I moved to Eastwood with my family in January 1959, when I was 10 years old. At first my family took me to the various cinemas in Southend on the bus, but within a year I was going on my own. I had to find the courage to ask adults to take me into the cinema when they were showing 'A' certificate films, as being under 16 I had to be accompanied. As for the 'X' category, well that was a lot more difficult! I grew a liking for science-fiction fantasy and horror films as well as the traditional family films. I was a big Steve Reeves fan who was enjoying huge popularity around this time with his playing of Hercules and other muscular roles. I first saw Reeves in the initial "Hercules" film at the Southend Essoldo in mid 1959.
In the early autumn of 1959, my family took me to the Southend Odeon.
(Southend Odeon, High Street - Opened 1935, closed 1998)
Each year the Odeon ran a live show of the crowning of the Carnival Queen, a Southend tradition. On these occasions the lucky lady was usually crowned by a member of the Film or TV Entertainment Profession. A new film was chosen, usually a new Rank release, and in this case it was "The Heart of A Man" starring Frankie Vaughan. He was also the guest chosen to crown the Queen. At this time I was a big Frankie Vaughan fan and was eager to see him live on stage. Right up to the arrival at the theatre we were expecting to see him but while sitting in the packed auditorium, a taped recording was played over the loudspeakers. It was Frankie Vaughan's voice in a very apologetic tone, apologising for not being present as he had been called away to Hollywood to star with Marilyn Monroe in 20th Century Fox's CinemaScope musical "Let's Make Love". So co-star Tony Britton took his place. We were all very disappointed that he was not present. It is also sad that Frankie's move to Hollywood did not prove successful, after only two films. On his return to Britain he did not find quite the level of success that that he achieved in the fifties.
Hammer Horror films were also achieving great success at this time, although I knew very little about them. They mostly ran at the ABC (Rivoli) Alexandra Street and the alternative Rank theatre on Pier Hill, the Ritz.
(The Ritz, Top of Pier Hill - Opened 1935, closed 1972, demolished 1981)
The Odeon rarely showed horror films as it was Rank's leading showplace in Southend. Hammer type films were distributed usually to the 'Guamont' circuit and the Ritz was the equivalent to that. My first exposure to Hammer Films was in January 1960 at the Rivoli.
(The Rivioli, Alexandra Street - Built 1896 (as the Empire Theatre), Opened as a Cinema 1920, Closed as a Cinema 1998, Now The New Empire Theatre)
It was "The Stranglers of Bombay" which had an 'A' certificate. My Mother took me to see it on the Monday afternoon before I returned to school on the Tuesday. I am ever grateful to my Mother for it was my official introduction to Hammer Films, I never got over it!
In 1960 my parents took me to the Empire, Leicester Square to see "Ben-Hur" in the West End of London and introduced me to big screen presentations. Southend at this time had no 70mm installations, so I visited the West End frequently from then on where they had plenty in supply. I saw most of the big 'Roadshow' reserve-seat presentations in the West End such as "How the West Was Won", "Lawrence of Arabia", "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", "Mutiny on the Bounty", "Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" etc.
I used to go to the cinema two sometimes three times a week as, unlike today, there was a lot to choose from. By the time I was 14, in 1962, I could usually get into 'A's without much trouble. During this transitional period I was attending the 'Saturday Morning Pictures' at the Regal, Rayleigh and was caught up in the Batman serial.
(The Regal, Bellingham Lane, Rayleigh - Built 1937, closed 1973)
When the ABC (or Odeon) in Southend had finished their run the films would usually move to Westcliff (Essoldo) then Leigh (Coliseum) then Rayleigh (Regal) then Hadleigh (Kingsway). When the Rivoli closed for redecoration, most, if not all their releases went to the Westcliff Essoldo. The Mascot across the street usually ran 'B' films. All the 'roadshow' releases on the Rank circuit had unlimited runs at the Ritz on Pier Hill. The normal 'A' releases went to the Odeon. I kept a log, from 1963 for a year or so, of all the local cinemas and what they showed and I still have them.
(The ABC, Alexandra Street. Formally The Rivioli... see previous photo!)
(Westcliff Essoldo, London Road (picture taken when it was still the Metropole), Opened 1939, closed 1991)
(Leigh-on-Sea Coliseum, Elm Road - Opened 1914, closed 1965. Became a Bingo hall, and is now a hairdressers)
Movies were firmly in my blood and I knew that I wanted to get into the film industry. Due to the limitations set-up by the film unions it was a closed shop. The only way in was to enter a cinema training programme at the Wandsworth College once a week for 4 years and I would be employed at a cinema which would enable me to join the NATKE projectionist's union.
In January 1964 I started as a trainee projectionist for Granada Theatres at the Century Cinema in Pitsea.
It was a quaint little 'stalls only' theatre that ran 'second-run' films. I learned how to clean the projection room, which was no easy chore, polishing floors and brass, dusting everywhere. It was like being in the army. I worked twelve hours a day five days a week. The lavatory had an opening at the bottom of the door and my initiation ceremony was to be locked in and be exposed for a short time to the smoking burning fumes of nitrate film wrapped in burning newspaper! As it turned out, the Century was an ideal training ground and amongst the interesting experiences was to see a fellow projectionist partially mangle his finger in the intermittent sprocket, during the screening of the Norman Wisdom Comedy "A Stitch In Time", in an attempt to avoid stopping the film when the film ripped on the projector. The only time I saw this film in colour was when the film was being repaired on the rewind bench stained with his blood! During my time at the Century Cinema I had an offer to work at the Odeon in Southend, but felt I wasn't ready. In September 1964 I finally accepted and, looking back, spent the two happiest years of my working life there.When I worked at the Odeon, everything was done right. I was trained properly. Showmanship and presentation really mattered. At first it was a frightening thought that I would be involved in presenting films to a maximum crowd of 2200 people, but surprisingly enough I gained confidence very quickly and moved up from trainee, who would 'float' between two shifts, to being assistant to Leonard Himsley, the second projectionist. The chief projectionist was George Gorham. Among the first films shown when I first started were Hitchcock's "Marnie" and Wilder's "Irma La Douce". We took a pride with presentation back then. We had 'carbon-arc' lamps for the screen light source. It was a sin if we showed the bare screen, or showed the film temporarily 'out-of-frame'. We had an 'act-drop', as it was called, instead of traditional curtains. These curtains floated to the top of the stage, although they could be opened the normal way which we did for live shows. There was 2,284 seats in all and they were often filled. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Audiences generally knew how to behave and they respected each other and as a result made a much more enjoyable cinema going experience.
We had a 52 foot CinemaScope screen and it looked great when we ran films like "Lawrence of Arabia", "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and the Fox films. Unfortunately we weren't equipped with stereo or 70mm, which came later after I had left when the theatre was twinned. We screened "Goldfinger" for five weeks, and I remember we had a new screen during that time as the old one was thick with cigarette nicotine. I also had my first and only film rip on that one. It was quite an experience as it played to packed houses for days. I would often go downstairs to the back of the circle on my break to hear the enormous crowd reaction. Audiences in large numbers knew back then how to behave and enjoy a film together. The Head projectionist's office had a glassless porthole so you could hear crowd reaction, quite something to behold when you had a full house with 2000 plus people!
As time went by and I gained experience, I would voluntarily come in early (7 to 7:30am) on the first day of the new week's films (Thursday) and put the entire program together. This involved taking the individual elements, (feature, second feature, short - usually "Look At Life" - adverts and trailers) and splice, examine and make out a condition report. Usually, being a 'pre-release' theatre we would get our films just after the London West End and, before the first leg of general release which was North London, they would be brand new 35mm prints, some I.B. Technicolor and others De-Luxe or Eastman.
In 1965 on July 29th we ran the Beatles' film "Help!" concurrently with the World Premiere run at the London Pavilion. They started the film in the evening, so we showed the first ever public screening of the film in the world! I made sure I made up the program that morning, screen the first performance entirely and the watch the next performance from the auditorium before the World Premiere performance that evening! The week prior we had a live show with Cliff Richard, and all the staff had their picture taken with him in the circle foyer. Afterwards I walked down the stairs to the main foyer with Cliff in full view of a huge banner of the following Thursday's program of "Help!" and he expressed great enthusiasm in seeing the film.
Stephen has kindly provided me with the following two photos taken at the Southend Odeon from his personal collection (he is standing next to Cliff Richard in the first photo, and standing in the middle at the back in the second) I remember helping out on the stage shows, either on the spot lights in the projection room or down on stage with the artistes, often walking in with the curtain so it wouldn't get caught on stage equipment. As well as Cliff Richard, I remember meeting Lulu and seeing one of the Hollies peeing into the wash basin in the dressing room, not always a luxury meeting pop stars!
By early 1966 I had the urge to move on. I had viewed many films first run in London's West End and visited many of the luxurious theaters' projection rooms. I visited the Dominion when they were playing "The Sound of Music", the Metropole, during it's run of "Lawrence of Arabia" and the Odeon Leicester Square when they showed "What's New Pussycat?". The Odeon Leicester Square was the Rank Organisation's 'flagship' theatre, it's beautiful interior and top notch presentation impressed me the most and I was determined to find employment there. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Due to the fact that the suburban and West End theatres were separate divisions I was prevented by Rank to cross over into the West End. Instead, in September, 1966 I went to work at the Odeon, Dalston to train on the new projection technology called 'projectomatic'.By December, 1966 Rank would have ready a brand-new theatre in Elephant-and-Castle in South London, to replace the luxury Trocadero. This new theatre was intended as a preview of the future. No screen curtains. Instead, a 'floating screen' with no visible signs of support. The houselights turned off first from the rear and progressively worked their way toward the screen, leaving the floating screen filled with multi-colored lighting. Gone were the stalls and circle, instead, a stadium designed auditorium was built. The projectionist's duties were changed dramatically. Gone was the manual showmanship approach. In it's place was the latest in automatic projection technology. A large console stood in the middle of the floor which contained a rotating drum. It was full of holes where split pins would be strategically placed which would then trigger relays as the drum turned. Each relay controlled lights and all projector operations. Tiny pieces of metallic tapes placed on the edge of the film would pass over a roller and rotate the drum once. We still had carbon arc lamps, but each film reel ran a whole hour which enabled us often to have to leave the projection room to check heating and air-conditioning levels. This was a one-manned show which meant the projection room was often left empty for short periods of time, previously unheard of, if any technical problems arose in the theatre as there were no engineers. During this time we had a personal appearance of Oliver Reed to promote his film "I'll Never Forget Whats'isname".
I remained at this theatre for about fifteen months, but decided that the changing ways of theatres was not for me. So in April 1968 I moved into the film studios, at MGM Studios, Elstree in Borehamwood, Herts.
A big thank you to Stephen for a really interesting piece, and what a great memory too!! Stephen has also kindly provided me with a copy of his log of films shown in the Southend area in 1963, and I'll add a sample in a future post.