Monday, 23 August 2010

More Memories of Southend Cinema!

Over my (almost) three years of blogging, there is one post in particular that sparked a considerable amount of interest - my piece on the Odeon cinema in Southend. It still holds the record for the most amount of comments i've received for a post, and I've had dozens of e-mail's over the last 12 months from readers who have somehow stumbled on it. It's how occasional guest editor Stephen Pickard (who now regales us with memories from his life spent in the film industry) found my site, and it's also how cinema historian and Southend Odeon patron Carl Beckwith recently found me too. E-mails went back and forth, but Carl's knowledge and information was far too good to be wasted just on me. So he kindly offered to put some of his memories of the Odeon and the ABC down for me to publish here. He also had a number of fabulous interior shots of the Odeon, which he has kindly allowed me to include below. I don't believe these pictures have been published before. So, almost exactly a year after my original post, it's over to you Carl...

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)

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.

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.

(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.

Moving away from the professionally run Odeon, I will always remember the ABC after it's dreadful twinning in 1980-1. Before 1980, the 1962 ABC interior transformation from the 1920's Rivoli interior (which itself had private family boxes in the front of the balcony) had those impressive brass 'spider' lamps - one big one in the middle and four smaller ones; one in each corner of the high ceiling. Then there were the two diagonal clocks - one either side of the proscenium arch amongst the diagonally set tiles. It was a cheap conversion when twinned and the grandeur of the '62 interior was lost forever.

(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



John Devlin said...

I love your cinema posts Piley. Cinemas to me are a saviour of sanity - a place to escape from the everyday and there just aren't enough good ones around. Looking at the pics I can remember so much about the rituals surrounding seeing a film at the Southend Odeon. The queues up the stairs, bigger screen to your right, smaller one to the left, the concessions stands..etc My brother actually saw the Beatles there in the early 60s with Roy Orbison on the same bill apparently. Great stuff as ever Piley

Dan said...

What an amazing post. I don't mind admitting that I almost had a tear in my eye looking at those pictures of the old Odeon.

My thoughts on modern-day cinema multiplexes are very well known - I hate them. Looking at these pictures reminds me of why. In my head, I thought that I was probably overestimating the sheer magnitude of the Odeon; misremembering it as being bigger than it really was. But it was bloody massive! Look at it!

That architecture is gone forever, and so is the beauty and passion of cinema. Such a lovely post, but such a sad one too.

Huge thanks to you, Piley, and to Carl for sharing these magnificent memories.

phsend said...

Thanks guys, I love reading about the old cinemas, the Odeon Southend was a wonderful cinema wasn't it but my best memories are from The Classic in Westcliff.

Piley said...

John - marvelous, thanks! It was indeed a real 'event' to go to the cinema back then. And I don't think it was 'just because we were kids' either. I continued to go to the old odeon right up until it finally closed its doors, so I was a fully fledged adult by then - and STILL the magic was there, right to the end.

Dan - yes, this is kind of ironic given your last couple of posts of woe relating to the 'new' Odeon! Great days, that will alas never return. I can still remember the 'sound' of being in that auditorium, the slight dulled echo of the seats kicking back into place, it was beautiful, and it's scandalous that the place was allowed to simply be pulled down without a care.


Kolley Kibber said...

Another wonderful post. The Southend Odeon looked (perhaps unsurprisingly) similar to the late lamented Gants Hill Odeon, which started out as a Palace of Celluloid Dreams before enjoying a 70s incarnation as legendary gig venue, until multiplex blandness and rot set in in the 80s, finally giving way to redundancy, and the bulldozers, some years since.

The Ilford ABC, its poor cousin, tragically exists as a particularly violent nightclub, quite literally a devastated shell of its former self. A sad story probably repeated a thousand times across the country.

At least our lot got the very tail end of what had been a golden age.

Kolley Kibber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heff said...

My highest commented on post is "The Return Of Heff", followed CLOSELY by a post that displays Donna's damn near naked ass.

I have no idea why that one garnered so much chatter, lol.

Piley said...

ISBW - just places of wonder weren't they? I honestly don't think that kids today are viewing the plastic and cardboard multiplex cinemas in the same way. It's just like going to McDonalds but with a film on... That's a great point though, at least we were lucky enough to experience it first hand.

Heff - 'The Return of Heff' was indeed a momentous occasion ;-)


Furtheron said...

Great post... it reminds me that many of the cinemas near me in the Medway conurbation have disappeared in my lifetime... Odeon in Rochester, the ABC in Chatham, the last of the "old Style" it died when the multiplex opened up over the river near junc 2 of the M2. That is now flats and shops... the Regal I think it was that was opposite - burnt down allowing Gala to rebuild a 21st century bingo venue... the Plaza in Gillingham that was briefly a TV studio (I think Fraggle Rock was shot there) and then that was Laser Quest... now gone and an Lidl of the like in it's place...

John Medd said...

Going to the cinema was 'an event.' As you rightly say in your piece, you were greeted by staff in their best bib and tucker. Like a lot of modern life it's now been downgraded to the point where most folk can't be arsed and stay in watching DVD box-sets* (or will only go under sufferance with the kids to a Potter/Pixar/Disney newie).

* Don't get me wrong, a cursory inspection of DVDs at Medd Towers would find it to be Box-Set Central. It's in addition to the cinema, not instead of.

Dr Steve said...

What a fascinating piece of local movie nostalgia - fantastic! I only visited the old Odeon once, to see Terminator 2. I recall a tall chap dressed just like Arnie roaring up on a Harley and parking it right outside . . .but whether it was ...a publicity stunt or someone who just happened to be an Arnie-lookylikey I don't know. Made a lot of us, queuing up round the block (yes, those were the days) laugh, albeit quietly, as he did look like someone you would give your clothes, your boots, your motor-cycle and your shades to, if asked . . .! Anyway, another great trip down Odeon memory lane.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post but it was the pictures that took me back , what a blast from the past.


Piley said...

Cheers F-Ron, yeah we all have our own 'Odeon' from our childhood don't we? Alas they all seem to have been treated with the same disregard by our town planners and crooked councillors.

Thing is JM, you lob out all that money to go see a film, and come away all wound up because every other fucwit in the place wanted to talk, eat loudly, or check their mobile phone every 2 minutes (usually all three). What is it with people who can't 'switch off' for 2 hours? And why do you feel the need to eat your way through the film??! I'd now rather save that money and OWN the bloody thing when it comes out on DVD - usually cheaper than the entry fee... I can wait these days.

Dr Steve - Thanks for the comment. That was surely a promo put on by the Odeon eh?

Ta Carl - yeah amazing pictures. It really was that big!! It brings it all back doesn't it? Love the pic of the screen, the man standing in front of it looks like a bloody ant!!! I know people with TV's not much smaller than the screens they have in the Multiplex these days. Bah.


Mondo said...

Great piece P and cracking photo's. Odeon 2 looks more stately and impressive than I remember, although I never understood why the grandest of the two screens was labelled as 2 not 1.

I saw an incredible amount of cinematic classics and forgotten horrors there (Tentacles - killer octopus , Nightwing - killer bats) at the Odeon.
It made going to the pictures feel like an occasion, not the communal
watching-of-a-large-print dvd it's become.

The ABC was always Southend's shabby cinema. I saw Every Which Way But Loose there before the conversion, but almost got thrown out for spitting and throwing sweets from the upper circle into the stalls. Was only 13 though..

Carl Beckwith said...

The Odeon Southend, it must be said, did enjoy a full-on usage of considerable variety, from film in it's latter years to (pre 1970) stage shows, classical concerts, organ recitals, musicals on ice (yes, the stage was huge then) as well as major celebrity appearances and orchestra's of international repute.

By way of letting your readers know that not all is gone in the world of 'quality' cinema architecture, besides London's excellent Empire and Odeon theatre cinema's, Leicester Square (the Odeon had it's 1970's interior restored back to it's 1937 glory ten years ago with it's Compton organ retained - though rarely used now in the orchestra pit hidden under the apron cover of the main stage), there is a cinema that has had a major restoration and now operates as a quality restaurant in the stalls foyer, a bar in the entrance foyer and the circle foyer is the cinema's main foyer, leading to the circle, which has had new seats, spaced well apart for excellent leg-room, and in the stalls, accessed from the circle, tables with lamps and comfortable seating around them with a bar tucked under the circle (balcony) edge, serving everything a quality bar does. The cinema is the 'Rex' and it is in Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire.

The programmes are quality films, some sub-titled, (Cannes award winners standard), and it is always busy; no plebby teenagers, and you need to book on-line. You can book a table in the restaurant and I believe there are deals which combine the two businesses where you have dinner at the restaurant and they time it that you finish in time to go up into the theatre, which by the way is pure 30's, as original. It is frequented by many North London actors, being just off the M1 and past Hemel Hempsted. The most expensive seats are £10, with the circle coming in cheaper. Best view is from the front circle. Do go. It is well worth the visit.


Anonymous said...

I also went to the Southend Odeon as a child to see Jungle Book when visiting relatives in the area. It was magnificent and has stuck in my mind for 45+ years.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

NORTHAMPTONBOOKSHOP: Just found a 1967 flyer DR WHO WILLIAM HARTNELL in PUSS in BOOTS, MEET THE MONSTERS FROM OUTER SPACE SUPER WIN A DALEK COMPETITION. it is dated January 2nd Monday 1967, manager Arthur G Levenson , on rear in biro Arthur I would think has listed Theatre cinema staff and hours

Unknown said...

Interesting site. I was a trainee then assistant manager at the Abc back in the sixties.

Unknown said...

I was trainee then assistant manager of the abc back in the sixties. I wonder if any other staff will read this.

Alan said...

In the 1960s I became house engineer and stage manager after Len Marchmant Died suddenly. The Beatles, Rolling stones, and many more I meet them all, Mr Levenson was manager and all staff were brilliant, The cinema/theatre could not be beaten. Alan.