At the Drive-in

Source: Terry Gallacher, ‘At the Drive-in’, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/at-the-drive-in/, published 24 September 1913

Text: From 1956 to 1961, I worked in Melbourne, Australia. I was Senior Film Editor with GTV9 (General Television Corporation) and Supervising Film Editor with ABV2 (Australian Broadcasting Commission).

In 1956 I lodged with an English family at Frankston. This was some months before the start of television in Melbourne and there was no cinema in Frankston, our nearest town. However, I was told that there was a Drive-in Cinema which had opened at Dandenong on May 4th 1956. I was curious as to what it would be like watching a film from inside a car.

It was decided that we should go. We got there quite early, long before show time. We got on to the end of a long queue. The queue was slow moving as each car stopped at the toll-gate for the drivers to pay their dues. I cannot recall the price of entry, but it would have been modest, maybe as little as $A1 or in Sterling about 10/- and that was for the car load.

It was called the Panoramic Drive-in and had room for 650 cars. After paying to get in, you found your own way to a parking spot. Parking attendants only came on the scene when the place was nearly full and they would guide each car to what spaces were let.

The cars were parked alongside a post on which hung a speaker. The driver would wind down the window half way, hook the speaker on to the glass and then close the window. On the speaker was a volume control and a button which, when pushed, would summon a waiter or waitress who would come and collect your order for food. On offer were Burgers, grills, fish grills, and chips. These were brought back to the car.

A building which also housed the Projector was a food bar. Some people would arrive very early and go to the food bar for a meal before the performance began.

The cars were parked with an eight-foot gap between them. The parking area for each car was sloped so that the front of the car was higher than the back. This enabled the people in the car to get a good view of the screen. The gap between each row was about fifteen feet. To include 650 cars and the screen area needed some six or seven acres of land.

The screen was huge. It was about thirty feet above the ground and about 70 feet long. The aspect ratio would have been 2.35: 1 which would accommodate CinemaScope as well as other widescreen forms.

The front row of the cars was about 40 yards from the screen.

One of the big troubles with a drive-in is when it rains. Not that that happened very often in the summers in the State of Victoria. In those days, some cars could not operate a windscreen wiper without running the engine. The screen could mist up and one had to run the engine to get the fan to clear the screen, that is if you had one. It was hardly worthwhile trying to watch a film under these circumstances and fortunately for us, the only time we had rain was for a short while during the “B” movie.

The performance was impressive. It started off with a “B” Movie and, after an interval, to allow people to collect more food, the main attraction would be shown. It was a long night.

After the show there was the problem of getting out.

Here is an extract from my memoirs:

Janet (my fiancé at the time and then my wife) and I would regularly go to the drive-in theatre at Dandenong. We saw some good movies and some bad ones. At that time I had a Holden sedan which was large and comfortable. We used to vacate the front seats and go into the back where the seating was something like a settee. It was better than the back row.

On one occasion, we were involved in an accident on the way out. One can imagine a drive-in audience which had arrived in several hundred cars. When the show was over, and sometimes a bit before, cars started to move away and make a dash for the only exit. he exit would only take a single file of cars, so that the last car out was probably over thirty minutes behind the first.

The exit led to a small country lane which then opened out on to a main road, Cranborne Road. (Now known as The South Gippsland Highway) which was around 200 yards down the lane. Each car on arrival at the busy main road would have to wait to get out. We were in the crawl in the country lane when we heard a large bang behind us. In typical fashion, I got out of the car to see if my car was damaged. It was not, but the car behind which was very old seemed to have lost some parts. The owner had got out of his car, doing the same as me. He said “I’ve lost me front bumper”, his mate at the back of the car said, “She’ll be right, it’s back here”. The driver made his way to the back and said “That’s not the front bumper, that’s the back bumper”. The front bumper was still underneath the car.

Meanwhile the driver of the vehicle behind them was out on the road swearing at the driver of the car behind me for having stopped. (We were moving at less than walking pace when we were moving). His was a brand new ute (Utility) looking like something we would now call a 4 x 4. The front was all stoved in from its collision with the old car. The problem for the driver of the truck was that he did not own it and had borrowed it from his father. All this came out in a matter of moments during the hustle and bustle of the occasion.

There was another car involved which had been behind the truck and, in fact, was responsible for the whole problem. He was shouting “It wasn’t my fault that I put me foot on the accelerator instead of the brake”. Well, that explained everything.

Drive-in theatres lost their popularity, like the cinemas, in the sixties and seventies. Today, I am told, that the drive-in theatre has expanded to provide three screens. It must be popular again. The sound of the film no longer comes via a speaker handing on the window, you can pick up the sound on your FM car radio. I wonder how one orders a burger.

It was quite an experience going to the Panoramic – I loved the drive-in.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author. The Panoramic is still in operation and is now known as the Lunar.

Links: Lunar Drive-in

Maisie at the Movies

Source: Gertrude S. Walton, Maisie at the Movies (Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Company, 1922)

Text: CHARACTER – A Shop-Girl. She is overdressed, wears her hair in extreme fashion and her nose is powdered white. She is chewing gum vigorously.

(Gropes way down aisle and pauses — addresses companion LILIAN.) S’awful dark in here, ain’t it, Lil? I think I see a coupla seats in here. Pardon me. (Climbs over two or three seats and settles self.) Y’gonna take yer hat off, Lilian? Let’s slink down in the seats and take a chance — our hats is so small anyhow; in fact I thought the very day I bought the hat that it would be so small that I wouldn’t hafta take it off in the movies.

I hope this ain’t a sad picture, Lilian, because I’m sure to cry over it. I’m so sympathetic, Lilian, and I’m worse ever since Joe and I had our falling out — I cry at the least thing — not that I care so much about Joe, y’understand, only it’s made me so sympathetic or somethin’. Ma says I’m a fool but I donno. Joe was a nice fella but it was his fault a’course.

(Looks frantically from left to right in an effort to see the picture.) Good-night, Lilian, that man certainly takes his time taking his coat off. You’d think it was glued to him, in fact you’d think any man with any sense would take his coat off before he gets in front of the whole show and makes you break your neck trying to see the picture, but then, I don’t care so much for these comedy things anyway.

(Turns to person behind her.) Did you speak to me? My hat — it’s in your way? Well, can you beat that, Lilian? Some people are mighty fussy, believe me.

Thank goodness this crazy comedy is over. What didja say the feature picture was ? Oo-o, The Haunted House-Boat! Why, Lilian, I’ve seen this picture. No, we won’t go out — it’s a swell picture — you’ll be crazy about it, Lilian, it has such an original plot — so different from anything you ever saw before. Y’see the fella that takes the part of the crook is the hero but he really isn’t a crook at all. You’ll love this picture, Lilian. Just wait now — look, that’s him. Ain’t he grand though? His eyes is just like Joe’s. In fact he reminds me terribly of Joe. And look there, see the butler? Well, he’s the one who really takes the jewels in the end and he plays so innocent all the time you’d never think it. Why, the first time I seen this picture I was so surprised. Yeh, that’s the heroine. She wears the swellest clothes you ever seen. Wait until you see the dress she wears in the ballroom scene — gee, it’s a dream — no back to it and only one strap to hold it up — I mean what there is of the waist to it — only one strap to hold it up besides her strength of will. The ballroom scene is where she loses the pearls and the diamond bracelet and every one thinks the hero done it, but it’s really the butler after all. The butler is the real crook, Lilian.

Then this House-Boat that’s supposed to be haunted all the time is really the hiding place for all these crooks. See, that’s the House-Boat now. Gee, Lil, I get so excited when I think about the awful fight they have on it at the end of the picture. That’s when you discover that the hero isn’t a crook at all — he’s from the Police Department and the butler is the real crook. Any minute you’d think the butler will kill him but he doesn’t.

See that fella with the black moustache — well, he’s another one of the crooks and he ties the girl to the railroad track just as the train is coming. No — I’m wrong, it isn’t him that ties her to the track, it’s the half-breed. Yeh, that’s who it is. I kinda forgot it. Y’see, the half-breed is really the brother of the butler, who isn’t a half-breed — he’s a whole-breed, or whatever you call it — I mean the half-breed is the whole-breed’s half-brother. I mean the half-breed had an Indian mother, y’see, so that made ’em only half-brothers — if you get what I mean.

The butler is the brains of the jewel-robbing gang and the half-breed’ll do anything he tells him because he hasn’t got so much brains on account of his being a half-breed, y’know.

This is the sad part, Lil — see, the hero’s mother is going to die now. Gee, I hope I don’t cry. (Blinks.) Don’t he look just like Joe now — look, Lil — ain’t he the picture of Joe? Yeh, you said it, why did we have a falling out? I suppose it was my fault a little bit, but you really couldn’t blame me for getting sore. Joe’s an awful nice fella though. Look, Lilian, she’s going to die now just as soon as she falls on the floor. Ain’t it sad? (Fumbles in pocket.) Lil, have you got a handkerchief ? Thanks, I didn’t bring none. (Dabs at eyes.) Gee, I wish I wasn’t so sympathetic.

Good-night, Lil, I dropped my hat. (Gropes about on floor, sits up and accepts hat from neighbor on opposite side.) Oh, thank you ever so (Opens mouth and stares in astonishment.) Joe — you been sitting here all the time? And I never knew it; I never knew you were there at all. Gee, you surprised me so I guess I swallowed my gum. Lilian, look what was sitting right here beside us and me none the wiser. Yeh, I remember I said I’d never speak to you again, Joe, but I’ve forgotten all about that now. I wasn’t really mad, Joe. I just met Lil this afternoon and we thought we would go to the movies but I’ve seen this picture before. Y’see the butler is really the crook and the hero is from the Police Department and this House-Boat is really the hiding place for (Turns to usher in aisle.) Whadja say? We gotta stop talking or leave? Can you beat that! Don’t worry, little Sunshine, we’ll leave all right. I’ve seen the picture anyway. Cmon, Joe. (Slams on hat, climbs out into aisle.) Now I ask you, Lil, have I said two words since we been in here? You said it — I ain’t said a word — not — a — word. Believe me, some nerve!

Comments: The existence of several comic monologues around this time which satirise the talkative member of a cinema audience (generally female) indicates a general perception of certain modes of movie audience behaviour, in particular talking about what you saw on the screen.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

The Movies Take to the Pastures

Source: John Durrant, extract from ‘The Movies Take to the Pastures’, Saturday Evening Post, 14 October 1950. pp. 25, 85, 89

Text: For the fifth year in a row now movie attendance has been going down, down, down like Alice’s plunge to the bottom of the rabbit hole in her Wonderland adventure. The cinema dive, though, is no dream. It is real, and the industry is chewing its nails, wondering whether to blame its favorite whipping boy, television; the 20 per cent Federal tax on tickets; strikes and war fears; Hollywood’s pinkish tint, or too-good weather, which is supposed to keep the customers away from the movies. Whatever the causes, attendance has been slipping away steadily, although recent figures indicate that the decline may now be slowing up. Tbere is, however, one phase of the industry which has been running contrary to the general trend and bringing smiles to an increasing number of exhibitors.

It is the drive-in business, which has expanded phenomenally since the end of World War I. At the time of Pearl Harbor, for instance, there were less than 100 “ozoners” in the country. None was built during the war, but by 1947 there were 400, double that number the following year and now there are a probable 2200 in the United States and forty in Canada.

As one movie mogul famous for his malapropisms said, “They are sweeping the country like wildflowers.” And Bob Hope recently commented, “There will soon be so many drive-ins in California that you’ll be able to get married, have a honeymoon and get a divorce without ever getting out of your car.”

Hope is not exaggerating too wildly. Here, for instance, are some of the things you can do at various ozoners without taking your eyes off the screen or missing a word of dialogue: You can eat a complete meal, get your car washed and serviced, including a change of tires, have the week’s laundry done, your shopping list filled and the baby’s bottle warmed. All this while the show is on.

It’s a cinch to attend a drive-in. You buy a ticket without getting out of your car, drive to one of the rows and take a position on a ramp which causes the car to tilt slightly upward at the front end. Alongside there’s a speaker, attached to a post, which you unhook and fasten to the inside of your car window. Volume can be controlled by turning a switch, and although at first it may seem odd to be hearing sounds from a speaker next to your ear, with the action on the screen a couple of hundred yards away, the illusion is acceptable. If you want to leave in the middle of the show you replace the speaker in the post and drive forward over the ramp and make for the exit. Thus, there is no climbing over the laps of annoyed spectators as there is in the conventional theaters.

If Hope thinks that California is becoming overcrowded with drive-ins, be should visit Ohio and North Carolina, where every cow pasture is crowned by a screen. North Carolina, about one third the size of California in both population and area, boasts 125 ozoners to California’s ninety-five. Ohio has 135. While Califomia’s theaters are larger and hold more cars, the concentration of so many ozoners in the two other states is way out of proportion to their size. Why, no one knows. But the business is full of oddities. Texas, as you might expect, leads the country with some 200 theaters. Then come Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania in that order, followed by California, where the drive-ins operate the year round and everybody owns a car.

Due to the rapidity of construction – and closings, in some regions – the business is in a constant state of flux, and figures are changing daily. One thing is apparent, however, and that is that the trend is up and the saturation point has not yet been reached. When it comes – movie people put it at 3500 drive-ins – it is anybody’s guess whether there will be like the miniature-golf-course fiasco in the 30s, or a gradual leveling off, with the best-run theaters surviving.

Most conventional theater owners, who despise the ozoners and battle them at every turn, say the thing is a fad, that it’s going too fast and, anyway, the places are no more than parking lots for petters. Variety, the bible of show business calls them “passion pits with pix.” Needless to there are no figures on petting frequency in drive-ins, but I can offer the result of a one-man nonsnooping survey made by myself. I talked with dozens of exhibitors, and all firmly stated that no more went on in the cars than in the rear seats of the conventional theaters. All were quite touchy on the subject, by the way. Only one said he had ever had a complaint in that direction from a patron.

Leon Rosen, who has managed both types of theaters for the Fabian Theaters, a chain of eighty conventionals and seven drive-ins in the Middle Atlantic states, told me that more than 3,000,000 people have attended the ozoners he’s managed and he has never received a single complaint. He could not say the same for his indoor theaters. “Sure, a fellow slips his arm around his girl in the drive-ins,” he said. “The same as in the regular theaters or on a park bench. No more than that. And there’s one thing you don’t get in the drive-ins that you get inside. That’s the guy on the prowl, the seat changer who molests lone women. There’s none of that in the drive-ins.”

Still, the bad name persists and is kept alive by gents’-room gags which probably stem from the prewar days, when drive-ins were completely blacked out and circulating food venders and ushers were a rarity. But what disproves the cheap gags more than anything else is the type of audience that fills the drive-ins today. It is by far a family audience, with a probable 75 per cent of the cars containing children who, incidentally, are let in free by most drive-ins if they are under twelve. This is the main reason the ozoners have been so successful – their appeal to the
family group. They are the answer to parents who want to take in the movies, but can’t leave their children alone at home. No baby sitters are needed. And the kids are no bother to anyone in the audience. There’s no vaulting of theater seats, running up and down the aisles or drowning out the dialogue by yapping.

A workingman told me that the drive-ins had saved his family from a near split-up. He didn’t like the movies, he said, and his wife did. The result was a battle every Saturday night, when she wanted to see a movie and he refused to go. Saturday night was his beer night, and no movies were going to interfere with it. His wife went anyway, and he stayed home sipping beer and keeping an eye on Junior. But this didn’t work out. The weekly argument went on, and the breach between them got wider. Then, one Saturday night, he agreed to take in a drive-in with her, provided he could take a long a couple of bottles of beer. After that everything was solved. They now go every Saturday night. She sits in the front seat with Junior and watches the flickers. He sits in back alone, with his beer in a bucket of ice, and pays little attention to the movie as he sips the brew and smokes cigars with his legs crossed. Now everybody is happy and there’s no more talk of a split-up.

After the war, the drive-ins began to go all out for the family trade. The so-called “moonlight” flooding of the parking area and aisle lighting came in, and exhibitors built children’s play areas, with swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and pony rides. Some installed miniature railroads which hauled kids over several hundred yards of track. Picnic grounds, swimming pools and monkey villages appeared in the larger theaters. While the youngsters disport themselves at these elaborate plants, their parents can have a go at miniature golf courses and driving ranges or they can play shuffleboard, pitch horse-shoes and dance before live bands.

That is the trend now in the de luxe drive-ins, ones with a capacity of, say, 800 cars or more. They are becoming community recreation centers, and the idea is to attract people two or three hours before show time. It gives the receipts a boost and the family a whole evening’s outing, not just three hour sat the movies, according to the new school of exhibitors. Many old-time managers disagree.

“This carnival stuff cheapens the business,” one told me. “And the biggest mistake the drive-ins made was to let kids in free. They can’t go to the indoor houses for nothing, so a lot of people think we show only rotten pictures and they stay away.”

The manager touched a sore point here. The films shown in the ozoners are in the main pretty frightful. Most are third-run pictures, rusty with age. Drive-in exhibitors are not entirely to blame for this. Film distributors point out that their first loyalty is to their regular customers, the all-year conventional houses, and the ozoners must wait in line or pay through the nose.

It doesn’t seem to make much difference what kind of pictures are shown, because drive-in fans are far less choosy than the indoor variety. A large part of them never have been regular indoor movie-goers, and almost any picture is new to them. The ozoners have struck a rich vein of new fans. Leading the list are the moderate-income families who bring the kids to save money on baby-sitters. Furthermore, they don’t have to dress up, find a parking place, walk a few blocks to a ticket booth and then stand in line. The drive-ins make it easy for them and for workers and farmers, who can come in their working clothes straight from the evening’s chores, and for the aged and physically handicapped. They are a boon to the hard of hearing and to invalids, many of whom never saw a movie before the drive-ins. They draw fat men who have trouble wedging themselves between the arms of theater seats, and tall men sensitive about blocking off the screen from those behind. Add the teen-agers to these people, and you have a weekly attendance of about 7,000,000, an impressive share of the country’s 60,000,000 weekly ticket buyers …

Comments: Drive-ins were introduced in the United States in 1933.

Links: Complete article on Saturday Evening Post site

Epikhodov

Source: Hugh Walpole, extract from ‘Epikhodov’, in Winifred Stephens (ed.), The Soul of Russia (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 38-39

Text: Beside my quarters in Petrograd is a tiny cinema theatre. Because we hang over the still waters of a side canal, where trade is sleepy, the proprietor of the cinema has to go out of his way to attract the great world. In the vestibule of his theatre there plays every night a ghastly discordant band, his windows are hung with flaming posters of cinematographic horrors, and in the intervals between the pictures he has music-hall turns — the two dwarfs, the gentleman who sings society songs, the fat lady and her thin husband — all this for a penny or twopence. The little room of the entertainment is stuffy and smelly; about one is the noise of the cracking of sunflower seeds. Once and again the audience embraces the audience with loud, clapping kisses. During the musical-hall turns the door is open and you can see into the blue sunlight of the white night, the cobbled street, the green toy-like trees, the gleaming waters of the canal upon which lie the faintly coloured barges.

Comments: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. This essay comes from a collection on art and society in Russia, produced in aid of Russian refugees, and deals with Russian drama (Epikhodov is a character in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard). Walpole also describes the mixture of cinema and variety in his 1919 novel The Secret City (qv).

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

The Secret City

Source: Hugh Walpole, The Secret City (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 61-64

Text: We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers’ band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing “The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts,” and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers’ boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.

No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly – kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier – I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours… I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity…

The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party… The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger… my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun’s happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.

There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants’ dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.

The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.

He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.

The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the “Drama of the Woman without a Soul,” but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.

Comment: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. His novel The Secret City draws on these experiences. Ekateringofsky canal is in Petrograd/St Petersburg. Though there were British and American films made in 1915 called The Woman Without a Soul the film described is probably Walpole’s invention. Ellipses are in the original text.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

The Secret City

Source: Hugh Walpole, The Secret City (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 61-64

Text: We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers’ band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing “The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts,” and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers’ boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.

No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly – kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier – I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours… I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity…

The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party… The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger… my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun’s happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.

There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants’ dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.

The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.

He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.

The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the “Drama of the Woman without a Soul,” but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.

Comment: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. His novel The Secret City draws on these experiences. Ekateringofsky canal is in Petrograd/St Petersburg. Though there were British and American films made in 1915 called The Woman Without a Soul the film described is probably Walpole’s invention. Ellipses are in the original text.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

Saturday Morning Cinema in the 1930s

Source: Terry Gallacher, ‘Saturday Morning Cinema in the 1930s’, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/saturday-morning-cinema-in-the-1930s, published 23 November 2010

Text: I did not visit the cinema very often during my childhood. The seats cost four to six pence during the week, so I would be taken by my mother or my father. My mother would take me in the afternoon so that we could get home for her to get dinner on.

I always knew why my father took me to the cinema. He would always fall asleep soon after arrival and would sleep through until it was time to go home. My father relied on me to wake him up at the appropriate time and then tell him what the film was all about. I think that, maybe, at this time I started the process of learning to be a film editor for which memory is everything.

My principal visits to the cinema were on a Saturday morning. It was a ritual which started in 1937. Around eight o’clock in the morning, I would approach my mother for some pocket money. She might give me two pennies, sometimes three, my dad would give me the same. On a bad week, I would have as little as three pence in total. Then I would go up to my Granddad’s room and ask him if he had any money for me to go to the pictures. He would ask me to pass him his small terracotta jar, with a lid, from here he took out some farthings and he would count out four. I had to have four pence to get into the Moorish styled cinema, the Alcazar which started at nine in the morning and ran until midday. Here we would see a couple of “B” movies about kids and animals and then a large number of serials like “Tailspin Tommy”, “The Perils Of Pauline” and “Flash Gordon” and films such as “Tarzan” with Johnny Weissmuller, and the “b westerns” of “Buck Jones” and “Tim McCoy”.

Of course, they were all designed to get us back there next week. Mostly these cliff-hangers were cheating us. Tailspin Tommy would be left plunging to earth in a dive that he could not possibly pull out of. Next week, he would be seen about a hundred foot higher and he pulls out of the dive without a problem. Thus I occupied my Saturday mornings.

The audience were exclusively children, no adults were allowed. Most of the children were restless and rowdy. Frequently the noise of the audience would be greater than the characters on the screen. At this point, the resident warder would march down the centre aisle shouting “Quack”, “Quack”. With my fourpenny ticket, I could sit in the circle, far away from the rabble below. They were so bad, fights were not unknown among the roughest of them. If I could not have got fourpence to sit in the circle, I would not go. It took me a long time to work out that the warder was shouting “Quiet”, it really did sound like “Quack”.

If I had a good day and had rustled up another two pence, I could join the “tuppenny rush” at the Hippodrome across the road. The management of the Hippodrome, early experts in marketing, arranged to open their performance thirty minutes after the show ended at the Alcazar. All those children trying to go from the Alcazar to the Hippodrome would evacuate the former at high speed, run down to the crossing, over the road and queue up outside the latter hall of entertainment.

Traffic was held up while this mob moved from one cinema to the next. The main reason for the rush was that the Hippodrome only held half as many as the Alcazar and you couldn’t risk the chance that more wanted to go to the Hippodrome than it could hold.

In the Hip’, the films were older; the rowdiest of the Alcazar audience were sure to attend (their parents probably suffered considerable hardship raising the extra two pence, just to get rid of them for a few more hours); there were broken seats; seats with the most outrageous mixtures of spilled food, forcing us to inspect each seat before sitting down. The projector frequently broke down, the audience would go wild. They would shout “Ooh, Ooh, Ooh” until the picture came back. For me there was no refuge in a circle, there wasn’t one and there was no “Quack” man. In the Hippodrome, there was only the occasional cry of pain as a rowdy became the recipient of a thick ear. The warder in the Hip’ was silent, but quite active. I don’t know why I went there.

Sadly, the Alcazar was bombed in a very early wartime raid on North London on August 23rd 1940, while the Hip’ was pulled down, much to the relief of the local populace.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The Alcazar and Hippodrome were in Edmonton, London. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Maud Agnes Baines, ref. C707/13/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: And cinemas – were there cinemas?

A: Oh we did sometimes go to cinemas if they – if the programme was suitable, you see, if father went to see what they were like first of all.

Q: And then they’d let you go if it was all right?

A: Yes, if it was suitable, yes, I remember enjoying that.

Q: Did your parents give you any pocket money?

A: We had very little, I forget what it was – something like thrupence a week.

Q: Was that regular – every week?

A; Oh yes – then it went up to sixpence or something.

Q: Do you remember what you spent it on?

A: Sweets. Toffee apples – we had toffee apples – I don’t know if you ever see then now. They used to be quite nice. They lasted such a long time too!

Comments: Maud Baines was born in Enfield, London in 1887. She was one of seven children of a men’s clothing designer who worked in Bond Street. She was interviewed on 28 July 1972, one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

The Price of Love

Source: Arnold Bennett, The Price of Love (New York/London: Harper Brothers, 1914), pp. 171-178

Text: It was not surprising that Rachel, who never in her life had beheld at close quarters any of the phenomena of luxury, should blink her ingenuous eyes at the blinding splendour of the antechambers of the Imperial Cinema de Luxe. Eyes less ingenuous than hers had blinked before that prodigious dazzlement. Even Louis, a man of vast experience and sublime imperturbability, visiting the Imperial on its opening night, had allowed the significant words to escape him, “Well, I’m blest!” – proof enough of the triumph of the Imperial!

The Imperial had set out to be the most gorgeous cinema in the Five Towns; and it simply was. Its advertisements read: “There is always room at the top.” There was. Over the ceiling of its foyer enormous crimson peonies expanded like tropic blooms, and the heart of each peony was a sixteen-candle-power electric lamp. No other two cinemas in the Five Towns, it was reported, consumed together as much current as the Imperial de Luxe; and nobody could deny that the degree of excellence of a cinema is finally settled by its consumption of electricity.

Rachel now understood better the symbolic meaning of the glare in the sky caused at night by the determination of the Imperial to make itself known. She had been brought up to believe that, gas being dear, no opportunity should be lost of turning a jet down, and that electricity was so dear as to be inconceivable in any house not inhabited by crass spendthrift folly. She now saw electricity scattered about as though it were as cheap as salt. She saw written in electric fire across the inner entrance the beautiful sentiment, “Our aim is to please YOU.” The “you” had two lines of fire under it. She saw, also, the polite nod of the official, dressed not less glitteringly than an Admiral of the Fleet in full uniform, whose sole duty in life was to welcome and reassure the visitor. All this in Bursley, which even by Knype was deemed an out-of-the-world spot and home of sordid decay! In Hanbridge she would have been less surprised to discover such marvels, because the flaunting modernity of Hanbridge was notorious. And her astonishment would have been milder had she had been in the habit of going out at night. Like all those who never went out at night, she had quite failed to keep pace with the advancing stride of the Five Towns on the great road of civilization.

More impressive still than the extreme radiance about her was the easy and superb gesture of Louis as, swinging the reticule containing pineapple, cocoa, and cutlets, he slid his hand into his pocket and drew therefrom a coin and smacked it on the wooden ledge of the ticket-window – gesture of a man to whom money was naught provided he got the best of everything. “Two!” he repeated, with slight impatience, bending down so as to see the young woman in white who sat in another world behind gilt bars. He was paying for Rachel! Exquisite experience for the daughter and sister of Fleckrings! Experience unique in her career! And it seemed so right and yet so wondrous, that he should pay for her!… He picked up the change, and without a glance at them dropped the coins into his pocket. It was a glorious thing to be a man! But was it not even more glorious to be a girl and the object of his princely care?… They passed a heavy draped curtain, on which was a large card, “Tea-Room,” and there seemed to be celestial social possibilities behind that curtain, though indeed it bore another and smaller card: “Closed after six o’clock” – the result of excessive caution on the part of a kill-joy Town Council. A boy in the likeness of a midshipman took halves of the curving tickets and dropped them into a tin box, and then next Rachel was in a sudden black darkness, studded here and there with minute glowing rubies that revealed the legend: “Exit. Exit. Exit.”

Row after row of dim, pale, intent faces became gradually visible, stretching far back-into complete obscurity; thousands, tens of thousands of faces, it seemed – for the Imperial de Luxe was demonstrating that Saturday night its claim to be “the fashionable rage of Bursley.” Then mysterious laughter rippled in the gloom, and loud guffaws shot up out of the rippling. Rachel saw nothing whatever to originate this mirth until an attendant in black with a tiny white apron loomed upon them out of the darkness, and, beckoning them forward, bent down, and indicated two empty places at the end of a row, and the great white scintillating screen of the cinema came into view. Instead of being at the extremity it was at the beginning of the auditorium. And as Rachel took her seat she saw on the screen – which was scarcely a dozen feet away – a man kneeling at the end of a canal-lock, and sucking up the water of the canal through a hose-pipe; and this astoundingly thirsty man drank with such rapidity that the water, with huge boats floating on it, subsided at the rate of about a foot a second, and the drinker waxed enormously in girth. The laughter grew uproarious. Rachel herself gave a quick, uncontrolled, joyous laugh, and it was as if the laugh had been drawn out of her violently unawares. Louis Fores also laughed very heartily.

“Cute idea, that!” he whispered.

When the film was cut off Rachel wanted to take back her laugh. She felt a little ashamed of having laughed at anything so silly.

“How absurd!” she murmured, trying to be serious.

Nevertheless she was in bliss. She surrendered herself to the joy of life, as to a new sensation. She was intoxicated, ravished, bewildered, and quite careless. Perhaps for the first time in her adult existence she lived without reserve or preoccupation completely in and for the moment. Moreover the hearty laughter of Louis Fores helped to restore her dignity. If the spectacle was good enough for him, with all his knowledge of the world, to laugh at, she need not blush for its effect on herself. And in another ten seconds, when the swollen man, staggering along a wide thoroughfare, was run down by an automobile and squashed flat, while streams of water inundated the roadway, she burst again into free laughter, and then looked round at Louis, who at the same instant looked round at her, and they exchanged an intimate smiling glance. It seemed to Rachel that they were alone and solitary in the crowded interior, and that they shared exactly the same tastes and emotions and comprehended one another profoundly and utterly; her confidence in him, at that instant, was absolute, and enchanting to her. Half a minute later the emaciated man was in a room and being ecstatically kissed by a most beautiful and sweetly shameless girl in a striped shirtwaist; it was a very small room, and the furniture was close upon the couple, giving the scene an air of delightful privacy. And then the scene was blotted out and gay music rose lilting from some unseen cave in front of the screen.

Rachel was rapturously happy. Gazing along the dim rows, she descried many young couples, without recognizing anybody at all, and most of these couples were absorbed in each other, and some of the girls seemed so elegant and alluring in the dusk of the theatre, and some of the men so fine in their manliness! And the ruby-studded gloom protected them all, including Rachel and Louis, from the audience at large.

The screen glowed again. And as it did so Louis gave a start.

“By Jove!” he said, “I’ve left my stick somewhere. It must have been at Heath’s. Yes, it was. I put it on the counter while I opened this net thing. Don’t you remember? You were taking some money out of your purse.” Louis had a very distinct vision of his Rachel’s agreeably gloved fingers primly unfastening the purse and choosing a shilling from it.

“How annoying!” murmured Rachel feelingly.

“I wouldn’t lose that stick for a five-pound note.” (He had a marvellous way of saying “five-pound note.”) “Would you mind very much if I just slip over and get it, before he shuts? It’s only across the road, you know.”

There was something in the politeness of the phrase “mind very much” that was irresistible to Rachel. It caused her to imagine splendid drawing-rooms far beyond her modest level, and the superlative deportment therein of the well-born.

“Not at all!” she replied, with her best affability. “But will they let you come in again without paying?”

“Oh, I’ll risk that,” he whispered, smiling superiorly.

Then he went, leaving the reticule, and she was alone.

She rearranged the reticule on the seat by her side. The reticule being already perfectly secure, there was no need for her to touch it, but some nervous movement was necessary to her. Yet she was less self-conscious than she had been with Louis at her elbow. She felt, however, a very slight sense of peril – of the unreality of the plush fauteuil on which she sat, and those rows of vaguely discerned faces on her right; and the reality of distant phenomena such as Mrs. Maldon in bed. Notwithstanding her strange and ecstatic experiences with Louis Fores that night in the dark, romantic town, the problem of the lost money remained, or ought to have remained, as disturbing as ever. To ignore it was not to destroy it. She sat rather tight in her place, increasing her primness, and trying to show by her carriage that she was an adult in full control of all her wise faculties. She set her lips to judge the film with the cold impartiality of middle age, but they persisted in being the fresh, responsive, mobile lips of a young girl. They were saying noiselessly: “He will be back in a moment. And he will find me sitting here just as he left me. When I hear him coming I shan’t turn my head to look. It will be better not.”

The film showed a forest with a wooden house in the middle of it. Out of this house came a most adorable young woman, who leaped on to a glossy horse and galloped at a terrific rate, plunging down ravines, and then trotting fast over the crests of clearings. She came to a man who was boiling a kettle over a camp-fire, and slipped lithely from the horse, and the man, with a start of surprise, seized her pretty waist and kissed her passionately, in the midst of the immense forest whose every leaf was moving. And she returned his kiss without restraint. For they were betrothed. And Rachel imagined the free life of distant forests, where love was, and where slim girls rode mettlesome horses more easily than the girls of the Five Towns rode bicycles. She could not even ride a bicycle, had never had the opportunity to learn. The vision of emotional pleasures that in her narrow existence she had not dreamed of filled her with mild, delightful sorrow. She could conceive nothing more heavenly than to embrace one’s true love in the recesses of a forest…. Then came crouching Indians…. And then she heard Louis Fores behind her. She had not meant to turn round, but when a hand was put heavily on her shoulder she turned quickly, resenting the contact.

“I should like a word with ye, if ye can spare a minute, young miss,” whispered a voice as heavy as the hand. It was old Thomas Batchgrew’s face and whiskers that she was looking up at in the gloom.

Comment: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. His novel The Price of Love tells of a lower middle class woman (Rachel Fleckring) who marries a rogue (Louis Fores) and comes to regret it. This extract comes from Chapter VII, entitled ‘The Cinema’. Thomas Batchgrew is a town councillor and owner of a cinema chain, of which the Imperial Cinema de Luxe is one. Investing in the cinema business forms part of the plot. ‘Bursley’ equates with the real-life Burslem. Ellipses in the above occur as they do in the original text.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Just Like it Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 27-30

Text: On some Saturday evenings my mother would say, ‘Wash your face and hands quick – we are going to the pictures’. In a flurry of soap and water my sister and I would comply with her request and then, with coats buttoned to the neck, walk down the dark stairway that led from our second-floor flat to the street’. The cinema we usually patronised was in Chicksand Street, a narrow dingy turning diagonally opposite Flower and Dean Street, still shuddering from the memory of Jack the Ripper. We crossed Bethnal Green Road at Haltrecht’s corner and walked through the odiferous Brick Lane market …

… Eventually Chicksand Street came into sight and we rushed off to take our place in the queue. My mother would recognise old friends and chat away in Yiddish whilst my sister and I exchanged our spending money for massive bags of peanuts, still warm from their on-the-spot roasting. By twos and threes, the queue dwindled as room became available in the auditorium, and soon it was our turn to be ushered in. On the diminutive screen, the ‘big picture’ had already started. Under it, curtained off from the main audience, Miss Daniels, a heavily made up brunette, played a piano accompaniment to the tragic drama that flickered overhead. The heat was terrific. A perpetual buzz of conversation mingled with the crackle of peanut shells that littered the floor like snow in winter. Every step in any direction crunched.

Having found three seats together, we removed our coats and sat back to enjoy the programme. Nearby, children were reading the titles out loud for the benefit of their foreign parents. Some even translated the words directly into Yiddish. Babies cried, kids were slapped, and an endless procession to the ‘ladies and gents’ was greeted by outraged cries of ‘Siddown’. Only the screen was silent. It was here, and in other cinemas like it, that I saw Pearl White, Eddie Polo (in person), Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin, Pola Negri, Chester Conklin, The Keystone Cops, Nazimova, Louise Fazenda, Harold Lloyd, The Gish Sisters, Mary Pickford, and a host of other luminaries in a fast-developing cinema world.

No air-conditioning disturbed the fug of cigarette smoke and perspiring humanity. From time to time an usher would walk up and down the aisles spraying the air with a perfumed disinfectant that made you smart if you got an eyeful. At the end of each reel, a slide appeared stating ‘end of part one’, or whatever it happened to be. Resuming projection, the operator usually missed the screen by a foot or so above or below. This was greeted with loud cries of ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ until all was well. The peanut crackle and general hubbub was resumed, and the audience settled back in their seats for further enjoyment.

When it was all over and ‘the end’ faded out Miss Daniels played a very spirited National Anthem, somehwat drowned out by the noise of shells crackling underfoot as we stood in respect before the portraits of George V and Queen Mary spanning the silver screen. Attendants walked round and woke up those customers who, still under the influence of the post-Chollant barbiturate, had comfortably snored through the complete programme. Still excitedly chattering about Cowboys or Comedians we had seen in the show, my mother, sister and I would arrive home where father had prepared hot cocoa and buttered cholla for us so that we could go to bed soon after.

Comment: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. His memories of cinemagoing cover both the 1910s and 1920s. Chollant was a traditional Sabbath meal; cholla a type of bread.