An Everyday Magic

Source: Excerpts from interview with Ellen Casey, quoted in Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002), p. 59

Text: There was forms at the front. There was about a dozen forms at the front which was only tuppence. So we used to sit on the back row. The form on the back row. And em the other forms were occupied you know, mostly by children. If children were on their own they put them on the first four. Put them on the first four forms.

If it was a film that wasn’t very interesting, [children would] be running about. They’d be going backwards and forwards to the toilet. Well with it being silent films it was never quiet you know. Or some kids’d have clogs on. Well it was only bare floor. You know, no carpet. And em, there was nobody in. there was nobody in to, eh, sell things. You know like the cigarette girls or you know, the one with the tray like they did. So you took your own sweets in or whatever. And em, mostly it was, em, monkey nuts with shells on. Used to be shelling em. Take the shells off!

Used to be shelling the nuts on the floor, and then they’d take an orange, peel’d be on the floor. All these were going backwards and forwards. And em, you sit next to some children you could smell camphorated oil. You know, they’d have their chests rubbed with camphorated oil. Or whatever stuff on. You know, to keep it clean. And when I think back there was no, no peace at all.

Comment: Ellen Casey (b. 1921) was a resident of the Collyhurst area of Manchester all her life. She was interviewed on 31 May 1995. An Everyday Magic is a study of the significance of memories of British cinemagoing in the 1930s, which makes use of extensive interview material with picturegoers from the time.

Ben's Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.

Going to the Pictures

Source: Ben Moakes, ‘Going to the Pictures’, in The Time of our Lives (Peckham Publishing Project, 1983), pp. 96-97

Text: All those people who, like me, were born in the early years of this century have grown up with the cinema, reached their prime with the cinema and are now declining with the cinema.

The early films had just a novelty value and were shown wherever a suitable hall could be rented. Music halls would feature ‘the bioscope’ as an added attraction.

No film lasted more than half an hour and was usually accompanied by a piano tinkling out appropriate music.

We children had plenty of choice between cinemas that catered for youngsters. There was one in Walworth Road, near Liverpool Grove, and the halls that stands behind the Visionhire premises nearby was called ‘The Electric’ cinema. There was also ‘The Gem’ in Carter Street opposite the Beehive Public House.

My elder brother and I were given a penny each for our weekly visit to the pictures. We favoured the little cinema near Liverpool Grove.

The procedure was to buy a penny ticket each at the paybox outside; then, on entering, half the ticket would be taken by an usher, the other half being retained.

The seating consisted of rows of wooden forms. After two or three short films had been shown, the lights were switched on and the remaining half tickets were collected from us. The children who had arrived earlier and seen their full pennyworth would have to leave.

At the end of the next part of the programme once more the lights went on and we, having no ticket, would go out.

But my brother and I liked to have sweets to suck, so we spent a halfpenny on toffee before getting to the cinema, then bought one penny ticket and one halfpenny ticket. This meant that one of us, it was always me, had to leave after the first half was seen. So we planned a fiddle. I would lay full length under the form when the collector came, hidden by the legs of the other children. They also spread themselves along to cover the space I had occupied. As soon as the lights went out I climbed back on the form. But after a while they got wise to us. A man came in with a broom that had a long bamboo handle. “Hold up your feet”, he shouted, then plunged the broom under the forms to detect anybody lying there.

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

Eddie Polo was one of our early film heroes. He had fights in every picture, getting his shirt ripped each time.

Two of our cowboy heroes were William S. Hart and Broncho Billy Anderson. Tom Mix came later. Charles Ray was the college boy heart-throb for the girls.

In the many fights we saw on the screen, our heroes always fought fairly. When they had knocked down their antagonist, they stood back to allow him to get up. But the villains would frequently kick the man who was on the ground.

After a few years we got the serials, with an exciting episode every week, the hero or heroine being left is a desperate situation each time. From this the word ‘cliff-hanger’ evolved.

‘The Shielding Shadow’ was a serial that intrigued us with its trick camera effects showing only the hands of an invisible man who foiled the villains every time. We all knew that Jerry Carson was The Shielding Shadow. He couldn’t be seen because he used a substance left in a jar by a scientist.

‘The Exploits of Elaine’, ‘The Hazards of Helen’ and ‘The Perils of Pauline’ were all serials and Pearl White was the blonde heroine who stole the hearts of growing lads – us!

Comment: Ben Moakes was born in 1904. His piece on cinemagoing is part of a local collection of memories of life in Peckham, London. The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen were all American serials that began in 1914, The American serial The Shielding Shadow was released in 1916.

Fleeting Notes

Source: Alexander Verner [Werner], ‘Beglye zametki’ [Fleeting Notes], typescript in Vishnevsky archive, Gosfilmofond, Moscow, quoted in Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 16

Text: It was a small, permanently stuffy room crowded with chairs. Down at the front stood some weird apparatus, which we lads found terribly fascinating, but which was jealously guarded by a mysterious man whom we called either ‘the mechanic’ or ‘the technician’. He was both impresario, owner of the ‘theatre of illusions’ and ticket collector. He was the one who cranked the handle and the one who collected the money. On the wall hung a bit of cloth, called the screen, and this was the focus of all our attention. The audience, which usually consisted of children and young people, were pretty unrestrained in their behaviour; they chewed seeds and munched apples, throwing the husks and cores on the floor, and sometimes at one another.

Comment: Russian actor Alexander Werner describes his childhood memories of a cinema in Odessa, dating around 1904-08.

The Circle in the Square

Source: Postcard c.1908 of The Circle in the Square, 28 Leicester Square, London

circleinthesquare

Comment: The Circle in the Square was the first cinema (as opposed to variety theatres showing films as part of their programme) in London’s Leicester Square. Originally known as the Bioscopic Tea Rooms, it opened in June 1909 and in common with many cinemas at this time offered teas to its patrons, here in an adjoining room, though teas could be taken into the cinema itself. The cinema, which seated 192 with standing room for 42, was open daily 2pm to 11pm, with teas provided 2pm to 7pm. Today the same location is occupied by an Angus Steak House.

101 Jubilee Road

Source: Frederick Willis, 101 Jubilee Road: A Book of London Yesterdays (London: Phoenix House, 1948), pp. 185-186

Text: There was, of course, a film of the King’s funeral [Edward VII], and by this time London was becoming vaguely aware that there was such a thing as ‘Pictures’. This form of entertainment first impressed itself on public notice as the tail-end of a variety show. At the end of the programme there often appeared the item, ‘Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope’. When the number went up for this turn the audience felt for their hats and coats and began leaving the theatre. As the pictures flickered on the screen people glanced at them carelessly and with little interest. The next step was the appearance all over London of cinema shows put on in derelict shops. The proprietor of the show simply disembowelled the shop, filled it with any old chairs, fitted up a screen at one end and a hissing projector at the other, and charged a penny for admission. The L.C.C., alive to the danger of these enterprises, introduced laws concerning fire precautions with which these early pioneers were unable to comply, and so they faded away and were replaced with more elaborate ‘Electric Theatres’, with tip-up seats and tasteful surroundings. This was where my old customer Mr Montague Pike [sic] came on the scene, with a group of cinemas known as ‘Pike’s Circuit’. Prices of admission were threepence and sixpence, with a cup of tea and a biscuit handed to you for nothing if you happened to be present between three and five in the afternoon. Sir Augustus Harris, the great man of Drury Lane Theatre, said the cinema was an amusing novelty that would soon be forgotten. I was of the same opinion, which goes to show how great men and small men can arrive at the same conclusion and both be wrong. Nevertheless, I am sure no man living in those years could foresee the important part films were destined to play in the life of the people.

… Meanwhile the pianist (there was, of course, no orchestra), who played anything that came into her head, tinkled away furiously, and the imagination of the audience did the rest. The sequences were nailed together with sub-titles, which sufficiently explained the plot, and the last sub-title, ‘Comes the dawn’, was used so often that it became a classic. It is a curious thing that this crude form of entertainment met with success during one of the greatest periods of English theatrical history. The first film that might be described as ‘full length’ also appeared at the Alhambra round about 1910-11. The title was A Trip to the Moon, and it was based on Jules Verne’s novel, with a comic element added. It was one of the most ingenious films I have seen, and attracted much attention.

Comment: Frederick Willis was the author of several book on London life. King Edward VII died in 1902. Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope was a film renter and exhibitor. Montagu Pyke was the leading London cinema exhibitor of the early 1910s. L.C.C. is London Country Council. A Trip to the Moon is Le voyage dans la Lune (France 1902) by Georges Méliès.

The Edwardians

Source: J.B. Priestley, The Edwardians (London: William Heinemann, 1970), pp. 175-176.

Text: The final act in most of these variety shows when all the glory of the programme had vanished, was a few minutes of jerky film, generally called ‘Bioscope’. But we rarely stayed to discover what the Bioscope was offering us. Now that we have so many accounts of the early history of films, we know that men in various places were taking them very seriously indeed. But that was true of very few people. My friends and I waved them away. Apart from halls where films were occasionally shown, I seem to remember – as my first genuine cinema – a certain Theatre-de-Luxe, where for sixpence you were given an hour or so of short films, a cup of tea and a biscuit. I tried once, and once was enough. Not until the First War, when I was in the army, did I begin to look for films, not simply to take girls into the back rows for canoodling, but in search of the early Chaplin shorts that were arriving then. Before that, in the Edwardian years, like most other people I spent very little time looking at films, which were just so much prolonged ‘Bioscope’. And for that reason I shall spend no more time with them here, leaving them to flicker away, a final disregarded item in the great gaudy programmes of the music hall.

Comment: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. His history The Edwardians is a classic account of the social, political and cultural aspects of the era. His dismissal of cinema is typical of many nostalgic accounts of the era which favour theatre and music hall over the upstart new medium. Theatre de Luxe cinemas were part of Electric Theatres (1908), the first cinema chain in London.