An Autobiography

Source: Hymie Fagan, An Autobiography, n.d. [typescript] (Brunel University Library, 2-261), pp. 18-20, 41-42

Text: The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you …

… Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

Comment: Hymie Fagan was born in Stepney, 1903 of a Jewish working class family. This is two extracts from his unpublished autobiography, the manuscript for which is held by Brunel University Library. The first section describes the pre-WWI period, second covers the war years.

The Suicide of a Projectionist

Source: D.L., ‘Samoubiistvo mekhanika’ [The Suicide of a Projectionist], Cine-Phono, 1910/11, no. 5, p. 11, quoted in Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 110

Text: On 15 November, after the end of a performance in the Kirsanov Theatre of Illusions, the projectionist, N. Melioransky, tried to poison himself. His only pleasure in life was the knowledge that he was a useful member of the local community, which had always been delighted with his excellent work. But the very last night of the season turned into total disaster: one of the pictures, Cupid’s Darts [Strely amura] was so badly worn that it kept on breaking off inside the projector, each break being greeted by the audience with loud laughter and rude remarks. Not understanding the real reason for the breakdowns, they turned on their former hero and made him the butt of their derision. The proud youth was overcome with shame and went off to poison himself. Luckily his life was saved.

Comment: Tsivian notes that this incident was much discussed in the film press.

Rosedale Theater, 1938

Source: L.E. Sissman, ‘Rosedale Theater, 1938’, in Peter Davison (ed.), Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L. E. Sissman (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1978)

Text: Feet on the parapet of the balcony,
We cup free sacks of penny candy, gum,
And unshelled peanuts, all included in
Our dime admission to the Saturday
Kids’ matinée, and see the Bounty heave
And creak in every block and halyard. Waves
Of raw sensation break upon each white
Face that reflects the action, and our ears
Eavesdrop upon the commerce of a more
Real world than ours. The first big feature ends;
We trade reactions and gumballs with friends
Above the marching feet of Movietone,
Which now give way to a twin-engine plane
That lands as we half watch, and Chamberlain
Steps out, in his teeth, Homburg, and mustache,
A figure of some fun. We laugh and miss
His little speech. After the Michigan-
Ohio game, Buck Rogers will come on.

Comment: Louis Edward Sissman (1928-1976) was an American poet. Five of his cinema-related poems are published in Philip French and Ken Wlaschin’s The Faber Book of Movie Verse. Bounty refers to Mutiny on the Bounty (USA 1935). Movietone is the Fox Movietone newsreel, with the reference being to the celebrated film showing British prime minister Neville Chamberlain at Heston aerodrome telling reporters about his discussions with Hitler and waving a piece of paper with a signed agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again”. The Buck Rogers serial was produced in 1939.

Growing up with Southall

Source: R.J. Meads, Growing-up With Southall From 1904 (Southall, 1979), pp. 6-7

Text: 1910, Southall’s first cinema, the “Gem” was built in the Green opposite Osterley Park Road (seating about 150 on knifeboard seats; manager, Mr Murch). 1911, the “empire” Cinema was opened. This was in the Uxbridge Road, corner of Northcote Avenue. It quickly got a bad reputation by the films shown, and closed after 6 years. I was told that the last film shown, “The Exploits of Elaine” was very daring, the ladies revealing about 4 inches of leg and very low cleavage. Yet another cinema opened in 1912, the “Paragon Palace” built in the South Road; this was on some of the frontage of Townsend House. It was a very up-to-date building and very comfortable, showing in those days only silent films and the action on the screen being accompanied by a pianist playing the appropriate music. One of the ladies whose job that was a Mrs. Creech. It seated 300 with tip-up seats, with 1 penny matinee Saturday afternoons and thrilling serials. It is still going today, very much altered and named the “Liberty”.

Comment: The Empire Picture Theatre was in Uxbridge Road. The Liberty Cinema closed in 1982, reopened at the Himalaya Palace Cinema in 2001, showing ‘Bollywood’ films, but closed again in 2010.

My Childhood in Hoxton

Source: Ted Harrison, ‘My Childhood in Hoxton from 1902-1918’, in When We Were Kids on the Corner of the Street (London: Hoxton Hall and Hackney Adult Education Institute, n.d.), p. 20

Text: Later on you had the cinema. There was a picture palace, nicknamed the ‘Fleapit’, on the corner of Forest Road in Dalston, where you could get in for a half penny. There were different coloured tickets for each performance, and a man would come round and check to make sure you didn’t stay for two performances. They were silent films and there was an old lady of about seventy who used to play the piano with appropriate music for the different scenes.

Comment: The cinema may have been the Dalston Picture Theatre, Dalston Lane, Hackney.