme. By doing so, the Army took the first steps into a place in Australian film history.
The shows were quickly broadened from their initial focus on Darkest England. During the first five years, Joe Perry toured Australia and New Zealand with shows blending melodramatic and humorous tales with biblical stories. These were combined with images and stories of the social and "rescue" work the Salvation Army was doing in Australia and overseas.
Using a "bi-unial", or twin lensed, lantern Perry was able to overlap slides, fading and dissolving between them to create an impression of movement on the screen. The slide sequences, many of which Perry made himself, were accompanied by music and sound effects. In "Jane Conquest", the depiction of a shipwreck in wild seas was heightened by simulated flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. Numerous newspaper reports of the time tell us that audiences sat enthralled as Jane strove to save the crew and her husband from the burning ship. Meanwhile her baby, which Jane had to leave at home, was protected by angels hovering above.
As the depression of the 1890's bit hard, money raised by the Limelight shows was used to help the social work of the Salvation Army and its officers in local centres across the colonies. Lantern meetings on Sunday evenings focused on biblical and spiritual subjects, as Perry turned his skills to saving souls. On one October evening in 1893, in Charters Towers Queensland, the gas house lights failed. Perry then turned the beam of the lantern on several penitents kneeling at the front of the hall, until they proclaimed their salvation. In June 1896, Joe Perry's lantern, screen, many glass slides and other equipment were destroyed in a fire in Marton, New Zealand. However, within two months he had obtained a new "tri-unial" (triple lensed) lantern and was soon back on the road with even greater visual effects capablility for his presentations.
In August 1896, Commissioner Thomas Coombs, the leader of the Salvation Army in Australasia who had authorised the establishment of the Limelight Department, was replaced by Commandant Herbert Booth, son of General William Booth. This was about the time motion pictures made their first appearance, amazing audiences around Australia. Herbert Booth immediately expanded the Limelight Department, authorising Joe Perry to add this new medium to the Limelight Department's activities, regardless of the cost.
By early 1897 Perry had got hold of a projector and some films and incorporated them into the touring repertoire. Later that year, after he obtained a camera and processing equipment, he made his first ‘actualities’, as the earliest films were called. A new studio was built at the back of the Salvationist Melbourne Headquarters building at 69 Bourke Street and by May 1898 Perry had made Australia's first fictional narrative films. They drew on his pre Limelight experience and included the story of a hungry man who stole a loaf of bread, was arrested, imprisoned, and on his release was taken into the care of the Salvation Army's Prison Gate Brigade.
By August 1898, a number of Limelight Department produced films, along with 200 slides, had been incorporated into an extensive two and a half hour multimedia presentation titled Social Salvation. Presented by Herbert Booth at the Sydney Town Hall and Melbourne’s Exhibition Building, it depicted the social work of the Salvation Army in Australasia. Over the next few years, the film content of this presentation grew considerably and Social Salvation was shown widely across Australia. Meanwhile, Herbert’s wife Cornelie had developed her own lantern presentation, "In The Slums Of The Great Cities", which she showed around Australia. It was presented hundreds of times by both Cornelie, or members of the Limelight Department who toured the show when she was busy with other duties.
In 1899, Herbert Booth decided to build a large, new officer training garrison in Victoria Parade, East Melbourne. To find candidates to fill this extra training capacity, he wrote a recruiting show featuring the martyrdom of early Christians by the Romans. Soldiers Of The Cross, which Herbert also directed, while Joe Perry shot the footage, premiered at the Melbourne Town Hall on September 13, 1900.
The Limelight Department was commissioned by the New South Wales Government to film the events. Limelight camera operators were positioned on platforms along the parade route and Joe Perry moved between them using a fire cart pulled by five horses. Herbert Booth rode in the parade with other Salvation Army and church leaders. At a rotunda in the park, Robert Sandall, the Army’s future international historian, filmed the official ceremonies. The film of these events was screened across the new nation.
Five months later, in May 1901, the Limelight Department was commissioned by the Victorian Government to film the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary. The royal party travelled to Melbourne, where the Duke opened the first sitting of the new Commonwealth Parliament at the Exhibition Buildings.
Much of the Federation and Royal visit film still survives. From Australia, the Duke and Duchess moved on to New Zealand. Joe Perry and his assistants went too, having been engaged by the New Zealand government to film the visit there. From Auckland to Dunedin, they recorded parades, presentations and receptions.
Biorama was the name given by the Salvation Army to the Limelight Department’s larger touring parties that combined film, slides and musical expertise. The first Biorama Company was formed in 1900 and comprised five people, including Joe and Julia Perry and Sidney Cook. This group toured throughout Victoria, presenting films and shooting scenes of local interest.
In 1902, Herbert Booth resigned from the Salvation Army because of deteriorating relations with his father and brother Bramwell. After protracted negotiations, he purchased Soldiers of the Cross from the Salvation Army and used it on international evangelical campaigns he went on to conduct.
Herbert’s successor was Commissioner Thomas McKie, who soon threw his full weight behind Joe Perry’s Limelight Department. Unlike Herbert, he did not have any personal filmmaking ambitions, but saw the potential for evangelism, propaganda and fundraising. More Biorama Companies were established, each with six or more members, who could sing, play both brass and stringed instruments, as well as operate the projection equipment.
In August 1902, a major new production, Under Southern Skies, premiered. This two-hour documentary presentation used about 100 minutes of film and 200 coloured sides to tell the story of Australia from European exploration to Federation. The script was written by William Peart, who also acted as narrator on the first tour through Victoria. Peart, the Chief Secretary of the Salvation Army and McKie’s second in command, signed up as a full-time officer in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. Later, he commanded Salvation Army forces across a major part of the United States.
In 1904 Joe Perry and James Dutton were key members of the Australasian contingent to a Salvation Army International Congress in London. After the Congress, Perry filmed Bushranging in North Queensland, which film historian Chris Long has noted was Australia’s first bushranging drama. After 1904 Australian production declined. This was due in large part to the expanding touring activities of the Limelight Department and Joe Perry leading his Biorama Company on several long tours of New Zealand. Another contributing factor was the 1905 resignation from the Salvation Army of Sidney Cook, one of the Department’s principal cinematographers.
In 1905, the principal Biorama Company was enlarged to 13 members, and later, to over 20. The addition of a 15 horsepower electric plant and arc illuminant to Perry’s company in early 1906, led to it being renamed the Electric Biorama Company. Branches of the Limelight Department were set up in most Australian states and in New Zealand. By mid 1907, there were weekly film shows in a number of Army centres in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. Touring companies continued to travel throughout the states.
Large quantities of film were imported to feed the Department’s expanding exhibition activities. One Department produced an Australian film which does survive from that period. Shot by James Dutton in 1905 it captures employees leaving the Swallow and Ariell biscuit factory in Port Melbourne. Joe Perry took a number of films on his tours of New Zealand, including footage of the Christchurch Exhibition that was commissioned by the New Zealand Government.
In 1908 Thomas McKie conducted a Grand Memorial Service, which used film and slides to commemorate the lives of a number of Salvationists who had died while working for the Army. These included pioneer Australasian leader James Barker, who died in 1901, and Major Kenneth McLeod. McLeod had been the officer in charge of the Army’s boys home at Bayswater in Victoria, the scene of some of the earliest Limelight Department films. He died in January 1908 and his funeral was filmed. This film, which was a feature of the Grand Memorial Service, has survived.
The Limelight Department undertook an important Government commission in 1908, when the ‘Great White Fleet’ of sixteen American warships visited major Australasian ports. Joe Perry sent camera crew to Sydney and New Zealand and produced the filming in Melbourne.
Across late 1908 and early 1909, a new studio was built in Caulfield, in suburban Melbourne. Perry anticipated considerable production activity at the new location and purchased a house two blocks away. Production began on two new projects, Heroes of the Cross and Scottish Covenanters. When the Salvation Army issued a transfer order to Thomas McKie, Heroes of the Cross was rapidly completed and shown at a mammoth farewell Congress in Melbourne in May 1909.
Englishman Commissioner David Rees was announced as Thomas McKie's successor. However, when health concerns for Rees’ wife prevented them from coming to Australia, he was replaced by Commissioner James Hay, an austere Scotsman, who for some years had been responsible for Salvation Army operations in England.
When Hay arrived in Australia in 1909, he curtailed the Limelight Department’s activities, effectively closing it down. He said a moral laxity in the film business was having a negative effect on Salvation Army screenings. Hay acted so quickly that the Scottish Covenanters was never shown in Australia. James Hay later admitted that there had been a substantial financial cost in closing the Limelight Department and many Salvation Army centres took years to recover from the loss of income.