The first half of 'Lets All Go To The Pictures In Southend' was a bit on the flabby side at times to be honest, but some real gems were lodged in between the (literally) hundreds of slide show pictures of local cinemas all now deceased. There was the screening of a number of old 50's, 60's and 70's cinema adverts (they did actually try to find the legendary 'Ere Burt, this is the place" for this night, but without success), video footage shot inside the Southend Odeon cinema just days before it was bulldozed (both fascinating and sad all at the same time), and some amazing video footage shot after the ABC cinema closed, where upon artifacts and original decor from over 70 years ago were found behind various walls and 'boxed off' rooms.
There was also a very interesting cinema short from the 'Look At Life' series made by Rank. These were 10 minute information films which ran in Odeon and Gaumont cinemas from 1959 until 1969. At the time they were no doubt viewed as no more than boring filler, but today they are a fabulous document of a time gone by. This chirpy little episode was all about London street markets and the new fangled supermarkets that were also starting to pop up. The whole thing was narrated by Sid James and it was one of the real highlights of the first half, yet I couldn't help thinking it seemed vaguely familiar. But how could it be? It played on my mind for the rest of the evening until it suddenly all fell into place the next day. Incredibly, with over 500 'Look At Life' episodes to chose from, fellow blogger Cocktails posted this very same short on her blog just over a year ago! Amazing! Why not pop over and view the whole film here.
The second half of this show was a pure unadulterated pleasure, as legendary local cinema manager Ron Stewart took to the stage. Ron is in his 80's now, and has retired to Hastings, but the organisers of the film festival were able to lure him down to his old patch to wallow in cinematic nostalgia just for old times sake. He was an absolute natural on stage, and held the audience captivated throughout with his fascinating memories. This man was a real maverick in his day, doing any and every thing to promote his cinema and upcoming films - he won many awards in his time for it too. Whilst watching him regale us with his tales, it struck me that Ron is almost certainly the type of man that the cinema industry would hate these days, in the world of faceless, carbon copy, multi-screen boredom, where you must blend in and are told what to show and when to show it. There was just too much to take in, but here's just a few of his stories that I remember:
Ron catching some children trying to bury their dead pet hamster in the grounds of the Classic Cinema. They tell him that they keep burying him in the garden at home but the dog keeps digging him up again! Ron explained that they couldn't really do that, but offered to pop the poor wee fella in the incinerator in the bowels of the cinema as a cremation! The kids agreed and were delighted with the send off (Ron even muttering a few words along the lines of "God bless out pet"!!). The children went off very happy, and the parents later come down to thank Ron, and say that it had really cheered the children up giving their pet a proper send off. Cue a steady stream of parents, kids and dead pets from then on! Classic quote of the night when Ron says rather sheepishly something along the lines of "there were so many at one point, I think the parent were killing 'em"!
Ron used to show the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a Friday late nighter every six weeks at the Classic cinema. I remember this well and went to it on numerous occasions. On these nights Ron used to open up a third toilet, one for him, one for her and one for him dressed as her!
Apparently there was a natural spring directly underneath the Classic cinema, with various contraptions within the building to keep the water at bay. During one Saturday morning children's show, the system broke down, and the cinema started to fill with water. As the auditorium was sloped, the 'screen end' was filling up quickly as was soon deep enough to jump in! The kids went crazy for it and were diving in from all angles! Ron said that all the dye was coming out of the plush carpet, and it turned all the kids red!
Playing a trick on a regular punter who always used to fall asleep. Ron got his staff to dress up as cleaners and push the hovers round the sleeping gents feet. Once he was awake they pretended it was 10.30 the next morning (rather than the 10.30pm that it actually was)... "my wife will kill me" he screamed, as he shot out the door!
An elderly couple visiting Ron when he was the manager of the Regal cinema in Rayleigh. The cinema was about to close for the last time, and the couple asked if they could have two specific seats. Alternative (and much easier to dismantle!) seats were offered, but they were adamant on the two selected... these were the seats that they had sat in on their first date, throughout their courtship and every other visit from then to the current day. To his eternal credit, Ron set to work unbolting the seats from the row, and eventually had separated them from the floor... Only for them to say "Can you bring them round to our house and fit them please?". He did too!
There was also a Q&A session with the audience, and during it, I finally got an answer to a question that I've pondered for years.... Look at these two pictures of the same cinema (there are some considerable decades between the two shots!):
The 'Ultimate Laurel and Hardy Picture Show' alas was a bit of a disappointment. It was all cued up to be the stuff of fairy tales... the very first function in the all new 'Laurel and Hardy Suite' (a conference room made up of the two rooms in which Stan and Ollie actually stayed in) of the recently refurbished Palace Hotel, was to be a Laurel and Hardy event. How perfect!
I've got a lot of time for the local fan club, they are a genuine bunch who want nothing more than to promote and preserve the memory of their heroes. But on this occasion, the temptation to 'showboat' meant they took their eye off the ball and perhaps lost sight of the likely target audience of the day. A missed opportunity to showcase the boys in their best light to potential new fans.