Cinema Life 1940’s & 50’s
My Cinema History as a Projectionist – Alfred Mahon.
“I had a lot of fun working at these cinemas. Upon reflection, even the bad ones were good.”
- Princes Granby Street. Probationer. March 1947.
- Rialto Upper Parliament Street. Probationer. On loan from Princes
- Royal Breck Road. 3rd projectionist. October 1947.
- Kings-Essoldo London Road. 3rd projectionist. October 1948.
- Ritz Utting Avenue. 3rd projectionist. January 1949.
- Cabbage Hall Priory Road. 3rd projectionist. On loan from Ritz.
- West Derby Picture House. 3rd projectionist. On loan from Ritz.
- Kensington Cinema. 2nd projectionist. November 1951.
- RMS Mauretania. Chief projectionist. April 1952.
- Embassy Borough Road Seacombe. Chief projectionist. June 1954.
- Atlas Rice Lane. Chief projectionist. June 1954.
- The Probationer Projectionist
Cinemas may be all show up front for the paying public, but in reality they were run on a shoestring, employing a minimum of staff. Cleaners, a Fireman/Doorman cum odd jobs man, Usherettes, Cashier, Manager, three Projectionists and maybe a probationer. Also there was the lighting, heating, rental of films and advertising. All this has to be paid before any profit came to the fore. In an ideal situation all seats would be occupied for all performances and the money would roll in. The reality however was that matinees would only have a handful of patrons, the first house of the evening could be three quarters or less full with the second house being full and that was probably because some of the people who had come in, in the first house had decided to stay for the second showing. Making it all pay was quite a juggling act and wages were not great. A projectionist’s day was about thirteen hours, five days a week (10am to 11pm) with time off in between shows and Sunday was about six hours as it was two evening shows. A chief’s projectionist’s pay was £6/10/- (£6.50) per week. The second’s pay was £5 and the third’s was £2/10/- (£2.50) to £3.00, these were above the agreed pay rate negotiated by the National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees (NATKE), Paddy McGrath was Liverpool branch secretary at the time, he had been the chief at the Carleton Tuebrook before working full time for the union. Most projectionists had a bicycle, tram and bus fares were cheap but a bike was cheaper. It was a lucky lad indeed who had his cinema on his doorstep. At the time, I lived in Garrick Street and the Cameo Cinema only a five minute walk away, but never did a vacancy come up. Most would have to cycle to the other side of the city to their cinema and that could take an hour, in all weathers. Add these two hours to the thirteen at the cinema and that was the projectionist’s day, getting home around mid-night, a snack and bed, up again the next morning, breakfast and away to the job. The only respite was his day off and half a day on Sunday.
Usherettes could work matinees only, evenings only or full time covering all shows, some would do cleaning in the morning and the matinees. Most Usherettes were married with children, and their ages varied from mid-twenties upwards. Sometimes an usherette could be younger, but young unattached girls doing this job were somewhat thin on the ground. Before leaving the cinema each night, the usherettes would go along the rows of seats looking for lost property and tipping up any seats that were left down, so that when the cleaners came in the following morning they had a clear run with their brushes and mops.
The projectionist would know all of these people as he was there from morning till night, taking his breaks during the day, the demands of the job meant he could not go too far away. Most would settle in the tea room close to the projection room and read a book over endless cups of tea. I would sometimes make an amplifier or a radio, and once an oscilloscope to pass the time, using circuit diagrams from Practical Wireless. Stan, the chief at the Ritz, would repair watches and clocks, while Trevor, the second projectionist and myself the third would have a projector each and read a book in the time between reels. Bells in the re-wind room and tea room would summon the projectionist to the projection room for changeovers, each projector having a bell push close to hand. Toilet facilities at the Ritz were rather primitive, for urination, a bucket outside on the roof and this had to be taken down a spiral staircase to empty in the men’s toilet each morning by yours truly. Some cinemas would expect the projectionists to buy and wear a brown warehouse coat, wear a collar and tie and also have his hair plastered down with Brylcreem. We were at the manager’s whim and some managers were right up themselves, going so far as wearing full evening dress, and I’m talking flea pits here not city centre cinemas.
Projectionists were clean and fastidious when it came to the projection room, the projectors were the jewel in the crown and always spotless, the ancillary equipment always wiped down and dusted, floors were brushed as a matter of course. Even the lowliest of flea pits had a projection room that was tidy and business like. Cleaning went on, on a daily basis and nobody was above picking up a brush or duster, from the chief down, everyone mucked in.
In the late 1940’s things were still scarce due to wartime rationing, cinemas never had their own news reel, it had to be shared between cinemas. Depending upon the proximity of the cinemas, a news reel would be shared between two. The Princes, Granby Street shared with the Rialto, Upper Parliament Street. After showing the news, the film would be un-spooled, placed in its can and transit case, (The film stock of the day was highly inflammable, it was not only dangerous to transport other than sealed inside its case, it was also highly illegal to do so and the penalties were severe) the probationer projectionist would then make his way to the Rialto sharpish and deliver the film to the rewind room where it would be spooled up and made ready for showing at the first opportunity. When shown, the Rialto’s probationer would return the news film to the Princes and the whole process would repeat all over again. The Ritz, Utting Avenue, shared the news reel with the Cabbage Hall Cinema, Lower Breck Road, and as we had no probationer, this job, along with the bucket fell to yours truly. By the mid 1950’s film stock had become more available, and this practice of sharing had died out and every cinema had its own copy of the news.
The Bible tells us: ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ Mat 22:14. KJV. And so it was with Probationer Projectionists, many boys leaving school at fourteen wanted to be a projectionist. That was the dream, but the reality was very different indeed. The turnover was high, most would be gone in less than a couple of weeks. The Princes, Granby Street where I started appeared to be some kind of a nursery for probationers. The manager of the Princes wore a suit and you called him ‘Sir’, the chief projectionist wore a brown warehouse coat and you called him ‘Chief’ the second wore a shirt, tie and sleeveless pullover and you called him ‘Mister’ and referred to him as The Second. There were two third projectionists who let you use their first names like Ron or Peter and they called you ‘You!’ as in YOU do this, YOU do that, YOU make the tea. Each day you were told or shown what to do by one of the third projectionists, the manager ignored you, as did the chief, although as time went by they did appear to notice that you were there.
I started with another lad and he disappeared within days. I think most lads expected to be watching movies all of the time instead of living in the re-wind room, getting black cuts on their fingers from holding the film’s edges and feeling for faults whilst re-winding the film. Splicing broken film together was part of the learning process as was making up film cement. Acetone, Glacial acetic acid and Amyl acetate were bought from the chemist and you mixed up your own. Buying a bottle of ready-made film cement was a luxury unheard of at the time. A film splicing jig was sometimes available, but many did not bother to use it, making splices by hand was usually quicker and a lot less hassle. Eventually you were allowed to be in the projection room and become part of the team.
My first job in the projection room was to play the records before the programme started and also in the intervals. The device you played the record on was not a record player, even if it looked like one. It was called The Non-Sync Standing for Non-synchronous turntable a throwback to the early days of talkies when the sound track was not on the film, but on a rather large record disc that was played as the film was shown. The sound had to be synchronised to the film, so the needle had to be placed on a certain spot on the record and the film had to be placed into the projector with a certain spot in the projector’s gate, that’s why you sometimes see on the screen ‘Start’ followed by a series of numbers. That is the film’s leader which is used to lace up the projector ready to show the film. So the turntable and the projector had to be mechanically synchronised. If the film broke, it had to be repaired by joining and inserting the exact number of frames of pictures taken out with the exact number of frames of blank film to keep everything running in the correct order. So the turntable on the projector was called ‘The Synchronised Turntable’ and the record player became the ‘Non-Sync’. I also got to use the faders controlling the curtain lights, a series of Red, Blue and Yellow light bulbs, controlled by a rheostat for each set of coloured lights. You could blend the colours to get other colours, like yellow and blue producing green. A larger rheostat controlled the cinema house lights, and you had to lower the lever slowly so the lights would gradually fade away. Just banging the lever down got you a good stiff talking to and that is a polite way of putting it.
Another joy for the probationer was Raddling the projection room, re-wind room and passage way floors. A couple of large tins of Cardinal Red were supplied and the probationer had to mop the floor and when dry, get on his hands and knees and start rubbing the red raddle into the floor with a rag until it shone. The floor that is, and not the rag. It left your hands in a wonderful roseate state. From time to time I would find myself being sent to the Rialto to work there for a day, while the Rialto’s probationer would take my place at the Princes, we were told it was to give us some experience of working in other projection rooms, but we spent most of the time in the rewind room. I was at the Princes for about seven months and one day I was asked if I knew where the Royal Cinema, Breck Road is. When I said “No” I was told that I had better find out, as I was starting there as their new third projectionist the following week. And that is when my learning process really started. It was also recommended that I purchase a copy of ‘The Complete Projectionist’ by R. Howard Cricks, a book that I still have in my library today.*
- The Third Projectionist
The Royal Cinema in Breck Road was a far cry from the Princes Granby Street. From what I can remember of it today, the stair case was impressive. Marble with a thick red carpet and polished brass rails leading up to a balcony, a waiting area with a chandelier and a smell of aerosol spray. An attendant would walk around the cinema with a metal hand spray, the liquid being put into a cylinder below the business end of the spray and he would point it upwards and give the spray a quick pump so that the fine mist produced would go up into the air. The chief projectionist’s name was Tyrone, but he preferred you called him Ty. Ty had a disability, a deformed hip and one leg shorter than the other, he walked with a pronounced rolling gait and wore a special boot that had a built up sole that was about three inches thick.
Ty welcomed me to the team and he told me I must have impressed the people at the Princes because it was not often that a probationer was promoted straight to a third projectionist, usually it was promotion to fourth projectionist with a 5/- (.25p) pay rise, but in my case it was a 10/- (.50p) pay rise making my pay £2/10/- (£2.50) per week. He introduced me to the other projectionists. There was John the second projectionist, who always wore a suit and never took his jacket off, and third projectionist Eddie Sobanja. Eddie was of Spanish descent and he would eat a Spanish onion like most people eat an apple. Ty was a serious no-nonsense type, while John the second was slightly aloof. Eddie the senior third was always singing. Eddie’s pay was £3/-/- per week and Eddie had the job of teaching yours truly the wonders of the projection room under the guidance of Ty or John.
The Royal had Holophane lighting and it was impressive. Everything worked at the push of a button. Unlike the row of coloured bulbs below the screen as in some cinemas, here was a row of light boxes containing plain ordinary light bulbs and the top of each box had a hinged lid with a large opening to take a square of red, blue or yellow gel which was like tough plastic about eight inches square and was slid into place along slots on either side and bottom of the inside of the lid. You could set the Holophane to cycle through a combination of colours mixing and blending automatically or set it to show only one colour at a time. The Holophane also controlled the house lights and would dim them slowly and evenly, unlike the rheostat controlled by hand.
I had been shown how to remove and clean the arc lamp mirror at the Princes but I was not trusted to do it on my own. Eddie went through the process using one arc lamp while I followed suit using the other. The mirror was concave it has to be removed from the arc lamp for cleaning, by using a copper coin to remove as much of the copper splatter from the copper coated carbon rods used in the arc lamp. There was a smell peculiar to projection rooms and this was from the burning of the carbon rods and a lot of white soot was produced with the smoke from the lamp, this was supposed to be drawn away by the flu above each lamp, but in reality some would escape and waft around the projection room depending on how good the flu was at drawing the smoke away.
At first I was only allowed to do changeovers at the princes on the Saturday morning children’s matinee, for the first few days before I had to call out “MARK!” when looking for the changeover cue marks on screen and then eventually do it for real. Now at the Royal I was expected to take over a machine and be perfect. Eddie keeping an eye on my work. By the end of the first week everyone appeared happy with my efforts and I was no longer under scrutiny and things become more relaxed. Ty continued to get Eddie to do the teaching while he watched and corrected Eddie if he thought Eddie had made an error. I still had all the rubbish cleaning jobs heaped upon me, but there were times when I would be given something different, like replacing blown light bulbs and cleaning the chandelier after John had lowered it down for me.
I cannot remember the curtains at the Royal so I will just cover curtains in a general way. The curtains before the screen could be a work of art, some cinemas had the curtains falling in multiple loops, others had just a plain drop or in some cases the curtain would be embellished with a silky reflective fabric stitched across the Lower part of the curtain in a couple or more lines. And sometimes a fancy pattern in the centre of the curtains, I remember seeing a pair of curtains with an ‘S’ on the left curtain and an ‘M’ on the right, so I guess it would have been a Southern Morris cinema. Up close the curtains were made of a coarse material like sackcloth. The screen behind was made of a tough material stretched by ties and had millions of tiny holes in it to let the sound through and looking something like an Aertex tile. Behind the screen were a bank of speaker horns and everywhere was dust covered, a case of out of sight, out of mind.
One of my secret joys was exploring cinemas in my spare time, the best time for this was after the matinee when most, if not all the staff would go home for tea. Surprisingly the cinema could be empty with no body there, yet the place would be left with the doors open. I never got to explore all the cinemas that I worked at, but I found that I had free run and lots of opportunity at the Royal, the Ritz, the Kensington and the Embassy cinemas. I found it fascinating exploring the buildings from the cellars to the roof spaces. One thing I found in common with these cinemas was in the roof space. Each area was layered with a deposit of golden brown dust about a quarter of an inch deep. It was the accumulation of about thirty or so years of dust heavily tainted with tobacco smoke. There was no rules against smoking in those days and patrons could light up a fag whenever the desire to smoke came upon them, they even had ashtrays fixed to the back of the seats. By the end of the evening, the air within the auditorium was so thick with tobacco smoke you could have cut it with a knife.
I had been at the Royal for about three months and I was now a trusted member of the team. I got to notice that on Friday evenings Ty, John and Eddie would all disappear at the same time around nine-thirtyish for about ten minutes leaving me alone in the projection room. Being curious I looked out and saw that the passage light was off and the door onto the small flat roof at the front of the cinema was open. Creeping along the passageway I saw Ty, John and Eddie looking out over the front of the cinema and across the road was a lighted window in a flat above a shop, and in this flat was a naked young woman having a wash down. It must have been a regular Friday performance and the lady in question must have thought that she was out of sight being above a shop as there were no curtains over the windows. Although she could see the cinema front all lit up she had not considered that the roof overlooked her flat and that it was in darkness. Creeping back into the projection room I switched on all the roof lights and Ty, John and Eddie were on public display. They came back in and were not too happy with me. I noticed some days later the windows of the flat were now covered with newspaper.
Come the following Monday, Ty got Eddie to give me several tins of Cardinal Red polish and some rags as pay-back for Friday’s prank. I wasn’t worried as I knew sooner or later the floor would need a polish and I would be elected to do it. It’s a wise laddie who knows that the floor has been coated over the years with polish and the greater area of the floor does not need more polish to be applied as the polish already there has hardened and only those parts of the floor where people walk from the fire door to the projectors, non-sync, rewind room, rewind bench and film storage cabinet are showing signs of scuffing. Go over the floor with a well squeezed mop to remove any dirt and concentrate rubbing the polish into the scuffed areas and finally tie some rags around the head of a brush and give the new fresh polish a buffing. Finally giving the whole floor area a quick shine to finish things off. It was usual to allow three mornings to do this, one morning in each area, Projection room, Rewind room and Passageway. It could have been done in less time, but why bust a gut for little reward? I thought my time at the Royal would go on forever, but after a year almost to the day I was told by Ty that I was to be transferred to the Kings in London Road.
The Kings in London Road was a city centre cinema and similar in style to the Royal with thick carpets, a chandelier and smelling even more of aerosol spray. I hated it. The building had a sombre air to it, the foyer was always dark, even when all the lights were on. It felt like something evil had happened there sometime in the past. I had to buy a brown warehouse coat to wear, suffer a shirt and tie, combed hair and all that jazz. Everything was “Yes Sir! Yes Sir! Three bags full Sir!” The manager was Mr Tandy. Mr Tandy was ramrod straight, ex-military with a sergeant major moustache, you could almost hear the band of the Coldstreem Guards playing ‘The British Grenadiers’ as he walked passed in full evening dress. However, there was one thing about Mr Tandy that really did impress me, each morning when he came in, he would say “Good Morning” to each and every one he met individually and by name. The Projection room was a cut above those that I had already been in, and about equal to the projection room of the Rialto, which was another cinema where I never really felt at ease. Perhaps it is because I am a bit of a maverick and I just did not fit in. I never really got to know any of the projectionists at the Kings and I intended to cut loose at the earliest opportunity. My opportunity came a few months later when a vacancy for a second and also a third projectionist at the Ritz Cinema, Utting Avenue appeared in the situations vacant in the Liverpool Echo.
- The Second Projectionist
Although I have titled this chapter ‘The Second Projectionist’ I would be a third Projectionist for more than another two and a half years before I achieved this status.
To labour that we love go we singing gaily.
In the book ‘The Complete Projectionist’ third edition 1945, it states: Gradually but certainly the projectionist is receiving recognition as the key man of the Kinema. (sic) Upon his shoulders rests the ultimate responsibility for the perfection of entertainment offered to its patrons; his is the responsibility for the satisfactory running and maintenance of the whole of the mechanical and electrical equipment, which in a modern Kinema may amount in value to thousands of pounds. And on it goes about the projectionist being a showman and how the work of the producers, directors, actors and camera men involved in the making of a movie will come to nothing if the projectionist is not there to show the movie to the very best of his ability. Then it says if you are a chief projectionist in a top London cinema (at the time) you can earn £7/-/- per week. Whoopee-Do! A whole £7. That’s ten-bob (.50p) more than if you are doing the same job in the sticks. So why do all the rewards go to the preening and posing Glitterati on the red carpet? This is a question I have asked myself many times. Why did I do this job and put up with the conditions? The only answer is, it had to be for the love of the job. However I am digressing. Back to the story…
It was January of 1949 and I was almost sixteen, I contacted the manager of the Ritz cinema and arranged for an interview, he told me to pop in during the afternoon matinee on my day off. It was understood that I was there for the position of third projectionist as my age did not qualify me to apply for the second’s job. I arrived on the appointed time and was shown to the manager’s office where I met the manager, Mr Ted Roskill. Mr Roskill is about fifty and looks quite natty in a light grey pinstripe suit with a grey tie and horn rim glasses. He asked me some questions about my background and what cinemas I had worked at, and he seemed impressed that I had been with Southern Morris cinemas and only moved on by being transferred. I told him I was not happy at the Kings because although I had been transferred there and given more responsibility, I had extra outlay because of this and there had been no offer of a pay rise, in other words I was worse off.
Mr Roskill said I was to come with him to meet the Chief, Mr Riley, up in the projection room. We went through a generator room and up a spiral staircase that had three full turns before we arrived at the projection room area. Passing through the fire door we enter the projection room and Mr Roskill introduces me to the chief. Mr Roskill leaves and I am left with the chief who introduces me to the other projectionist. “This chap is the second from the West Derby cinema and this chap is the third from the Cabbage Hall cinema. They are helping us out at the moment until we get our own staff.”
The two projectionists leave the box and the chief and I are alone, the chief tells me his name is Stan and he asks me some questions about what I had been doing and about the equipment in the cinemas I had been working in. We had been talking for some time with Stan keeping an eye on the projector that is running, as a matter of habit I too am watching the machine and keeping track of the film still in the top spool box, it was getting down and I estimate that it had about six minutes left to run when Stan said “I need to go out for the second projectionist, will you keep an eye on things for me?” I said “Yes” and he replied “I won’t be more than a few moments” and off he goes out of the projection room and I am left standing there on my own. Looking at the reel I think he is cutting it fine as there is only about four minutes left before the reel runs out. I go and spark up the arc lamp and check out the projector to see that it is laced up correctly. Watching for the cue, I start up and when the projector is up to speed I watch for the next cue and change over. Stan is now back in the box and he says “Well done, the chap who was here yesterday let the reel run out.” And that is when I realise I had been set up. Stan tells me to go back to the manager’s office and tell him the job is mine. When I get there Mr Roskill says “I know you have the job because you would not have been sent back to me, and he arranges for me to start the following week on £2/15/- (£2.75). Mr Roskill says to me “In here I am Ted, out there where the public are I am Mr Roskill, do you understand?” I said “Yes” and I thought to myself “I’m going to like working here.” I later found out that there is a large viewing portal in the tea room behind a steel shutter. It is there because the tea room once housed a theatre spot light, and it was from here that Stan had watched my performance when he had left me alone in the projection room.
On the Monday I started at the Ritz I met another chap waiting outside the manager’s office, he was tall, fair hair, blue eyes and Nordic looks. He told me he was the new second and he had just finished his National Service, his name was Trevor and he was twenty years old. Trevor and I become good friends and we got along famously. Ted welcomed us and then sent us up to the box to be with Stan who turned to me and said “You make the tea” I thought here we go, nothing changes. Stan and Trevor got the film stock ready for showing while I done some sweeping up, the floors were not red raddled, but just plain concrete with a white band about eight inches wide painted around the edge of the floor along the walls. I also got to empty the bucket on the roof that we used to pee in, it had to be taken down the spiral staircase and emptied in the men’s toilet and washed out before returning to the roof. We shared the news reel with the Cabbage Hall which was about a mile away and yes, you guessed it, I had to take it.
Stan was 27 and had a hobby repairing watches, he was also a whiz at electronics, I never got to find out what he did in the war but I can hazard a guess. Over the years Stan taught Trevor and myself electronics and he had us building radios and other items including mono combo amplifiers and an oscilloscope. The Dansette record player had yet to appear on the market, but electric record players were available with a hard wired cable coming out and fitted with two banana plugs to plug into a radio. We wanted something more portable, so we built amplifiers using an elliptical speaker for compactness that could be run on batteries or mains. The batteries tended to be quite large because these amps used thermionic valves. Transistors were only just being developed at this period and they were still some time off in the future. Building these items gave us a lot of pleasure. I remember Stan with fond memories, he got me started in something that led to my gaining a certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics in the 1960’s and computers in 1980. At the time (1947-49) the country was awash with army surplus equipment going very cheap and we made regular trips to the army surplus stores to buy electronic goodies.
The tone arm on the modern record player is nothing like the tone arm of the early record player, like the non-sync. The head housed a bar magnet bent into a ‘U’ shape with coils of wire at each end, The Songster needle (which had to be changed after playing one record) was connected to an iron bar called a moving iron which caused an electrical signal to flow in the coils, this signal was then amplified. The head of the tonearm was very heavy because of this, so it had to be counterbalanced with a lump of lead at the rear of the tonearm to take most of the weight off the needle point or it would have destroyed the grooves on the record. There were even moving iron speakers, headphones and a test meter called Pifco on sale, but the moving iron equipment had, had its day, the frequency range from this stuff was limited and moving coil equipment was taking over. Moving coil Avometers were gaining popularity over the moving iron Pifco.
On one of my trips exploring the Ritz I found myself in the orchestra pit and under some old tarpaulin I found an old Harmonium on which I spent a few days cleaning it up and getting it working. Pumping it up by treadle was hard work but when I finished and pulled out some stops it made a mighty roar when the keys were pressed. The pity was I did not know how to play the thing.
During the summer months it could get very hot in the projection room, Trevor and I set to and we cleaned off the flat roof, removing the detritus by lowering it in a bucket on a rope down behind the cinema. With the roof clean we set up chairs and a table, laid down towels, put on swim trunks and sunbathed. When we had to come in for a changeover we would put on our brown warehouse coat over our trunks just in case anyone looking through the ports into the box from the auditorium would not get the wrong idea and think we had gone native.
The fireproof doors were heavy metal clad things and every projection room had one as did the rewind room. They were hung upon a slanting track on rollers and were counter balanced with a steel cable attached to the back of the door and running over a pulley wheel to where a weight was hanging. The weight was a couple of pounds lighter than the door so it did not take any great effort to open the door with one hand and upon letting it go gravity would return the door to its closed position. It worked exactly like a window sash only on a bigger scale.
After I had been at the Ritz for one year Ted called me into his office, he said Stan had spoken to him about me and he had agreed with what Stan had to say. Stan had said he thought I was worth more than the £2/15/- I was being paid, so Ted gave me a pay rise of an extra 5/- (.25p) bringing my wages up to £3/-/-. At long last I was a £3 third projectionist, but I still had to empty the bucket and make the tea.
Saturday cinema clubs have been going for ever, every cinema had one. Come Saturday morning the kids would flock to the cinema for their very own film show and it was pointless playing music, such was the din created by the kids. To keep their interest the manager would have a lucky dip draw, calling out ticket numbers and the six lucky winners would get a free tub of ice cream and a couple of free tickets for the next weeks show. The Ritz had a lantern in the projection room that could show slides or be used as a spot light, this was brought into action on Saturdays to give prominence to Ted while he called out the ticket numbers or highlight the usherette selling ice-cream or drinks during the interval. We also used it to show a slide informing the patrons that the records played in the cinema could be purchased from the music shop on Broadway just down the road. They would loan us the latest records each week, and we in turn supplied them with free publicity and a couple of complementary tickets.
The Saturday morning children’s show was a good opportunity to use up the stubby bits of carbon rods in the arc lamps, and we did not really bother watching the films being shown. I remember that there was one serial that Stan had gotten interested in. I think it was a Buster Crab vs Emperor Ming story and there was a hidden message involved. Stan had got hooked and he followed the story each Saturday until the last episode. It was Just his luck that Ted wanted Stan in his office at the time the final episode was being shown. When he came back Stan asked me if I had seen the episode and I answered “Yes” he then asked me what the message said and I answered “You get no bread with one meat ball” referring to an Andrews sisters song. Stan went off in a huff and he later showed the episode to himself before packing it away in its transit case.
From time to time I would go to either the Cabbage Hall or the West Derby cinema on loan to help out when someone was on holiday or sick. The Cabbage Hall’s chief had his son working there as the third projectionist but the lad was not really interested and he only done the job to please his father.
The West Derby cinema had something I had not seen before, a variable speed control that would allow the projectionist to slow down or speed up the projectors. It was not really of much use as speeding things up would make peoples voices sound like the Chipmunks and when slowed down sound like a funeral dirge.
It was 1951, and coming up to my being almost three years at the Ritz. I was getting older, eighteen pushing nineteen and I needed extra cash. I talked it over with Ted and he advised me to move on and to look out for a second projectionists vacancy as staying at the Ritz could only lead to stagnation. Getting promotion always involved a move to another cinema, which was the main reason for cinemas having a high turnover of projection room staff. Ted said I should start looking in the Liverpool Echo for a second’s job and he would also put out feelers for me.
True to his word, Ted called me into his office a week later and he told me that he had spoken to the manager of the Kensington cinema, they were soon to need a second projectionist as the current one was leaving and the vacancy had not yet been advertised. So if I wanted the job it was mine and Ted would start to advertise for a new third to take my place. I agreed and Ted said to go along and see them, which I did, and it was agreed that as soon as Ted had his new third I was free to go.
The Kensington cinema was a teeny bit more formal than the Ritz, I was back to wearing my brown warehouse coat. But shirt, tie and combed hair was not obligatory which suited me fine. Another plus point was that the Kensington was only half the distance away from my home. I lived in Garrick Street at the time and the shortest route to the Kensington was exactly the way I had to go to the Ritz, and I had passed the Kensington every day for the past three years. Whereas the Ritz took me approximately forty-five to fifty-five minutes on my bike each day, the Kensington was only a twenty-five minute ride there and a fifteen minute ride on the way back, because the going there is all uphill.
As a second projectionist my pay was £5/-/- per week, so Ted was right, it was win-win all round. The projection room staff consisted of Tommy and Mary. I thought Tommy and Mary were husband and wife at first, but they were brother and sister and they were very old, neither had married and they lived together. They also had shares in the ownership of the Kensington. Working with them was strange to say the least and a little disconcerting at first, knowing you are working alongside the cinemas owners. However they were a really nice couple and it wasn’t long before I settled in.
During this time I wrote to Cunard telling them about myself and the fact that my father was a deck pantry steward on the Mauretania, I asked them if there were any vacancies for a projectionist and they wrote me a nice letter back saying that they would keep me in mind if a vacancy came up.
In my exploration of the Kensington cinema I discovered in the cellar a gold mine of early motion picture projectors, cameras and many cans of silent films. I asked Tommy about them and he told me that he collected them. I asked him why did he not donate the collection to a museum and he told me that he was thinking about it. Whether he did or not I never found out.
On his next leave, my father told me that the chief electrician on the Mauretania had looked him up and said that he had, had a letter from head office asking if he would be interested in a young projectionist who had written to them looking for a vacancy. He and my father had a talk and he told my father that as soon as a vacancy came up he would let him know first. I never let myself believe that I would get the job and pushed the thought to the back of my mind and life carried on as usual at the Kensington. Imagine my surprise when several months later coming home from work just after 11pm to find my father, who should be in Southampton, waiting for me in the hall with a packed suitcase telling me I have to be on the overnight Southampton train leaving Lime street in an hours’ time. He gave me £40 in five pound notes and by then a taxi had showed up, I was bundled in and on my way to a new life.*
- The Real Poseidon Adventure
Anyone who has seen the 1972 movie ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ may probably think that a ship as large as the Mauretania could not possibly be overpowered by a big wave. Well let me tell you otherwise. It was the 18th November 1952 and we were in mid-Atlantic heading for New York, when the news came from the bridge that we were in the path of a fierce storm and such was its size, the captain could not find any way to skirt around it, so we were forewarned to prepare for the worst. The ship was sealed and battened down, everything that could be, was screwed down and loose objects tied into place or put into lockers. Life aboard went on as usual with meals being served, movies shown, people continued to visit the lounges and order drinks, play cards, chess or whatever took their fancy. The motion of the ship started to become more noticeable as the day wore on and some of the passengers started to feel queasy and took to their bunks having declined their meals.
I too found that my stomach was feeling unsettled as the ship was buffeted and thrown about by the wind and waves, being in a darkened projection room did not help matters either. While standing by the projector I had to hold onto anything handy that was fastened to the bulkhead and brace my legs to keep my balance. We got through the show in the first class cinema without mishap and stowing everything away, we made for our cabin. It was about 10.30pm ships time and I never bothered to have supper. Getting ready for bed, I decided to fit my bunk board. This board slots into place to prevent the occupant rolling out onto the deck which is about six feet below the bunk, my bunk being the top bunk of the two. Ken being older has the bottom bunk, me being nineteen, I used to rib Ken about him being old and decrepit. Ken finds it a good opportunity to get back at me with some banter about me not being seaman enough to sleep in my bunk without putting up the board. “When I was in the Royal Navy during the war we were real seamen blah, blah, blah…” Giving Ken the finger I get into my pit and try to read, but I did not get very far so I put the book away and switched off my bunk light.
How long I dozed for I have no idea and I am brought back to awareness when the ship appears to go into a dive and I feel that my bunk is tipping over into an upright position and my feet are now pressing on the side of the locker at the bottom of my bunk and stopping me from sliding down the bunk, there is a juddering and falling feeling which is brought up sharply with a bang and the ship heels over to the port side and I am laying on the bunk board and not my bunk. Ken meanwhile falls from his bunk, across the cabin and hits the opposite bulkhead, Will Penny the Engineers writer who has his cabin opposite also falls from his bunk and hits the opposite bulkhead, Draws fitted under the bunks slide out from their positions and also fly across the cabin. I see this because our cabin doors have been deliberately locked back in an open position and I hear others in their cabins hitting the bulkheads. There is a lot of shouting going on and things can be heard crashing about. The ship was on her side and how long this lasted for I do not know, seconds, minutes, it felt like Eternity.
Eventually the ship started to rise into an upright position and I found myself rolling back into my bunk, Ken meanwhile had got himself up from the deck. I got down from my bunk and others started to come into the passageway from their cabins. After a quick check we find that there are no serious injuries amongst our group. Going into the mess room we find that draws of cutlery had come out spilling their contents and crockery had come adrift and smashed causing a mess, so we set to and sorted out the confusion of the mess room and then helped sort out the cabins that had suffered the worst of it. In some cases lockers had burst open spilling their contents all over the place. It was decided that we could not do anything more that night, so we went back to our bunks to try get some sleep, which I found not a little difficult but downright impossible as the adrenalin was in full flow. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning waiting for morning.
Breakfast was a non-event, we were lucky to get some coffee as the cooking areas were in a terrible mess and the cooks were doing everything they could to put things right. The weather had eased during the night and it was not as violent as the day before, conditions were getting better all the time. The ship had to run as normal in spite of the damage caused by the storm, there was a lot of damage to fixtures and fittings throughout the ship where things had come away in spite of being fixed down. Some of the passengers and crew had not come away unscathed and there were a lot of cases of broken bones, mainly arms and slings were in evidence to the violence of the conditions.
Surprisingly the cinemas were not affected apart from the Grand Hall which is not so much an auditorium and more a dining room. The projection rooms were in good shape apart from a few small loose items like scissors and film cement bottles being thrown about, so we were able to get things up and running and put on the first show of the day in the tourist class cinema at 10am as usual, for those who wanted to see a movie in spite of all the excitement going on all around them. The Mauretania had a shopping area with shops and services for the passengers, the souvenir shop had come off badly with all the display items thrown about, just like a child having a hissy fit and throwing the contents of its toy box every which way. We as crew were not encouraged to go into areas where we were not employed, but as the cinema projectionists we had practically the full run of the passenger areas on the ship, but in this instance our presence was decidedly not welcome so using discretion we kept a low profile.
When we got to New York some crew members bought newspapers and I remember seeing one paper with the headline MAURETANIA BATTERED across the front page. I think closing down the ship saved us all from a watery grave and my thanks go to Captain Donald W. Sorrell for his seamanship and foresight in doing so. As for the movie The Poseidon Adventure. I would say that the first part of the story is feasible, it is possible for a ship to turn turtle, but as for any survivors working their way out through an upside down hull? Only in a Hollywood movie.*
For further reading regarding this incident.
The Sea My Steed, by Captain Donald Sorrell. Robert Hale Ltd 1960.
RMS Mauretania, by Andrew Britton. The History Press 2013. ISBN: 978-0-7524-7950-7.
Syracuse, NY. Post Standard Friday 21st November 1952.
Bradford, PA. The Bradford Era Friday 21st November 1952.
- Childs Play
It was the summer of 1953, the Cunard Liner RMS Mauretania had been in Southampton for two days and during this time Ernie, Ken and myself had spent the time checking the cinemas and passenger areas for blown light bulbs. When in port the projectionists had nothing else to do so we spent our time Lamping, it was only at sea that we put on cinema shows for the passengers. Ernie in his fifties was the eldest projectionist, he had an aversion to lifts and would not enter any lift on the ship. He would rather go around the long way using corridors and stairs. He was seriously affected by the story of people being trapped in the lifts of the Lusitania when it sank in 1915 after being torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Ken a Royal Navy veteran was in his forties, and I was the youngest projectionist at twenty. Cunard showed no distinction between projectionists, we held the rating of Chief Petty Officer. Today was sailing day and we were making our way to the customs shed to collect the five new release feature films that we were to show that trip. The crossing to New York took five days from Cobh, hence five movies. There were no cinema shows on sailing day, people were busy settling in. Each projectionist was responsible for the condition of the projection room in his care, so we would be in our own respective projection rooms cleaning equipment and preparing the films.
Leaving Southampton, the Mauretania sailed to France to collect passengers at Le Havre and then on to Ireland to collect the final passengers at Cobh. We would arrive at Cobh early the following morning and passengers with their luggage, and also a delivery of Royal Mail bags would be brought out to the ship by tender as there is nowhere for the ship to dock. Other Royal Mail bags brought from Southampton would be sent ashore. That is why the Mauretania has RMS (Royal Mail Ship) in front of her name.
There were three cinemas on the Mauretania, one forward on the port side for the tourist class, one aft on the starboard side for the cabin class and one amidships in the Grand Hall for the first class passengers. The tourist class and cabin class cinemas were rear projection cinemas where the projection room was behind the screen and the projected image had to be reversed with a mirror before it was projected onto the screen which was made of glass. The ship had four projectionists, and we worked three trips on and one trip off. The fourth man on the team was Bob, and this trip it was his turn to be off.
The purser’s office would prepare a programme of events for the voyage, and printed in the ship’s newspaper ‘The Ocean Times’ and each day we would check our copy to see which film was to be shown in which cinema on that day. Film shows started at 10am and finish around 10pm. We would turn to at 8-30am and take that days movie to each cinema making sure it corresponded to the programme.
At 10am the tourist class cinema would start the first show of the day, two projectionists would be doing this show while the third man would be getting the cabin class cinema ready and as the tourist class show neared the end he would start the movie in the cabin class cinema, one of the other two projectionists would go to join him in the cabin class projection room while the remaining projectionist would finish off in the tourist class cinema and then he would make his way to the first class cinema and get that ready. The same procedure would follow and eventually we would arrive back at the tourist cinema and the whole process would be repeated with the last show of the day being in the first class cinema starting at around 8pm.
On the Atlantic crossings we would wear a white boiler suit, black shoes and peaked cap complete with a CPO’s badge. Projectionists were part of the engine department and we answered to the Chief electrician. When the Mauretania was cruising in the Caribbean we wore dress whites consisting of white trousers, belt, short sleeve shirt, white shoes and our cap had a white cover over the top.
During the day we would eat on the go, getting snacks as and when opportunity presented itself. It was not difficult, tea or coffee was always available in one of the deck pantries as was Chicken Bouillon, salt crackers and sandwiches. We ordered breakfast the night before from the first class menu, leaving a chitty on the table in the CPO’s mess for the Peggy to sort out after he woke you up with a cup of tea at 7am ship’s time. (Each day clocks had to advance or retard by one hour as we sailed east or west). Shaving and showering followed, before sitting down to breakfast. Dinner was formal for the Engineer Officers who had to attend in uniform. The CPO’s mess was separate to the Engineer Officers mess and we were allowed to sit at table in our boiler suit or dress whites. We all ordered from the first class menu. There were two items that we were not allowed to order from the menu, they were Caviar and Páté de foie gras. Only the Captain’s table and first class passengers could order these.
On this voyage I became aware of a small boy of about ten wandering around the cabin class area unaccompanied. It was unusual to see a child roaming a ship like the Mauretania on his own and I made inquiries and I learnt that he was traveling with his grandfather. Most of the passenger deck area is enclosed, but some parts had rails with gaps in between. It could be so easy for a small boy to fall through on to the deck below or into the sea. It was none of my business, but I felt uneasy about knowing this young boy was roaming alone in dangerous areas. Deciding to do something about it, I got talking to him. There were no other children on the ship for him to play with on this trip, and somehow I could not see him being the playing kind, such was his serious nature. I offered to show him the projection room, make him a probationer projectionist and teach him to show movies. I arranged for him to meet me each day and then seeing him safely back with his grandfather in the evening. His name was Michael S. Ewer and he had a retentive memory, he only had to be shown once. The voyage passed quickly and probationer projectionist Mike Ewer had a very good knowledge of motion picture projection by the time we got to New York. Waving Mike and his grandfather good-bye, I never expected to see or hear from him again.
Some weeks later the Mauretania arrives back in New York and I receive a letter from Mike’s father saying that he would like me to get in touch with him and gives me a telephone number. I phone the number and Mike’s father arranges a meeting place. A car pulls up at the appointed rendezvous. Approaching the car I am greeted by Mike and his father, mother and sister. After introductions I am taken to China Town for a meal at a Chinese restaurant. After the meal they take me to a fair in Little Italy where I win on a wheel of fortune. Mike’s parents then take me to their home in Queens and make me welcome. This led to other visits when I am in New York.
Mike’s parents told me I have caused a problem and ask me to have a word with Mike. They were preparing Mike to be a doctor. But since I had taught him about motion picture projection he wanted to be a movie man like me. They were concerned that Mike would not continue with his medical studies. So I had a quiet talk with him about the future of cinema, and I told him that the way things were going, cinemas could soon be history. I urged him to continue with his medical studies and to make motion picture projection a hobby, something to do for fun and not a livelihood which would only lead him into a dead end job. Mike saw the reason in my argument and he agreed to continue with his medical studies. I in turn promised to follow his progress through medical school.
Eventually Mike become a student at the University of Basel in Switzerland. When he got free time he would visit me in Wallasey. I lived with my wife’s parents at the time because getting a house was difficult. When Mike visited, we made up the sofa in the parlour for him. For a number of years we kept in touch by letter, but there came a day when all correspondence ceased and my letters went unanswered. Time passed and eventually I got a house and my thoughts of Mike faded as I came to terms with building a home for Jean and our children, Michael, Keith and Andrew.
In 2005 a lady called Hazel lee wrote to the Liverpool Daily Post asking, ‘Who can remember the old Lamplighter?’ This was easy to answer because I had married his daughter and I supplied the Daily Post with his photo and background history. Hazel Lee then wrote in the Daily Post that she had heard that the crew on cruise liners would dump crockery overboard instead of washing it and she asked if this was true. I wrote answering her question by saying it was indeed true as the sea bed at Curacao was littered with hundreds if not thousands of plates and crockery dumped overboard and bearing the crests of different cruise liners. I also mentioned that I was once a projectionist on the Mauretania.
In the summer of 2012 I received a letter from Houston, Texas. It was from Mike and he had come across a copy of the letter I had written to the Daily Post. He had contacted the newspaper and they had given him my address. He was coming over to the UK and we arranged to meet. The story was taken up by Peter Elson and appeared in the Liverpool Echo (8th Dec 2012). Mike is now Professor Michael S. Ewer MD. MPH. JD. At the Department of Cardiology, University of Texas. He is also an authority on Cancer treatments. Whenever possible we meet up for a meal and a chat, Mike has a busy schedule that takes him around the world and there is a great demand on his time. He can be lecturing at Oxford and a couple of days later be off to some other university anywhere in the world. In 2014 on his last visit, he was in Knutsford courtesy of AstraZeneca and we met for a meal before he got his flight home. Sometimes things work out better and we can get a couple of days together, but it is not always possible. And to think that there was once a time when he would bunk on our couch and I would tease him and call him a Skinny kid with big ears.*
- When Love Blossomed At Cinema
Sunday 13th June 1954, I had just finished a late breakfast and I was contemplating how I was going to spend the day when I received a telephone call. It was from a chap named Dickey McCoy and he was the manager of the Embassy Cinema, Wallasey. Someone had given him my phone number. It transpired that the entire projection room staff were down with food poisoning, he said something about one of them bringing in some meat pies the day before. So Dickey had nobody to do the Sunday show. He could borrow a couple of third projectionists from local cinemas but he had no chief and by law the senior projectionist had to be over twenty-one. I had become a chief projectionist at nineteen, but I could only work aboard a ship at sea. However I had turned twenty-one that year while aboard the Cunard liner RMS Mauretania. The Mauretania had arrived back in England on Friday 11th June and as it was my turn to take a trip off, I was at home with my parents’ in Liverpool.
Dickey asked if I would cover the Sunday show for him and I agreed. Helping out a cinema in trouble was the considered thing to do in those days, other cinemas would rally round with any help they could give. After all it might be their own cinema that is next to need some help. As time was ticking by, Dickey sent a taxi to collect me and I got there in plenty of time to sort out the reels, get familiar with the equipment and layout of the projection room. It was pretty standard stuff and things passed without incident.
The following day I went back to the Embassy, getting there about 10am and I collected the transit cases of film left in the foyer by FTS. There were no members of the projection room staff back at work, but Dickey had managed to get another chap to stand in. Ken was twenty years old, and an old friend from school days and second projectionist at the Tatler News Theatre in Liverpool. The Tatler had two seconds, some cinemas did this. After getting things ready for the matinee, I followed Dickey to the Rainbow Café next door.
Dickey told me he would be going back early because he had a new usherette starting and he had to sort out a uniform for her. He went on to say that she was twenty years old and wanted to work full time, he said he had asked her about boyfriends at her interview and she said she had no boyfriends and no intention of having any. He thought it odd that a young girl would want to do unsociable hours when most young girls would be out having fun with their boyfriends. I asked him if she were ugly, as that may be a reason to work in a dark place. He laughed and said “You can judge that for yourself when you see her.”
We leave the Rainbow café, Dickey going to his office while I made my way to the projection room. Upon arriving Ken tells me that there is a young woman sitting in the waiting room. The ugly one, now for some sport. I collect my camera and set the flash and make my way along the balcony to the stair well. Looking down I could see the top of her head, putting the camera over the stairwell and framing her I shout “Hey you!” She looks up and I get my picture. Going down the stairs to meet her face to face I am confronted with the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, I am totally smitten, an epiphany, I’m in love. We manage a few words where I learn that her name is Jean, then Dickey comes and takes her away. I return to the projection room and Ken and I check all is ready for the matinee.
After the matinee I quickly go down to the entrance to catch her leaving and going home for tea, I said I would walk with her because I had reason to go in the same direction. She only lives around the corner and we arrived at her home in no time at all. Returning later, I walk her back to the cinema and during this short period I found her to be intelligent and witty. After the show had finished about 10.30 that night I was again at the entrance when she came out, I walked a few yards with her and stopped. I wanted to talk to her but it all came out in a rush, I babbled and ended by asking her to marry me. I had not given any thought as to how she would react, possibly think me mad and run away. What she did was put her arms around my neck and hugged me, gave me a light kiss and linked her arm into mine and never uttered a word. But I knew that she had accepted my proposal. I found out later that when our eyes had first made contact she too had fallen in love. When Dickey took her away to the locker room she had asked him about me and he had told her that I was helping out and would not be there for more than a few days. This was on her mind the rest of the day as she did not want me to walk out of her life. It was not considered important that we knew nothing about each other, only the fact that we had met.
It was getting late and I had to get the 11.30 ferry in order to catch the last tram leaving the Pier Head at mid-night, otherwise it was a long walk home. I said she should tell her parents and I would call in to see them the next day. When I called the next day her mother and father were in a state of shock. Her father was sceptical about the whole thing and said so in no uncertain terms. Her mother was more pragmatic, pointing out that Jean had never shown any interest in men up to that point, and now here was one that she liked, and he wanted to marry her. We know what she is like where men are concerned and with her attitude she may never be asked again and she will soon be twenty-one and free to do as she pleased. So stopping her now, may cause feelings of resentment in the future. It was decided to wait three months and if we still feel the same then her father would sign the parental consent form. It’s a fair request, and I needed a little time to get up some money for an engagement ring. Returning to the Embassy I saw Dickey and I told him his new usherette had got engaged the night before, and he said he was going to have words with her as she had lied to him at the interview. I told him that she had not lied at the interview as that was the situation at the time. He asked me how I knew so much. I told him, but he thought I was having a joke. I said “It’s no Joke, I want you to be Best Man” He still thought me joking. But when he spoke to Jean later, she confirmed we were serious and nobody was joking.
Things settled down and the first week passed, the third and probationer were back on the Monday, Ken going back to the Tatler. Joe Rix the chief Projectionist was in his early sixties, he returned on the Thursday of the second week and I agreed to stay on till the Friday night, the second would be back on the Monday. Because my circumstances had changed, I did not want to re-join the Mauretania and be away from home, so I looked in the Liverpool Echo for a cinema projectionist’s vacancy. As fate would have it the Atlas was advertising for a chief projectionist. I phoned the Atlas manager for an interview, Dickey also phoned and gave me a good recommendation. It was agreed that I start on Monday, Dickey promised that whatever day my day off fell on, he would see that Jean had the same day off too.
I settled into the Atlas and two months later I bought an engagement ring for Jean and we had our photograph taken by the street photographer at New Brighton. One month later we were married in a simple ceremony at Wallasey Town Hall and Dickey was the Best Man. Working at the Atlas was OK for a while but money was becoming an issue, so I left and I took a job at a local flour mill as a brush pilot sweeping floors. The pay for five eight-hour shifts was £9/10/- (£9.50). If the mill run through the week-end (which was often) it was £16/1/6 (£16.07). A chief projectionist’s pay doing five week days and Sunday was £6/10/- (£6.50).
In 1957 Dickey left the Embassy and we lost contact. In 1958 the new manager got in touch with me when Joe Rix retired and offered me the chief’s job but the pay was still the same as it was in 1954. I said “No thanks” and stayed at the mill. In 1970 I was promoted to management and in 1980 I got a job at a new food factory in charge of a large warehouse. When I retired I offered my services to The Warship Preservation Trust working as an unpaid volunteer controlling leaflet distribution. Jean was always at my side travelling with me around the country. We done this for ten years and then Jean started showing signs of illness, so I gave it up to look after her. Our marriage was a total success and although we had our differences like all married couples, the disagreements were few and forgotten between the sheets. The Embassy Cinema became Embassy Bingo and today it stands derelict and forlorn. The second projectionist hit on Jean for a date after I left, she turned him down saying “I am in a commitment”, and so he would tease her, telling her that I was having it off with the usherettes at the Atlas. I never got to meet him, but I owe him a debt of gratitude because it was he who brought in the meat pies that were the catalyst that caused Jean and me to meet. We had fifty-six happy years together. Jean passed away in May 2010 aged seventy-six, and not a day goes by that I do not mourn her passing.
Whenever I had to be away from home, like going into hospital for a few nights, I was in the habit of leaving scribbled love notes under the pillow or hidden in a draw where I knew Jean would find them. She used to tell me to stop doing it as when she would find one it would make her cry. “One day I will do it to you, and I will make you cry” she would say to me. Christmas 2010, I had been without Jean for half a year and our sons Andrew and Michael decided to put up the Christmas decorations. They ask me to sort out some boxes of stuff. I was going through the boxes and I found three Christmas cards, one for Andy, one for Mike and one for me. I opened mine and read it. She was right I did cry, I fell to the floor and bawled my eyes out.
To a Special Husband with Christmas Wishes
I still get shivers down my spine
Each and every time we touch
For in my eyes you’re special
And I love you very much
You bring me so much happiness
Such comfort and such care
You make the world a better place
By simply being there
And every time I think of you
I feel that I’ve been blessed
For you’re a special Husband
And I know I found the best
Each Christmas wish I ever made
Eventually came true
The day that fate stepped in
And let me share my life with you.
- The Chief Projectionist
When I was on the Mauretania I did not feel like a chief projectionist, equal in rank to the others, Yes. But still junior in age. Because of this I consider the Embassy my first real position as a chief projectionist. Even if it was only for a fortnight. I got to do the paperwork for FTS when the film was prepared for collection and packed into its transit case. I also got to do the paperwork for the Performing Rights Society telling them what records we were playing that week and how many times we played them. I had done this stuff before at the Kensington but only as a second projectionist doing what he is told. But I did not have anybody to boss around, there was only Kenny and myself and if I gave Kenny orders I know he would tell me to “?!!? Off!”
The Embassy was an interesting building, it had started life as a theatre doing vaudeville and its name then was ‘The Irvine Theatre’. Song, dance and comedy acts were its mainstay and it also had a circus with real live Elephants on stage. I did not know anything about this at the time and it was only because of my penchant to explore that I came upon the small trapdoor where the orchestra pit used to be. This small door was where the orchestra would come into the orchestra pit. It did not take much effort to get the door open and I ducked down and went through into a wonderland. It was all there under the stage. A veritable forest of tree trunks which I later discovered were pit props, put there to support the stage to take the Elephants weight and they were still in situ. Everywhere there was dust and the dressing rooms looked like something out of Great Expectations and I would not have been surprised if Miss Haversham had not made a guest appearance.
I told Jean what I had discovered and she wanted to see under the stage for herself so I said “Don’t go home after the Matinee tomorrow but stay back”. The usherette’s uniform was a maroon skirt and a pageboy jacket with shiny brass buttons and a matching pillbox hat. The next day I was by the usherette’s dressing room waiting for Jean to come in for the matinee, and when she opened her locker, I said that I would wait outside while she changed into her uniform. “No need” said Jean “Stay, it won’t take me long to change.” ‘WOW special privilege!’ I thought. Jean took the uniform from the locker and it was all in one piece and she put it on over her dress like an overcoat and fastened it together with small metal hooks. Looking at me she grinned and said “Disappointed? Aw poor pig.”
After we had finished exploring under the stage I took Jean up to our tea room by the projection room and while Kenny made the tea, I went out and bought cream cakes and wet nellies (pudding cakes) from Sayers who had a branch opposite the Embassy. And we passed the afternoon talking happily until it was time for the evening show.
The Embassy has two square corner pieces about ten foot by ten foot on the front of the building and I had found the way to get up onto them. I climbed out onto the right hand one and I was admiring the view over to Liverpool when Dickey came out into the road below and told me to get down, I said “Make me” and gave him the finger, he went inside and came out again with Jean, She said “Down, Now!” and down I came without further argument.
The first week passed and the third projectionist, a lad called Ron and the probationer whose name I forget came back to work. Here at last was my chance to say “You make the tea” and I could not do it. I said “Will you make the tea please?” Kenny said good-bye and went back to the Tatler.
A few days later Joe Rix the chief projectionist returned and he told me the pies had been brought in by Peter, the second projectionist and they appeared to be OK. But refrigerators were not as common as they are today and stuff like this could not be kept for long. It had to be eaten pretty quickly or it would go off. I think the pies had been kept over long in a warm place. It was in 1987 that I experienced food poisoning after a meal in a roadside restaurant, it was vile and I will not go into details. It took me two weeks to recover and I never went into one of those places ever again.
I handed the reins over to Joe the chief and stayed till the Friday night having spent the afternoon in Walton seeing the manager of the Atlas cinema about the chief projectionist’s job. I was to start there on the coming Monday.
The Atlas looked better than it was from the outside. The manager was an old chap who was rotund in shape and his suit looked as if it had seen better days. He smoked a meerschaum pipe, not like the large things used by Tyrolean’s dressed in lederhosen but a smaller version. It left a stink everywhere he went and his drool would hang at the bottom of the pipe like a dewdrop. The projection room was tidy to a point but there were signs of neglect. There were two projectionists, a second called Tony and a third who had the nickname of Booboo. I checked out the equipment and found one of the arc lamps was misaligned and a good percentage of the light was being lost. I set about putting it right and got things as shipshape as I could in the little time I had. I told the manager I wanted a probationer as there was plenty of cleaning to do. He agreed and placed an advert in the paper that day.
The Atlas had a separate room for the non-sync and to get to it you had to leave the projection room through the door on to the rear of the balcony, walk the length of the balcony and into a similar door into a large room with a viewing port to look out of and the biggest non-sync I have ever seen. It was massive with dual turntables, a microphone, mixer and faders. Something like a DJ would use in the future at a disco. How a cinema like the Atlas had this equipment I don’t know, but it was certainly ahead of its time.
I got a probationer and I left him in Booboo’s care while Tony and I got on with the show, telling Booboo to concentrate on getting things in the rewind and projection rooms cleaned up. The Probationer’s name was Horace and he was living on another planet. The manager had picked him and I was not even consulted in his engagement, I only knew he was there when the manager brought him into the projection room and said “Here is your new probationer.” Oh boy! Was it like this for the others in charge when I was a probationer? Is that why they showed such contempt? It’s a good job my sense of humour is still intact but it is getting sorely stretched.
Time passed and I settled in and got things to my liking and I saved some cash for the engagement ring. At the top of Rice Lane there was a jewellers cum pawn shop and when I thought I had enough I gave them a visit, the biggest shock came when I saw the price of the rings. Eeeek! I’m going to be ninety before I put the ring on Jean’s finger at this rate. Luckily the young lady saw my predicament and asked me if I would consider a forfeit pledge ring as she had one in mind. I agreed to see it and she produced a very beautiful three stone ring that was brand new and explained that they could only sell it to reclaim what they were owed. I had got jean to try on some copper washers until I found the one that fitted her finger and getting the lady to put it on her gauge she said the ring was almost the same size, it being one size larger than the washer. She told me it is a good fault because as a person gets older the fingers may become thicker and the extra size would allow for this.
I almost had enough to buy it but was short by several pounds. Booboo, who had come with me, said he had admired my padded jacket which I had bought in New York and he would buy it off me for the amount of money needed to buy the ring. I took off my coat, handed it to Booboo and said “Done!” Coming from the shop in my shirt sleeves and the ring in a little box in my hand.
To cut to the chase, Jean and I were engaged and married within a few weeks and we settled down to married life living with her parents. Life went on at the Atlas for a few weeks more, but money really was a problem. My biggest cost was food and travel. I needed to use the ferry twice a day, and if I took my bike I had to pay two fares, for myself and the bike. Leaving the bike behind and getting the bus at the Pier Head to Walton worked out exactly the same. So I ditched the bike, and used the bus.
Jeans younger sister Lillian worked at Spillers Home Pride Mills packing bags of flour, and a ten minute walk from where we were living. She was getting exactly the same money as I was, yet she had lots of time off to do as she pleased.
Looking into it, I asked for an interview with Mr Gardner the mill manager. He was very surprised that someone with my qualifications wanted to sweep floors, but when I explained to him the circumstances and conditions I was subject to, he quickly became sympathetic and he offered me a job. I gave my notice to the manager at the Atlas and I walked away from motion picture projection and cinema life forever.
Earlier on I explained the pay differences, now I will explain the differences in the working conditions. At the Mills I worked 3 shifts of 8 hours 5 days per week, on the first week the shift times would be 6am-2pm, the second week 2pm-10pm and then the third week 10pm-6am. A total of 40 hours per week. It was hot in the mills and during the shift I would get two tea breaks of fifteen minutes each and one hour for dinner, so the actual working time is six and a half hours per shift. When working weekends, a Saturday shift was paid at one and a half times the pay rate and on a Sunday it was paid at twice the pay rate.
Suddenly I had more free time, money and a life, Jean continued as an usherette at the Embassy for a little while longer, but it was not long before the attention I was paying my lovely new wife paid out dividends in her becoming pregnant with our first born, Michael. As time went on, we added two more to our collection, Keith and Andrew. By 1964, ten years from the time we first met we were a family and I bought my first car, a second hand car to be sure, but it was only six months old. Had I remained a chief projectionist, I would have been hard pressed to buy a bicycle. Do I regret working in the cinema? An emphatic “NO” is the answer. I loved every minute of it, and if it were possible to go back in time and do it all again I would not change a thing.*
- Definitely Not Cider with Rosie
The 1951 Festival of Britain was a country wide celebration. The events and displays were mainly centred in London with other cities joining in with festivals and pageants. Liverpool put on festivals and river pageants during July and August. There were to be three river pageants. A parade of ships on the river finishing off with a firework display from two barges, one starting at Woodside and the other at New Brighton and then slowly coming together to meet at Egremont. The Wallasey Promenade would be the best place to see this.
I was eighteen at the time and third projectionist at the Ritz Cinema, Utting Avenue and the first river pageant fell on my day off. My friend Ken was the third projectionist at the Magnet Cinema, Picton Road and it was his day off too. So we made plans for getting the best view. It was decided to go to the old defunct Egremont Ferry building as it was not too high and access to the roof would be easy. Making our way there early in the day we looked the place over and then spent the rest of the day at New Brighton, making our way back to Egremont in the evening with some crisps and a couple of large bottles of cider.
Climbing up on to the roof of the ferry building we settled down to watch the show. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not many other people had not thought to make use of this vantage point, the promenade was lined with a great number people. As time went on I became aware that a group of girls had congregated just below where we were sitting and I tried to engage them in conversation and even offered to help them to get up on to the roof with us and share our cider. But everything I tried was put down by one of the girls who appeared to be their leader. She was quick to block my attempts to talk with the girls and very good at answering back. So much so, I called her an acid tongued harpy. Eventually the pageant ended and Ken and I got up to leave, I still had half a bottle of cider left so I removed the stopper and poured the contents of the bottle over the head of the acid tongued harpy who was standing below. I never planned it, I just done this shameful thing without even thinking. The girls started shouting and screaming at us and one said she was getting her brothers to sort us out, Ken and I decided it was time to beat a swift exit so we went over the roof top and dropped down the other side losing ourselves amongst the crowd. We made our way to Seacombe and got the ferry back to Liverpool. Over time the incident faded from my memory and it was completely forgotten.
It was an early Sunday morning on a lovely summer’s day in May 1958. My wife Jean and I had been married for three and a half years and our young son Michael was two years old. Jean said it was such a nice day she felt a walk along the promenade to New Brighton would not go amiss. I agreed and after breakfast we made our way to the promenade with Michael sitting in his pushchair. Passing the Town Hall we were approaching Egremont Ferry and as we drew close I remarked that I had come here to watch the river pageant in 1951. Jean said “What a coincidence, I came here to watch the river pageant with a group of my friends. It was spoilt by some moron up on the roof of the ferry pouring a bottle of beer over me. I had bought a new coat for the occasion and I had to have it cleaned because it stank of beer and it was never the same after that.” At this point I thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve married the acid tongued harpy’ Looking at her I said “It wasn’t beer, it was cider.” Jean stopped dead and gave me a penetrating stare and she said “THAT WAS YOU!” and she went on to say something about it being no show without Punch. By now I was laughing and Jean joined in and laughed too as the realisation sunk in that she had married the moron on the roof. After we stopped laughing, Jean said “You owe me a new coat and I intend to have it.” I said “OK, go and pick a new coat and I will pay for it.” Pick one she did, she spent several weeks looking for the right coat. She picked a Faux Silver Mink Coat and it took me two years to pay it off. She looked very good in it, and she turned a few heads. It did not bother me about the expense because it could have been worse, in fact I consider myself to have gotten off rather lightly. She could have picked a real Mink Coat.*
- The Running Man.
On the evening of the Cameo murders, Saturday the 19th March 1949 I was working at the Ritz cinema in Utting Avenue. I was the third projectionist and sixteen years old. The show finished around 10.40pm and I made my way home on my bicycle. I arrived home sometime between 11.30 and 11.45. I found my mother in an agitated state and she was going on about a running man. I eventually got her to calm down and tell me what it was that had upset her.
My father was away at sea on board the Cunard Liner RMS Mauretania, so my mother was alone in the house. My mother was a down to earth woman and she was not subject to flights of fancy, she was a hard woman coming from a Welsh mining town in the Rhondda Valley.
As was her usual practice each evening after nine o’clock, she would put out the milk bottles on the doorstep for the milk man’s morning delivery. We lived at number 14 Garrick Street which is a five minute walk to the Cameo Cinema. She would then wait outside in the hope that her nearest neighbours would come out with their milk bottles too. There is a lamppost between numbers 16 and 18, and the women would stand around it and have a natter. This time she was unlucky as nobody came out.
My mother having little to do that evening decided to stay by the front door in the hope that one of her neighbours would eventually come out. While she was standing there, a man suddenly came running from the exit of the rear entry-way opposite and she said that he had a look of sheer terror on his face as if he has seen something horrible. He stopped for a brief moment and looked across the road at my mother and then he turned to his right and run up Garrick Street to where Garrick Street joins Webster Road and crossing Webster Road continues towards the public house the Earle Hotel locally known as the Dead House because funerals would stop there for the mourners to have a drink.
My mother saw his face clearly because of the light from the lamppost nearby. She lost sight of him as he run away because of a bend in the end of the road and she cannot say which way he ran when he got to the cross roads of Webster Road and Earle Road, he could have run to the right towards Lawrence Road and the Police Station, or to the left going up Earle road where it eventually joins Smithdown road and the Boundary public house at the top of the hill. Or he could have run straight across the road into the continuation of Webster Road which leads to Spofforth Road.
As it was getting late I suggested that she forget about it and go to bed. I was ready to go to bed too, having had a busy day. The next morning being Sunday I had a lay-in and at 10am there was a knock at the door, it was one of our neighbours calling to tell us that there had been a double murder at the Cameo Cinema last night.
Now the running man started to make sense. My mother put on her coat and said she was going to the Lawrence Road Police Station and tell them about the running man. I said I would go with her, but she said there was no need and I should stay in and listen to the records I was playing. She came back about an hour later and started dinner. She told me she had spoken to the policeman behind the desk and he had taken down her details and told her someone would call around to see her.
The police failed to appear that day. Monday saw me back at work and it was not until I arrived home that night did I find out how my mother’s day went. She told me that the police had come to see her in the afternoon, there were two of them and they listened to what she had to say, then they talked for a bit and they asked her who lived in the house and she told them about my father being away at sea, and me who was at work at the Ritz Cinema.
They asked her if they could see my bedroom which at that time did not have very much there except for a radio, a record player and some amplifiers I had made, and a near empty wardrobe. After satisfying themselves, they left telling her that they would be in touch later. My mother and I were puzzled as to why they had shown an interest in my bed room as no explanation was given.
I think perhaps it was a fishing expedition as I had been down to the Cameo the week before to see if there was any possibility of a vacancy for a projectionist and I had been up to the manager’s office and I had spoken not to a manager, but two managers, which I thought unusual. One of the managers had written down my details and he said he would be in touch if something came up. Perhaps the police had found my name and address in the office and with my mother coming forward as a witness, had decided to check me out.
The outcome of the police visit was total silence. We never heard anything more from them about the incident. Life went on, and eventually a man named Kelly was arrested for the crime and become history. Kelly’s family insisted that Kelly was innocent of the murders and that he had been wrongly convicted and executed, and they fought on for years to clear his name.
Eventually many years later the police re-opened the case and they made a fresh investigation. By now my mother had passed away, but I thought the police should know about what my mother had seen on the night in question. I got in touch and I was visited by a retired police inspector who was working on the case. He too was baffled as to why any interest had been shown in my bedroom and he told me that he had searched through all the paperwork on the case and my mother’s statement was not to be found. He thanked me for my interest and for coming forward, and he went away and like on the first occasion, I never heard anything else from the police ever again. But it still does not satisfy me. I still wonder, who was the running man with the look of terror on his face, and why was he running?
Since writing this article I have been able to get hold of a copy of The Cameo Conspiracy by George Skelly. A fully revised edition published in 2001 by the Upstage Group, Liverpool. In it, I found that my mother’s statement is not the only one to be ignored by the police. On Page 46, Donny McQuade’s statement regarding a blond woman waiting outside of the Cameo was never followed up. And on page 171, the statements of Edna May Ashley an Usherette and Frederick Ashton were withheld from the defence council by the police.
Anyone not familiar with the area may wonder about the importance of a man running from an entry way. In the book it is stated below the photograph (Second page after page 32) showing the ‘Path of assailant’ into Garrick Street and going towards Smithdown Road. It says: ‘The killer’s escape route. (Kelly lived in the opposite direction).’
The back entry in question has two entrances, one is on the right of the Cameo when facing the front of the building, and the other is on the left in Bird Street at the back of the building next to the exit where the killer made his escape. The two entry ways converge and become one and then exit into Garrick Street opposite number 14. This entry way is in the opposite direction and is exactly the way Kelly would run.
My mother says the man ran in the direction of Earle Road and then she lost sight of him because of a bend in the road. From Earle Road it is only a few minutes’ walk up Webster Road to the Spofforth public house and Cambridge Street where Kelly lived at number 67. My mother saw the man’s face and very possibly she could identify him. This testimony should have been pure gold to DCI Balmer, so why did the police fail to follow it up, and why did it disappear from their files? Perhaps it was Kelly she saw, and then again, perhaps it was not. I doubt we will ever know now.
For further reading:
The Cameo Conspiracy by George Skelly. 1988, by Avid Publications.
Fully Revised and Updated Edition. 2001, by the Upstage Group, Liverpool.
The Cameo Murders by Barry Shortall. 1999, by the Bluecoat Press, Liverpool.
- The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on…
Although I have only wrote about the projection room people and managers of the cinemas I have worked at, I also made many friends amongst the rest of the cinema staff of the cinemas that I worked at. I knew many usherettes as friends but none with any romantic entanglements. Most were married with families and those that were single were either too old or were already in a relationship. Including all these people in my tale would have made it somewhat over long, it has already grown to be larger than I first intended.
My interest in cinema did not stop at the door of the cinema I was currently working in, I would visit other cinemas and chew the cud with the people I met there, Places like Ebley’s Olympic Cinema in Cumafan, South Wales, a small village cinema. I recently looked it up on Google Maps and I found the building is still there but it is now used for storage. Of the people I met on my visit there in 1951, I sometimes wonder whatever happened to them and if any are still around.
Most of my time in New York was spent in one or more of the cinemas on 42nd Street, the American projectionists would work alone in the projection room and were fascinated to hear that in the UK we had such a large staff of projectionists in each cinema. They were only too happy to have my company and would let me take over and do a show, while they could have a break and sit back. I particularly remember Maurice, a Jew who was lucky to get to America through the Kindertransport programme in the 1930’s, he lost most of his family to the Holocaust.
I also paid a visit to the Caribe Theatro in Colon, Panama and run the projectors there. They had a different way to do the changeovers, they had a foot switch on the floor that you operated with your toe, and I found it different and somewhat strange.
When I got married, I was eager to show off my new wife to all my cinematic friends and we visited all of the cinemas where I had worked. At the Kensington there was an usherette who particularly stood out from the crowd. After we left, Jean asked me about her. “Who is the blond?” She asked, I replied, “That’s Doreen” Jean gave me a quizzical look and I said “Come on, she is about five years older than me and married with a couple of kids.” “Married or not, she has the hots for you.” Said Jean. I replied “Oh damn, I didn’t know, a missed opportunity.” Jean looked at me and said in a mock sympathetic tone “Aw poor pig.”*