The Odeon/Astoria Southend was by far the finest cinema I ever visited. One only had to look at the back of the building's 'fly-tower' where scenery was dropped down to the stage and compare the size with the Cliffs Pavillion Theatre's much smaller proportions to realise that the Odeon was on a par with London theatres.
(the Odeon's fly tower can be clearly seen in this rear shot,
taken just before the building was demolished)
Presentation at the Odeon was first class; overseen by the strict but most professional managerial standards of Arthur Levenson (Arthur Levensons wife was the cousin of one-time Leigh-on-Sea girl, Joan Sims of 'Carry-On' fame). He was at the theatre in 1951 for a while, went to a London cinema (possibly the Gaumont in Kilburn), and returned to Southend and managed both the Odeon and the Ritz (opposite Palace hotel) from the early 60's until his retirement, around 1987.
I first visited the Odeon as a child to see The jungle book when it was a single-screen venue. I remember the cinema closing and the front entrance being boarded-up whilst being altered to make way for the twin-screen layout and the 'Caters' supermarket. On re-opening, the art-deco 'stepped-arches' ceiling with the concealed lighting was still in place in Odeon screen two. That lighting, the large sweep radius of the front of the auditorium's proscenium, and the serenely slow opening of the curtains (with the purple to green sequenced tab lights) made for a most up-market standard of cinema experience compared to other venues. House lights went down slowly, leaving the ceiling's atmospheric lights to remain whilst the curtains opened up, tab lights fading and ceiling arches slowly dimming by this time. In the comments section of Piley's original Odeon post, one contributor said that after the 'twinning' conversion, it was much smaller inside. Piley commented that it seemed large enough to him from memory. Well, Odeon 2 was the circle extended forwards; the central left to right of auditorium aisle-way, sixth row down from there towards the screen, was in fact the old 'front-row' seating of the original front circle. So, the new 'Odeon 2' carried the racked 'stadium' seating plan from this sixth row of seats and down quite a considerable distance further on. So much so that the new screen area was only some 10-15 feet short from the original proscenium arch, (stage surround), and only a little higher up from the original stage area, (the supermarket in the old stalls area of the pre 1970 theatre had a very low ceiling). Therefore, Odeon 2 auditorium still retained a spacious perspective, comparable to when seated in the 'circle' seats of the original venue. Only if sat looking at one end of the front of the balcony (front circle) back into the stalls and circle or sat in the front stalls looking back would these differences have become more apparent.
(here is Arthur Levenson with the Beatles, taken at the Odeon)
In 1985, the Odeon celebrated it's 50th anniversary with a stage put in place in front of the screen curtain to facilitate a parade of 50 years of Southend 'Carnival Queens'; the annual crowning ceremony used to take place in the pre 1969 theatre when it had full stage facility and 2,750 seats and standing for 250! They gathered the 1985 queen right back to the 1935 one (who they had to fly in all the way from Canada!).
During this time Roger Moore's last Bond film (A View To A Kill) was released, and Arthur Levenson wanted to delay the release by a week, so as to open the 50th anniversary celebration night with this spectacle of a film. Unfortunately, the film renters would not allow it, and they told him that if he wouldn't show the Bond film on the release date (one week before the 50th celebration night) then they would give it to one of the other local cinema's. Such dictatorship! In the end, he had to use 'Return to Oz' for the big night, even though he had 007's 'Q' (Desmond LLewellyn) demonstrating Bond gadgets! He did it without using the microphone too, such were the fabulous acoustics in the building. Also, there were letters read out from well known actors and actresses well wishing the event, including Dame Anna Neagle, who remembered visiting the Astoria/Odeon over the years when coming to the town.
A friend and I visited Arthur Levenson to set-up a small 'in-foyer' exhibition the evening before the 1985 '50th' anniversary function. Not one to normally consort with everyday people unless known to him personally, he briefly showed us some impressive 'interior' colour 60's photographs of the cinema/theatre, probably taken after the re-fit around 1960 when they darkened the auditorium, spaced the stalls rows of seats apart for greater legroom, made-over the foyers and corridors with that 'modern' 'Festival of Britain' post '51 look. They also put 'stars' as lights in the ceiling - disconnecting the concealed lighting in the art-deco ceiling arches until re-connecting them, post twinning the cinema in the 70's (anybody remember the stars?! I know that twin brothers Peter and John who used to work as projectionists at the Ritz Southend, claimed a few of these when the building was being converted in 69-70!).
One Odeon fact I didn't realise was from contributor Stephen Pickard, who stated that the 'Cinemascope' (2.35:1 ratio) screen in the Odeon before the conversion was around 52 or 54' wide. My friend who was the last projectionist there from 1972 until retirement in the 1990's said Odeon 2 had a 45' screen in place; still very large and with the correct 'curved' profile which these awful multiplexes don't have. The new venue Odeon has the same chief projectionist that worked at the original Elmer Approach venue; a highly accomplished and professional technician who probably now doesn't get the same job satisfaction, working for a McDonalds style of operation as when at the highly 'standards-driven' original venue.
Unlike many cinema's, the Odeon was managed with high standards right to the end (by Diane Brissenden, formerly Arthur Levenson's deputy), remaining in a good standard of condition, never tired looking or any sign of 'tattyness'. Just before closing it's doors, I had the opportunity to go inside with my camera.
(ABC opening night in 1962)
When the ABC was twinned, the projectionist, a nice old boy called John, who had worked there back to the Rivoli days, hated the switch to 'automation' and could be found in the cinema's basement 'Marine bar' during a performance. My dad used to have a drink with him at the Oakwood in Eastwood sometimes. John claimed the cinema had a ghost and was quite adamant about it's existence! Later, there would be younger projectionists and the standards were not the same as the strictly managed Odeon.
A guy called Dean Wren managed the ABC during the 80's and one of his projectionists liked to strip-down the then new 'Dolby' processor and exiter-lamp not long before 'curtains-up'. Dean used to get bad nerves and told us that he would go and shut himself away in the loo after seeing the projectionist (Martin) with all the projector parts straddled across the floor, struggling to put it all back in place ready for the show!
One night, a premier late-night screening of 'Rambo - first blood part 2' was to be presented at around 11:00pm. There was a new trainee projectionist working for the first time that night on his own. The auditorium was filled-up with a typically 'geezerish' audience. The automated system started with lights going down, curtains opening, curtains closing, lights going up. Again, the same - but no film. Eventually, the film started but with a frame bar across the middle of the screen! By this time, the audience had had enough and began to shout "WE WANT RAMBO - WE WANT RAMBO". Eventually, Martin was woken-up and brought in to rescue the show. I think it was about 45-minutes late, Dean was nowhere to be seen!
The projection box in the downstairs screen at the ABC was so low that you could put your hands in front of the port-hole and stick your fingers up on the screen; rude signs, etc... So many times, the ABC's projection work fell down with all sorts of little incidents; wrong lens in place, masking not set, (normally down to the previous projectionist on shift not advising that they had altered the settings on the 'automation' to the next shift).
There was a fantastic week of Essex cinema events in early December 1985, during British Film Year. On the Monday we had Pete Townshend appear at the ABC for a premier public screening of his film 'White City'. We had a private function in Chesters basement club in the High-Street with him whilst the cinema showed a Who film for the first half. Then over to the cinema where he got up on stage to introduce the film, then another private function down in the Marine bar.
On Wednesday, the magnificently all-original 1930's interiored State Cinema, Grays, re-opened it's doors, having found a new owner to re-open it after Mecca closed it in the February before. The film presented was 'Back To The Future' and TV crews were out in force covering the opening 'live' on the 6-o'clock news. 2,200 seats all taken and only £1.50 a seat! Manager, projectionist and head of staff all in Suits and bow-ties.
Friday, it was off to the Classic/Cannon in Westcliff for the first ever showing in England of 'The Glen Miller Story' (1954) with the soundtrack transferred from it's original American release in 4-track magnetic sound into Dolby Stereo. A private function was held in the former circle lounge (screen 2 upstairs lobby) with the local RAF taking collections and a late pal and former member of the BFY committee, Southend chapter, George Halle, an ex RAF man himself in attendance. On stage in screen 1 (which still had a stage in front of the screen) before the film, during our private function, was the Norman Langford band. Amongst the guests at the private function were Herb Miller, Glen's brother and Herb's son, who to this day I believe tours with the Glen Miller Band. What a cinetastic week that was! I still have the Essex Radio 'Words and Music' programme recording with all these events covered, including an interview with our BFY chairman, ex Deans school teacher (for those of you who went there; I read earlier in the thread), Roger Pearce.
Sincere thanks to Carl for some wonderful memories of Southend's cinemas, wonderful stuff!
Here's my previous post on the history of the Odeon cinema in Southend
Here's Stephen Pickard's first guest post, where he recalls his time working at the Odeon cinema in Southend