London England 1941 - my memories of the projection room during the war.

posted by bobnarduzzo4920 on May 2, 2007 at 12:50 pm


(A look back at the wartime cinema)




The following is dedicated to all the cinema projectionists, who during World War Two, helped to maintain morale of the British people, sometimes under difficult conditions.

Ageing equipment, together with lack of spare parts, shortage of staff, very strict working procedures and not to mention, enemy action, made life sometimes very difficult.

Without this relatively small band of back room boys, and considering the very limited alternative entertainments that were available at the time, no television, radio programmes off the air before and during air raids, Hollywood’s “Dream Factory” would not have been available to the great British public.

February1941, eighteen months into World War Two. The first period of hostilities which became known as the “phoney war” had progressed into the blitz, and people had settled down to the nightly ordeal of hiding under the stairs, jumping into the Anderson shelters in the garden, or diving down to the tube station, for a night’s sleep. Some however, many in fact, threw caution to the wind, and went to the pictures.

At the tender age of 15, but looking older, I was one of the very keen picturegoers, usually seeing the three general release programmes every week. I had started my first job at the beginning of January, painting angle iron and getting my backside kicked at a local factory, but my heart was elsewhere. The Odeon.

Sitting in the audience one day, a slide flashed on to the screen, advertising a vacancy for a trainee projectionist. I applied, was successful, and started my new career, polishing floors, making tea, and getting my backside kicked. Nothing’s new. Gone were my glamorous thoughts of being in the company of such famous people as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, or romancing with the lovely Betty Grable or Alice Faye. The tools of my new trade were not the motion picture camera, clapper board, sound recorder or even the projector, just a tin of Red Cardinal floor polish, appropriate floor cloths and dusters, electric kettle, and a tough constitution in the backside area.

Cinema projection suites were as clean as operating theatres, which at first was a surprise to my inexperienced eyes, but I soon learned that it was down to me to maintain standards.
The working hours in those days were very long, I am sure they would be totally unacceptable today. Starting at ten oclock in the morning and finishing at the end of the show, usually eleven oclock at night. One day off a week, and an “early” night, finishing at six oclock, if you were lucky, and, if you did not misbehave or turn in a bad performance, “cleaningwise”

The person responsible in the main for the day to day running of the projection room, was the “2nd”. As his title suggests, he was second in command to the “Chief”. (When first introduced to the “Chief” at my initial interview, I expected to see lots of bare flesh and feathers). The Chief of course was a very important member of the theatre staff, second only to the manager, (who was God), and was above dealing with such low life as me.

The type of person holding the position of 2nd projectionist, had total influence over the working lifestyle of his colleagues, needless to say, with my luck, this trainee Captain Bligh did a remarkable job in reminding me of the joys of painting angle iron. If during the course of the day I so much as dared to peep through the “porthole” at the screen, a loud voice would say, “haven’t you got any cleaning to do?” answering back would require the tough
Constitution in the backside area mentioned earlier. Nevertheless I persevered over the ensuing months, trying to avert my gaze from the screen, and to concentrate on a dust free environment, with mirror finish floors.

The total projection staff compliment for this theatre was five, I was the “Fifth”, and the day came when the “Fourth” upped and left. This event looked like opening the door of opportunity for me, and I was duly promoted to the dizzy heights of “Fourth” and my money was increased from 1 pound a week to 1.15 shillings. Captain Bligh said that if I did all my work (cleaning) satisfactorily, (he didn’t use that word, but I am sure that is what he meant) he said he would teach me how to rewind film. I HAD ARRIVED! During my early days I had been taught how to “carbon up”, that is, replenishing the arc lamps with carbon rods, an unpopular task, often burning fingers resulting in unpleasant smells of burning flesh, but the thought of actually handling the magic celluloid was indeed excitement beyond dreams. As time progressed, rewinding, lacing up projectors, changing over reels during performances, and generally presenting film programmes became second nature. Captain Bligh appeared pleased with my progress, although I suspect a trifle apprehensive, should his own position become threatened.

Life settled down to a regular routine of continuous performance over six days, with a change of programme on Sunday. The general release pattern for the London area consisted of three regions. 1 Northwest. 2 North East and 3 South of the Thames. There were three major circuits, Gaumont British, ABC and Odeon, the rest were independants, and small circuits i.e. Classic, Shipman and King etc.

In those dark days, there was no television; BBC Radio went off the air prior to, and during air raids, to avoid helping enemy aircraft. Consequently the cinema was the main source of
Entertainment and relaxation. If one compares the four terrestrial television channels of today with the three major circuits and independents of the time, the choice of programme material was in some ways similar. The main difference of course being those cinemas changed programmes once a week, and on Sundays and one had to make the effort to visit the theatre, rather than just switch on the box. Nevertheless, the demand for escapist entertainment was enormous, and most cinemas were packed to capacity every night. However seeing some of these films on television fifty years on makes one wonder how they were ever made in the first place. One of the most important items in the programme of those days was the newsreel. Some theatres used to screen it at the end of the programme, the last item before the National Anthem. Woe betide you if it started before its advertised time, complaints would come streaming back from head office.

One afternoon I remember the manager coming up to the projection room with a very excited lady, who had just seen her army husband on the screen in material shot in North Africa. We extracted a couple of frames from the shot for her, and she went away as happy as if we had given her a thousand pounds. We were sure that Gaumont British would not mind about that extra cut, which was in a very good cause.

Talking of newsreels, a government edict ruled that in order to economise on film print stock, two cinemas had to share one newsreel. This as can be imagined created all sorts of problems and situations. Various arrangements were made for transporting the reel. Some theatres engaged a special “newsboy”, and provided him with a trade bicycle to do the journey. It was against the law to travel on public transport with nitrate film. Other theatres arranged a system of, “if you want it come and get it”. Very often the last reel of the preceding film would be on the screen, when it would be discovered that nobody had left to collect the news from the other theatre. Too late to get there and return in time, so a begging phone call would be made to try and bribe someone from the other end to deliver. This was fine except when we were on the end of the begging call. In the main this arrangement worked, and we all helped each other.

I recall one very wet and windy wintry evening; it was our turn to get the reel to the other cinema, which was about a mile and a half away. Our young man decided that the bike was not the best mode of transport for this particular occasion. He decided to “secrete” the film under his coat, and catch the trolleybus. Five minutes elapsed, and our newsboy returned in a flood of tears, in his attempt to board the bus with the film unnoticed by the conductor, it had slipped from under his coat, the lid had flown off and the reel of film had unrolled down the rain-filled gutter of the Edgware Road. That really was “The Gaumont British News, Presenting the World to the World”. PANIC. As stated earlier, the newsreel was one of the most important parts of the programme, all hell would be let loose if it was not screened, and that nine hundred feet of wet soggy celluloid laying in the gutter outside was of no use.

After a phone call to our neighbouring independent cinema, the problem was completely solved, we borrowed their Movietone reel, and our partners borrowed the Pathe Gazette from their ABC friends a couple of miles up the road. It was quite amazing the amount of comradeship that existed between competitors in the cinema business, they always turned up trumps if you were in trouble. It’s strange to think that one of the most important items in wartime cinema programmes up and down the country, is, after fifty years, a “novelty” slot on various television channels.

As the days went by I became more accustomed to the daily routine of cleaning, making tea, running errands and when it suited Captain Bligh, carrying out various duties in the projection room which contributed to the screen performance. The second quarter of 1941 saw the resumption of enemy air raids on a fairly regular basis; in fact we held nightly lotteries as to what time the air raid “alert” would be sounded. The routine would be a call on the house phone from the manager or front of house staff, (the siren could not be heard in the projection room above the noise of the projectors) and a slide would be projected, superimposed on the running picture, informing the audience. In the early days of the war the show would stop and the manager would make an announcement from the stage inviting people to leave, or if they wished to stay, the show would resume. Sometimes they would be invited by the manager to move seats to the back stalls, under the circle for added protection should the worse happen, that was of course if there was room, resulting in a rush from the ninepennies in the front, to the Two and Threepennies in the back. This total disruption every time an air raid warning was sounded was soon to be abandoned. Audiences got used to the Luftwaffe`s frequent visits and were content to remain in their seats as the air raid “alert” and “all clear” messages were regularly screened. In spite of all these difficulties, most cinemas up and down the country enjoyed full houses, even to the extent of screening a slide at regular intervals asking “those patrons who have seen the programme to please vacate their seats in favour of those waiting outside”.

In those days glass slides were a very important item in the projection room. All advertising for local traders was by means of three and a quarter inch glass slides. Commercials on film were unheard of. Slides were also a very important part of organ interludes, but more of that later. In order that the local paying trader got his moneysworth, an egg timer with just fifteen seconds of sand was mounted on the wall in front of the slide projector, and every time a slide was changed, the egg timer was inverted and the message stayed on the screen for the required period. Some weeks, twenty to twenty five slides were screened three times a day, and if the show was running late the egg timer tended to be ignored. There was always the danger however of an inspector from the advertising agency being in the audience, in which case anything less than fifteen seconds a slide would cause great repercussions from the dreaded Head Office.

Amongst these advertising slides was one which was shown at every performance, week in week out, it was headed “Air Raid Precautions” and it boasted a long list of items designed to make the patron feel safe in his seat, whilst all hell was sometimes going on outside. It started by saying in bold letters “For your safety, this theatre is built with strong roof and walls” (the roof and one side wall was asbestos) “all glass fittings are encased in wire mesh” and so on. This particular theatre was of typical Odeon design, a 1000 seater built on the stadium principle, and the circle or balcony was a raised tier, continuing at a slightly higher level from the stalls.

Standing in the back stalls one evening with an air raid in progress, there was a most almighty crash, and through the “strong” roof, landing by my side, came the nose cone from an anti-aircraft shell. The show continued and the roof was repaired next day.

Air raids were an accepted part of every day life. When travelling on a bus or train, the previous night’s happenings were usually the topic of conversation amongst total strangers, especially if there was an incident nearby. Most people were anxious to exchange experiences, some out of shock, some through fear, and some through sheer thankfullness at having survived their ordeal.

All business premises were bound by law to provide some form of guard during air raids to deal promptly with any incendiary bombs, by using the standard issue stirrup pump, (the subject of many jokes and cartoons at the time) and to be on hand should more serious happenings occur. I was soon enrolled into the ranks of “Firewatcher”. This involved spending the night in the cinema, to make sure it was still there in the morning. For this task we were paid the princely sum of 4/6d (twenty-two and a halfpence). Usually three people would be on duty on any one night, projectionists, and front of house staff (doorman) sometimes even the manager. He of course, would confine himself to his private quarters backstage unless there was considerable aerial activity going on outside in which case he would join us upstairs in the area outside the projection room. More, I suspect, for company than for support. The area outside the projection room was a balcony at the top of the building, which faced South and afforded a good view towards Central London.

The normal routine on firewatching nights was to check all the seats in the auditorium after the show for lighted cigarettes and lost property, many a strange and unusual item came to light, including on one occasion a pair of dainty knickers, (obviously we were showing a very frightening movie that week), after the seat search all doors would be checked for security, a pot of tea brewed in the staff room with a relaxing sandwich and chat. Supper over, cushions were laid on the floor of the projection room and grabbing a few blankets one would get down to the serious business of what we called firewatching, better known as sleep. This system worked successfully provided Jerry kept away until after we had retired.

Many’s the time we learned of the night’s activities from other people the next morning. A couple of times the Circuit Area Engineer caught us asleep when paying one of his surprise visits. Another activity during firewatching concerned the Saturday morning children’s matinee. Every Saturday we screened a two-reel serial and each episode finished with the hero being in the most frightening and impossible situation. Now to digress for a moment, I have to mention a bunch of men who I admired very much; they were the film transport drivers. These chaps operated twice a week, throughout Saturday and Wednesday nights, driving around London collecting and delivering the film programmes to all the cinemas. They drove their vans in all kinds of weathers, remember in those days London suffered from very thick smogs, which on the plus side kept Jerry away. They also kept going through all the air attacks, which sometimes meant wide diversions because of the bombing. So on changeover nights we would always greet him with a cup of tea, and a doughnut which we would get from the bakehouse at the end of the car park, (some more of our nocturnal friends).

Now to get back to the children’s matinee, we would all, including the driver get so involved with the two reel serial, that in the early hours of each Thursday morning when he arrived with Saturdays episode, quickly prepare and screen it. He would then be on his way and we would retire to bed. This went on for some time until the neighbours living in the flats over the shops complained, and the old familiar rocket came from Head Office.

Another firewatching activity was, if there were enough people, to play hide and seek. This we did from time to time with hilarious and sometimes terrifying results. One rule was “no lights allowed”, just torches. All parts of the theatre were within bounds, including backstage dressing rooms, projection, and plant rooms. If you have ever been in a large building in the dark, in the middle of the night pursued or pursuing, you can imagine the excitement and sometimes terror in being virtually alone and hunted.

One most memorable firewatch was on Saturday May 10 1941. It was a bright moonlit night; my firewatching colleagues were the cinema manager and our old friend Captain Bligh, the second projectionist. The time was around 11.30pm the show had been over for about a half an hour, the tea was made and we were sitting down in the staff room relaxing, the manager was in his quarters back stage. The air raid warning sounded and in a very short time after, the whole place shook as bombs were dropped on Hendon Airfield, which was about a half a mile away. That was the start of a night to remember, it seemed as if bombs were dropping all around us, and together with the sound of the anti-aircraft guns all hell was let loose. The manager left his lonely quarters back stage and appeared on our veranda complete with a welcome bottle of rum, which we demolished during the night. The anti-aircraft boys definitely scored one hit; the plane dived directly over the top of the theatre. Luckily at that time there was still some rum left in the bottle. Not for us the cushions and sleep that night,

We were truly “firewatching”, and yet, we sustained no damage except the odd bit of shrapnel from our own guns. Funny too, that God like person who sits in the manager’s office who I address in fear as Sir, proved as it turned out to be a normal human being, with all the normal feelings of hope, fear and joy at being around to see the dawn. As for Captain Bligh, he was somehow transformed into Fletcher Christian, only temporary though, Jekyll and Hyde was more his mark. Being a Saturday night, our faithful friend the film transport driver arrived in the small hours despite the Luftwaffe, and collected the programme that we had been running all that week, and I still, after all these years, find it difficult to believe the titles of the two films, they were “Arise My Love”, starring Claudette Colbert and the second feature was “I’m Still Alive” with Kent Taylor.

My last “firewatching” story jumps us ahead a couple of years, I had been transferred to the Odeon in Kingsbury, and like all good members of staff I took my turn at helping to prevent Jerry putting us out of work. This particular night there were three of us on duty, and we were sitting in the “dugout”. This was a room situated under the stairs that led to the balcony. We had done our normal duties of checking the seats and locking all exit doors, and were enjoying the customary cup of tea, snack, and usual chat. There was no air raid in progress, for some reason Jerry had given us some time off. At about 11.45pm there was the sound of heavy footsteps on the balcony stairs over our heads, followed by a very loud commotion in the theatre foyer, it sounded like a strong wind. We all three dashed out to see what was happening, and were amazed to see the inner front doors swinging in and out. These doors were situated about six feet in from the main street doors, which were locked. All six doors were behaving in this manner for no apparent reason. This was too much for us terrified firewatchers, fire maybe, but we drew the line at this. Straight on the phone to the police. Whilst waiting for them to arrive we went into the theatre and could hear footsteps in the roof void. Like any red-blooded firewatcher we decided to wait for the police to arrive before even thinking of taking action. Three officers eventually came and we explained the problem, by then the doors had calmed down and stopped swinging and the footsteps had ceased. We all rushed up the stairs, through the projection room, which led to the door of the roof void. All projectionists are familiar with the intricacies of roof voids, a part of their duties was the maintenance of ventilation installations and all the light fittings. A lot of the light fittings are only accessible from the roof like for instance the “lay” lights, or house lights. This particular building had a network of catwalks feeding the areas that required regular attention. Other less catered for parts had to be approached by walking very carefully on the joists. A thorough search revealed nothing, except, at the very far end of the building, over the stage area, was a little door, about four feet high by about two and a half feet wide, which opened outwards to a sheer drop of about forty five feet to the car park below.

Nobody knew the purpose of the door and for obvious reasons it had been sealed off by screw eyes in the architrave, and thick wire threaded “criss cross” over the opening, to prevent access. On closer inspection we discovered the wire had been cut clean down the centre, and the door was swinging wide open.

Nothing was ever found to explain the curious happenings of that night, it was said that this particular Odeon was haunted by the ghost of Oscar Deutsch, the founder of Odeon Theatres, and although I am not a great believer in these sort of things, I must admit to never feeling comfortable in the building, especially after that experience. The theatre has long since gone, except for the two small buildings which flanked both sides of the main facade, and can still be seen with their typically Odeon tiled walls on either side of the main entrance of Sainsbury’s supermarket which now occupies the site. I wonder if, after fifty years, any strange goings on has been noticed amongst the groceries?

One very popular member of staff of cinemas in the early forties was the organist, popular with the audience, in many cases not so popular with the projection staff. The ABC cinema circuit in those days employed a number of organists who would spend a week at a time circulating in rotation the various theatres belonging to the company. These chaps were allocated a 15 minute spot in the timetable (usually immediately prior to the screening of the main feature film). On Monday mornings they would turn up at about ten o'clock for rehearsal with their various ‘bits and bobs’ tucked under their arm, consisting of anything between 80 and 110 31/4" glass slides, a record and in many cases, a 2000' reel of ‘effects’ film.

These guys always brought a record with them (78RPM of course). They always finished their spot ‘accompanying’ a famous singer usually singing a patriotic song. Much time was spent rehearsing ‘cueing in’ the record at the appropriate time, but more importantly getting the speed of the turntable right to match the pitch of the organ, once this was agreed no one was to touch the speed control of the turntable for the rest of the week under pain of death.

It was always amusing to watch the audience reaction when the singing began, some craned their necks looking for the singer on the stage, others thought how marvellous for the organ to reproduce the human voice. It wasn’t so good however when some idiot tampered with the speed control of the record player, and our famous singer sang off key. All ‘live’ shows such as organ interludes were at constant risk from ‘cock-ups’ and some of the many I experienced were classic.

Twenty minutes before the organ show began, I had just finished cleaning 90 or more slides (you’d be surprised how much sharper the image on the screen is when the glass is free of dirt and highly polished), setting them up in readiness for the show, I dropped and smashed the lot. Total panic! The organist frantically pushing his cue button on the console for his slides to appear, but nothing. But for there being a war on, I am sure that I would have been sacked there and then on the spot!

It was always a recognised procedure that at the end of each performance the console would be brought up to the very top of the lift (the solo was always played with the console half way up, in order for the front stalls to see the screen), the organist would swing his legs round on the bench, take a bow and then swing back round again push the ‘down’ button and play his signature tune as he disappeared into the bowels of the orchestra pit. Curiously, it was then that on many occasions, the lift mechanism would decide to fail. Waiting and ready to begin the main feature film, and hoping to start on time, the time of the last bus forever in the forefront of the mind, one would look down at the tiny figure perched and stranded high up on the organ playing with his right hand and frantically pushing the lift button and waving with his left. It was then the long trek down to the pit, find the handle and wind him down, amid the strains of an overlong signature tune and an increasingly restless audience.

The late Andrew Fenner, a very big man, was our guest organist this particular week. Each evening at the end of his 15-minute spot he would bring the console to the top and instead of following the normal procedure of bowing and disappearing down, he asked the audience for requests, to which many responded with various titles, but every time he said ‘In the Mood?’ ‘OK’ and then proceeded to play ‘In the Mood’. This of course played ‘havoc’ with the timetable not to mention the dreaded last bus. Things came to a head on the Thursday evening when the encore was just beginning. The Chief Projectionist said “I’ll give him In The Bloody Mood” and started the big picture resulting in the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Lion on the back of Andrew Fenner’s neck. As I said Fenner was a big man, and within a couple of minutes he filled the frame of the door to the projection room vehemently casting grave doubts about my colleague’s parentage.

The row went on for quite some time.

Finishing the show one evening around 11pm with a particularly noisy air-raid in progress (the film was San Demitrio London) The audience of around 500 people were reluctant to leave, – an anti-aircraft gun very near the theatre being very active and sounding threatening decided to sit in until things calmed down. My colleague and I could not leave until the theatre was empty, so we decided in a moment of madness to parody the organist. We switched on the blower and the illuminated surround on the console, which we brought up to the top of its lift playing a few discordant notes and generally playing the fool. This performance was most successful and was greeted with enthusiastic applause and of course diverted the patrons' minds from the unpleasant events outside. Unfortunately somebody present that night was obviously so impressed with our performance and with good intentions must have reported the incident to the Daily Mirror which was read at Head Office and resulted in the two of us getting a severe dressing down.

I could go on, but I will finish with a ‘funny’, not experienced by me personally, but was the talk of the circuit at the time. It concerns an organ in a North London cinema which had a roll top ‘fall’ which covered the whole console when it was in the ‘down’ position, not just the keyboard as in modern day electronic instruments, but the whole organ, a massive affair and very unusual.
This roll top was synchronised with the lift mechanism so that when the organist pushed the ‘up’ button, the roll top would slide back and then the console would begin to rise. Conversely when the console went down as soon as it hit bottom the roll top would then cover the organ. The whole operation controlled by one button, perfectly synchronised. One day, a most memorable day, the organist positioned himself inside the closed organ ready to rise for his solo and when the time came he pushed the ‘up’ button, the roll top jammed, the organ console began to rise amid the horrendous noise of splitting woodwork. The organ came up and brought the house down! Those were the days!

One activity which was, at the same time both fun and misery, was ‘Cine-Variety’, the presentation of live acts, singers, comedians, bands, etc. performed between the two feature films (cinemas always showed two films during those days, a three and a half hour to four hour show. unlike today’s programmes) and of course considerably longer with a stage show. These acts were in the main local talent but were very popular with audiences and they made a welcome change from the usual run of the mill movies. As stated they were both fun and misery, fun because it required certain creative skills on behalf of the projection crew, setting the stage, operating stage lighting and spotlights which was different from the normal film projection routine. The entire operation had a feel of excitement and uncertainty which when added to the air raid which was very often in progress at the same time certainly made the adrenaline flow. Misery because I was usually responsible for operating the spotlight which unfortunately was situated right next to the stage lighting dimmer board in the projection room, this particular department was jealously operated by our old friend ‘Captain Bligh’ who on these occasions, for some unknown reason, was always at his most objectionable. The manager’s top priority at all times was the stage show, although he was always thinking up publicity stunts for advertising even the most mundane movies, his main aim was always to make the next show better than the last.

One of our sister theatres, the Odeon Haverstock Hill Hampstead, had recently received a direct hit from our German friends, fortunately it happened during the night when the theatre was empty and there were no casualties. The dust had barely settled when Mr Marshall, the manager, obtained permission from Head Office to strip the stage of drapes and festoon curtains that were not damaged. Both my elder brothers were regular visitors to the theatre, often doing odd jobs around the place and of course they became quite known to Marshall. Hiring heavy vehicles at that time was almost impossible owing to the very strict fuel rationing and a heavy vehicle was a prime requirement for moving the long and heavy curtain tracks between the two theatres. It so happened that at the time my eldest brother was working in heavy haulage and our friend Mr Marshall knew it and in spite of the strict law covering ‘unnecessary’ use of fuel oil, he managed to persuade my brother to do the job, at to say the least, some personal risk regarding the law. My other brother and I were of course roped in as manual labour and so on one bright and sunny morning we set off for Hampstead.

Entering the building we were met with a scene of total devastation, the bomb had entered half way down the right hand side destroying that side of the proscenium arch and generally making a mess of the front stalls. The bomb had landed sometime around two in the morning consequently the safety curtain had been lowered after the last performance the previous evening and had provided a high degree of protection to the actual stage itself. The safety curtain is a very heavy solid affair, made from fire resistant material weighing around five tons. Licensing regulations used to state that in ‘live’ theatres this curtain must be lowered once during the performance in the presence of the audience. The method of lowering this device was just to pull down a handle and the curtain would free fall until it reached about six feet from the stage when it would be automatically arrested by a hydraulic braking system. That was the easy part, to raise it in some theatres, took much hard work winding up by hand, although many installations were lucky in having an electric motor to do the job. I recall one theatre at which I spent a part of my career where the safety curtain release was situated on the stage in the wings, adjacent to the fire sprinkler handle, both looking identical. The normal procedure after the last performance was to climb onto the stage, (walking all the way round through the dressing room area was too far and too much trouble) pull the release handle and run at top speed out of the wings, on to the stage, over the footlights and jump down into the front stalls before the safety curtain touched bottom. One evening after the close of the last performance, the usual routine was in progress but unfortunately in the usual mad haste to beat the curtain to the footlights, the wrong handle was released resulting in a very damp outcome.

But to return to Hampstead, a most amazing sight to see this five-ton fire resistant solid ‘wall’ which covered the entire stages opening, with a massive ‘dent’ as though a giant had punched it with his fist. It had served its purpose in reverse, protecting the stage area from danger from the auditorium instead of protecting an audience from hazards on stage! All the drapes, curtains and festoons were all in tact, a trifle dusty, but otherwise as good as new, ready to defy Hitler’s bombs and be transported to another location and start life anew.

The four of us set about dismantling the stage, unhooking the drapes and festoons from their tracks and like monkeys in the jungle, climbing high up to the grid to unbolt the tracks from the position that they have held since the day the theatre opened, and gently lowering them on ropes to stage level and finally onto the long articulated lorry outside.

This was a long and tiring day and by the time we offloaded all the material back at base we were exhausted, hungry, and very dirty. That was not the end of the job of course, the whole exercise went into reverse, all the tracks had to be installed in their new location (our monkey act again) and the drapes and festoons hung and made to fit their new surroundings with many adjustments needed before the job was satisfactorily completed.

The results of all this hard work was seen in later stage shows, transforming the stage the extra curtains gave it a luxurious atmosphere, the festoons picking up the coloured lights from the battens above and the footlights below which gave the whole setting a ‘West End feel’, the stage now looked dressed!

Mr Marshall was highly delighted with the outcome, so delighted in fact, he actually said
“Thank you” to me and gave a couple of complimentary tickets to the brothers.

Overtime payment in those days was unheard of; every duty carried out by any member of staff, whether it was part of his job or not and in his own time, was expected of him, in fact if one turned one’s back on something that needed doing, even though it maybe not his responsibility, that was a very black mark.

Finishing the show one evening about eleven o'clock, we were playing the National Anthem trailer, closing both sets of ‘tabs’ (curtains) at the end, I saw to my horror the right hand side main curtain was ripping in two half way along it’s width from the top. It would be unthinkable to leave for home before repairing the damage. Out comes the double extension ladder and armed with ‘ticket string’ and a needle I stitched and repaired the curtain from the top of the runner to half way down to where it was torn, getting home around 2.30am. One got no medals for carrying out these extra duties, only a rocket if you didn’t. (Older readers may remember when entering a cinema or theatre in those days the usherette would tear your ticket in half, the half that she retained would then be threaded onto a ‘ticket string’).

On another occasion a new screen and sound speakers were to be installed. Cinema screens were very vulnerable, both from flying objects propelled by front stalls ‘patrons’ and from smokers. Screens would turn brown in a matter of months, to the obvious detriment of picture quality, unfortunately smoking was not the anti-social activity it is today. There was a limit to the number of times that a screen could stand a respray, every time it is sprayed the holes which allow free passage of sound from the speakers behind are progressively blocked until the sound, or lack of it, becomes unacceptable. So, Saturday night is booked for this major event and all projection staff is on stand-by.

The end of the show, (the last of a week’s screening of ‘Lady Hamilton’ starring Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) and the last of the patrons disappear out of the door to catch their buses home and a good night’s sleep, (no air raid that night). All hell breaks loose, down comes the screen, out come the speakers, in go the new speakers, up goes the brand new screen, projectors are re-aligned, there is much testing of the sound equipment with many problems, much discussion, disagreement, argument, compromise, mess, until finally, everyone, the sound equipment people, head office engineers and our own Chief Projectionist are satisfied that all is OK and the show can go on. It is now 2.45pm, Sunday. The theatre opens at 3.00pm and I am sweeping the stage (behind the closed curtains) as the new audience are taking their seats to see “Gasbags” starring the Crazy Gang.

Most of us have been working all day and all night Saturday, we will not finish work until the end of the show Sunday but the words ‘overtime payment’ is just not in anyone’s vocabulary.

Our Cine-Variety stage shows were very popular with everyone, the artists, the audience, the staff, (although many difficult and ‘temper flaring’ moments were often part of the procedure) but probably manager Marshall, who I am sure considered himself to be a budding Ziegfeld, gained most pleasure from this activity. He would station himself in the back stalls directing proceedings by constant communication by internal telephone with the Chief Projectionist who was positioned in the wings on stage, and who was operating the microphones, curtains etc. All these instructions were relayed via a loudspeaker to the projection room.

The whole operation was usually very slick and ‘cock-up free’

There were, of course, times when fate took a hand and things went hopelessly wrong, resulting in our budding Ziegfield losing his cool and holding inquests in his office threatening all kinds of punishments. I recall one of those occasions when things got out of hand. Remember, we were at war with Germany, who’s bombers were regular visitors overhead, and one way of ‘getting’ to audiences at that time was to stir up their patriotism and a sure way of achieving that was by finishing the show with a stirring patriotic song as on this particular occasion a rousing finale of ‘There’ll Always Be An England’.

During the war years every cinema in the land had to screen, every week, a short ten minute film made for the government agency, The Ministry of Information (now known as the Central Office of Information). These films were pure one hundred per cent propaganda, and very often contained picturesque scenes of British life including the rolling countryside in bright sunshine with wheat waving in the gentle breeze. Stuff that dreams are made of, stuff that would compel any red blooded Briton to defend to the death!

Mr (Ziegfield) Marshall instructed us to retain our copy of an ‘MOI’ film recently screened containing material as described, as he had an idea for a future stage show. The plan was to cut together all appropriate pretty countryside scenes and as the band on stage strikes up ‘There’ll Always be an England’ the stage lights were to be lowered, the screen tabs opened and the film shown as a background. The music and the pretty English countryside views would fill the whole audience with a sense of pride, patriotism and resistance to all comers, which of course included the Germans. Captain Bligh, who was in charge of the stage dimmer board, delegated me; to operate the projector showing the film clip, I was also responsible for closing the screen tabs on instructions from the stage at the appropriate time. (It was not possible to control the screen curtains from the stage, only the main front tabs). Unfortunately it had completely slipped my mind that the metal switch controlling the curtains was live, yes live, and the only way to safely operate it was to make sure of not touching anything else that would provide an ‘earth’. As the show came to a most moving patriotic climax, the command from the stage to close the tabs was the last thing I heard until I awoke spreadeagled on the floor with a confused Captain Bligh bending over me, with the projector still running flooding the stage with white light and Ziegfield making gurgling noises over the intercom.

One of my most memorable stage shows was during the Chief Projectionist’s annual holiday. The week before he was due to depart, he said that he would like me to handle the stage direction in his absence, (microphone balancing, setting and striking the set, operating the curtains, cuing the projection room and so on). I was to go down with him that evening, when he would instruct me in the art of ‘stage management’. Naturally I was most flattered to think that he could trust me to successfully carry out such important duties!

Show time arrived and we were both in the wings surrounded by excited and nervous artists waiting to perform their particular speciality. The film trailers advertising next week’s programme were coming to an end as both sets of tabs were closed, (operated from the projection room). I watched intently with much enthusiasm eager to gain as much knowledge about this procedure which up to now had been a complete mystery. The stage was now hidden from the auditorium by the huge main curtains and everyone leapt into action to set the stage as quickly as possible. The decorative festoon curtains were drawn, by hand, halfway across the stage, draped from the top, opening out towards the floor forming an arch which will frame the band and the other acts. Microphones were quickly put in place, the public address system already warmed up, (valves in those days, no transistors) and with everyone in place, we were ready to start the show.

I was amazed at my first experience ‘backstage’. I had often been to the theatre, practically most every week I went to the Golders Green Hippodrome to see the variety show (remember there was no television in those wartime days) and I was always filled with excitement waiting for the show to begin, to sit in the theatre watching those magnificent main curtains defying the gaze of the audience, keeping us in suspense as to what lay behind and now and again a slight movement triggered by something, or someone on the stage adding to the magic and mystery of the occasion.

Now, the mystery is solved and I am at last part of the excitement, the magic is even more hypnotic. I am in Show Business!

I am taking note of everything that is happening, I still can’t believe that I am actually backstage as part of the crew responsible for a live show. Sound balancing, conferring with the acts, liaison with the projection room, it’s a pretty hectic time for the Chief, and this time next week it will be me filling that role. The show draws to a close with the customary rousing patriotic song climaxing with the Chief pushing the button, which closes the main stage curtains. He has already briefed me on this particular procedure, emphasising the need to run along with the curtain after setting it in motion, when upon meeting the other curtain mid-stage, grab them both, wait until they have stopped swinging whereupon he opens a channel to allow the artists to appear in front of the tabs to take a bow and remains visible, to the artists, in order that they can return to the sanctuary of backstage. The final bow is taken, the clapping has subsided, some of the audience are busy discussing the merits, or demerits of what they have just witnessed, some of them are leaving the theatre having now seen the complete show, (continuous performances in those days) whilst we are busy backstage striking the set as quickly as possible in order to screen the main feature film. All is now cleared from the stage, the final action is to ‘buzz’ the projection room (three short jabs on the buzzer) the house lights are lowered and the ‘big’ picture ‘hits’ the screen.

This had been a most exciting experience for me and to think that I am to take an active roll in the proceedings next week was a great thrill, all the instructions from my Chief were crystal clear in my head and nothing was going to be too difficult to cope with.

Next week arrived and by now I was Producer, Director and Stage Manager all rolled into one. The actual stage show went on like clockwork, the stage was set in record time, the microphones were placed and balanced to perfection, and all instructions were relayed to the projection room with perfect understanding. I had now really arrived. The show was now ending; I pushed the ‘close’ button for the main tabs, grabbing the leading edge of the curtain as I did so. Running along with it (this set of tabs was particularly fast and very heavy) I went to grab the other curtain as they met in the middle of the stage, but as they came together with a graceful but relentless ‘swing’ both avoided my hands as though deliberately defying me, swung back away from each other and finally came to rest BEHIND me, leaving little me stranded just behind the footlights. To make matters worse, the curtains had an eight-foot overlap, which made it almost impossible to find the opening, which would save my total embarrassment. My antics in trying to do so brought the house down, the applause was frantic! Zeigfield, to put it mildly was rather ‘upset’.

I learned in those early days of life that all things are not as easy as first imagined. Cinemas in the ‘30’s and 40’s bear no resemblance to today’s modern theatres, so too does the day to day running differ completely from the modern multiplex units with which we are all now only too familiar. Home Office rules and regulations governing the licensing of cinemas were very strict and the interpretation of these basic regulations by some local authorities were combined with even more restrictive procedures as to make life very difficult for management and staff to operate completely within legal limits.

Today a multi-screen multiplex unit will operate with a minimum of staff, probably one or two projectionists will be responsible for all the shows. Each projector will be fed the whole film programme from one massive spool or from a “cake stand”. A “cake stand” consists usually of three large horizontal plates, arranged in tiers, upon which the whole programme will lay and be fed to the projector as one gigantic loop. The purpose of having more than one ‘plate’ is to allow for the availability of more than one programme.

The projector’s light source is a Xenon lamp, which for the want of a less technical explanation is an arc lamp enclosed in a glass envelope. These Xenon lamps will burn unattended for many hours and have a light output comparable to the old fashioned arc lamps. So, it is evident that all performances will be projected automatically with the least possible staff in attendance.

Compare this with the cinemas of yesteryear. All motion pictures in those days were shot and printed on nitrate film stock, which was highly inflammable, and consequently regulations were very strict. Of course they had to be in order to insure the safety of the general public, particularly with a war in progress and air raids occurring only too frequently up and down the country.

There was a strict rule on the amount of film allowed on the premises at any one time, 40,000 feet was the maximum, 20,000 feet in the actual projection suite and 20,000 feet in a recognised film store which was usually situated on the ground floor of the building and accessible to the film transport delivery driver. 20,000 feet was the average length of a film programme in those days and these regulations legalised the presence of two programmes on the premises at one time.

Strict rules also governed the amount of film that was allowed into the projection room, 2000 feet for each projector. In those days the programme in all cinemas was projected on two projectors, each spool of film running for a maximum of twenty minutes, which of course necessitated frequent change-oversee. The reels of film running on the projector were always enclosed in spool boxes and opening the spool box whilst the projector was running was strictly forbidden. A working projector had to be attended at all time by a trained projectionist, never left for a second!

There were many, many strict regulations concerning the running of cinemas during the war years, reading about them now they appear to be ridiculous, so ridiculous in fact that one might consider that most of the rules and dictates would be ignored. But, there was a most hated and feared person who could and in many instances, did, descend upon a cinema with no prior warning, purely with the intention of detecting lawbreaking, which could, and in a few cases did, close down the cinemas visited!

This dreaded person was the Local Council Inspector. He would swoop on a theatre unannounced, make a beeline for the projection room in the hope of exposing misdeeds by the projection staff. There was however, a golden rule in all cinemas of my experience, among the Front-of House staff, Cashiers, Doormen, even the more responsible Usherettes, (some of them were unbelievably dim), that on seeing this person entering the premises the projection room must be alerted immediately on the house telephone. This would allow just enough time for the chaps to put things in order and appear ‘ship-shape’ and totally innocent of even thinking of breaking the rules.

In the main this ‘early warning system’ worked well and most projection crews came to rely on it. There were of course the exceptions to the rule and the following example was a particularly serious case.

Sundays were rather special days, different from weekdays in that work was restricted solely to the showing of films. No equipment maintenance, no cleaning of light fittings or any other additional chores (which were considerable) and which were part of the normal weekday duties of the crew.
A consequence of this lighter workload was that fewer staff was required to operate what was a shorter day, (usually three personnel) and most of the boys would come to work smartly dressed in a decent suit.

This particular Sunday afternoon two of the three were on duty, each responsible for one projector. When a twenty minute reel finished, Len would take it to the rewind room for rewinding and in order to give him a longer break (we all smoked like chimneys in those days) Bill would dash out to the rewind room, leaving his projector unattended, grab the next reel of film and lace it up on Len’s machine. Conversely when Bill’s reel finished, Len would reciprocate. A totally illegal practice, but as I said previously, Sundays were different. The majority of people didn’t work on Sundays, munitions workers of course, bus and train drivers, pub staff and of course cinema employees! Certainly not stuffy Council Inspectors.

Bill and Len were ardent football fans and we we were in the middle of the football season, Bill supported Chelsea, and Len was an impassioned follower of Arsenal. Yesterday was the local Derby between the two teams and both fans had, from the time they started work, been arguing, and debating the qualities and shortcomings of each other’s team, both disputing the final result. The discussion continued well into the afternoon and developed into a heated argument. Bill was now rewinding his reel and as Len left his projector running to grab the next reel from the rewind room the argument developed into a frenzied dispute. All awareness of the passage of time completely deserted the two football fanatics as they persisted in their individual speculations on how the match should have concluded.

Eventually after many minutes, (the exact period was not documented) Len came back down to earth and realised that time was getting on and the reel of film running next door in the projection room must be getting dangerously near it’s end. He proceeded to carry the next reel into the projection room whereupon opening the door he saw to his absolute horror the Manager and the ‘dreaded’ Council Inspector studying his watch. Naturally the sparks flew, the inspector demanded Len’s instant dismissal and he was out of there that evening.

With a war on and the resulting difficulty in getting staff, the Company were unenthusiastic at the thought of Len’s dismissal, so they compromised and transferred him out of the area under the jurisdiction of the Inspector, in fact, they transferred me from the sister theatre of the same company, situated in the London County Council area and swopped us over.

Comments (3)

Simon Overton
Simon Overton on May 3, 2007 at 2:59 pm

Hello Bob: What a fabulously interesting article. I savored every word and could clearly visualize every thing that happened.
My wife wondered why I was roaring with laughter?… because some of these same things happened to me! I’m from the next generation, a decade later and “Captain Bligh” must have moved on to my theater.

I loved the part about missing the curtains… that happened to me at the Gaumont in Southampton with 4 boys from Liverpool, except that I was standing there on my own with the curtain opening and I wasn’t paying attention. Did I hear about it later? Wow!!!

You should continue your story and have it published. Cherrished memories with such consummate detail are history. These children working in cinemas today have absolutely NO concept of show business and the theater/cinema owners are nothing but candy merchants showing films!

God bless and let’s share some more goings on… PLEASE!

andygarner on May 5, 2007 at 5:51 pm

Well done Bob, more of the same please, the details are fascinating, a long way from todays multiplex operation.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on April 28, 2010 at 1:37 am

Bob, Can I share this story with you. When “Bonnie and Clyde” premiered in London. Star of the film, Warren Beatty was watching the movie and he noticed the gunshots were like pops,so he rushes up to the Booth and he shocked the projectionist not use to seeing a star in the booth. Beatty said “is there something wrong with the sound and the operator said proudly "Oh no, I fixed it. I have not had a picture this badly mixed since"SHANE”. Great story Bob.

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