Someone asked me recently, asked me "What's your favorite childhood memory?"
With so many to choose from, there's really no one answer, but some memories that do occur more frequently and I suppose could qualify as favorites, are those connected to my early adventures at the cinema.
The cinemas in Ealing in West London where I grew up, were already in decline in the 1960's when I encountered them. My first visit to a cinema was to the 'Lido' in west Ealing when I was about four or five years old. I went with my parents to see a black and white film about motor racing. I vividly remember the crash sequences but seen through a kind of blue haze which I now know would have been tobacco smoke.
The Lido was a large rambling structure that was built at the dawn of the modern film industry in 1913. It's rather plain exterior was inexplicably interrupted here and there by elaborate classical detailing that looked like assorted bits and pieces left over from the construction of a royal palace that someone thought would be a shame to throw out!
There were four local cinemas in Ealing. It's not surprising there were so many in such a small area as as one of the pioneers of British film making, Ealing Studios was well established by 1912 and it's output would have been more than enough to support several cinemas given Ealing's growing affluence and the residents fascination with the 'moving pictures' phenomenon.
The other three picture palaces were the 'Odeon' the 'Walpole' and the 'Forum' They all had various titles over the years but those were the names when I knew them.
The closest to Overdale road, and my favorite, was the 'Odeon' in Northfields Avenue. A beautiful building built in the Art Deco 'Moorish' style in 1932. It still stands today, a preservation order saved it from the fate of the other three who vanished decades ago. The exterior is understated, white walls with handsome multi colored ceramic tiles, elaborate lanterns and black wrought ironwork. It's real glory however is it's interior. Nicknamed 'Spanish City' by the locals, a vast rich red tented fabric ceiling, false balconies and elaborate door and window arches give it the luxurious feel of a 1930's Hollywood film star's residence.
The 'Walpole' in Ealing Broadway on the other hand, could never be described as luxurious. It began life as a small skating rink and was converted to a cinema in 1912. It had a small but elaborate arched entranceway which was comprised entirely of beautiful blue and white ceramic tiles. The tiled facade is preserved today not far from where it once stood. Sadly the interior styling didn't match the exterior and could best be described as WWI airship hanger meets 1940's bomb shelter. Today it's steel roof trusses and concrete floors would no doubt be praised as 'a triumph of function over form' but it's nickname in those days was 'The Bug House' which ensured absolutely no pretensions of grandeur. In fact patrons soon discovered the nickname was particularly well deserved and found they were not always alone in their seats. Ironically, the Walpole specialized in showing Hammer Horror films, and while Christopher Lee as Dracula, feasted on the blood of an unsuspecting victim up on the big screen, a similar event was often taking place in the seats below!
The fourth and largest cinema was the 'Forum' in Ealing Broadway. Located opposite the town hall, it was an imposing structure. It's white walls contrasting strongly with the large black stone columns that suggested ancient Egypt. A popular theme for the Art Deco period of the 1930's when it was constructed. Like the Walpole, the facade remains but is now largely lost in the towering modern glass and steel architecture that is gradually surrounding it. The Forum was very luxurious inside. Deep pile carpets a huge circle seating area and very comfortable seats meant that the admission price was the highest of the four establishments. Sadly the lighting was often so subdued that very little of the decorative interior could be clearly deduced but went some way to explaining its huge popularity with courting couples.
Television had made a big dent in cinema audiences by the 60's and less people were making the weekly excursion to watch their favorite stars on the big screen. In those days, the large adverts over the entrances announcing the current offering held little interest to a six year old boy like myself because the children of Ealing had their very own cinema entertainment.
Both the Odeon and the Forum had cinema clubs for children on Saturday mornings from 9.15 to 12.30. It gave the children an opportunity to mix with other kids from the town, but more importantly it gave the mothers a chance to do the weekly shopping and other household tasks unhindered.
The 'Boys and Girls Clubs' were located in cinemas all over the country and were universally known by the children as 'Saturday Morning Pictures' or 'Saturday Matinees'
Run by the nation's two largest film distributors, the clubs were very well organized. Each participating theatre had its own small notice board announcing the program for the coming Saturday located near the entrance at a convenient hight for children to read.
There were not just films shown, but all sorts of competitions were organized, fancy dress, story writing, art competitions, all administered by the cinema manager who would appear on the stage in front of the screen in full evening dress, to make announcements, declare competition winners and entertain the children before the program began.
Our manager at the Odeon insisted we all call him 'Uncle Ernie' He was a tall thin man in his middle 50's with grey hair. His evening dress pants were too short and he was always fidgeting with his bow tie. His humor was forced and even a naive six year old could tell he didn't really like kids all that much. He would often insist we join him in a bizarre spontaneous 'sing along'. Unfortunately they were all songs we'd never heard of. Or, he would call for all contestants for the yo-yo competition to make their way onto the stage and we would stare blankly at him as none of us even possessed a yo-yo. (They had been out of fashion for many years at that time.) Over time his attempts at bonhomie grew less and less frequent until eventually the only time he would take to the stage other than to make announcements was to stop the film and threaten us all with the police if we didn't behave.
The program never varied. The entertainment started promptly at nine fifteen with three cartoons. Usually Tom and Jerry, the Road Runner or Bugs Bunny. After that came a twenty minute episode of a ten part serial. These were almost always in black and white and from the late 1930's. If we were really unlucky, we would have to suffer through ten weeks of 'Roy Rogers the singing cowboy' or an interminable 'mystery' story that involved a bunch of middle class British kids with BBC accents straight from stage school looking for a missing 'treasure' and capturing a gang of bank robbers in their spare time.
However, what we really loved were the science fiction series like 'The King of the Rocket Men' or 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' They all had great storylines but totally pathetic 'special effects' The bad guys were always inexplicably dressed as 19th century Mandarin Chinese and the good guys wore a satin cloak and carried a sword and rarely missed an opportunity to use it (despite having a large ray gun on their hip). The power plant for Flash Gordon's interstellar vehicle was a feeble five cent sparkler hanging out of the rear, which made a peculiar groaning buzz and clouds of smoke whenever it moved. The ship dangled from clearly visible wires and often bumped into large chunks of scenery when it took off but we didn't care, we were completely entranced.
Each episode finished with a standard 'cliffhanger' ending. Flash Gordon would be dangling on a rope ladder below his rocket ship as it buzzed and groaned along, a thousand feet above a sea of acid on the bleak surface of planet Mongo. (which bore a striking resemblance to the desert of southern California where only a week or two earlier we had winced as Roy Rogers had defeated a notorious band of cattle rustlers by singing ballads at them.)
Flash was struggling with Mandor, commander of Ming the Merciless palace guards in a fight to the death. Things were looking pretty grim. The rope frayed, twang! it broke.. we saw the two figures fall to their doom and a strange green glow would appear around the bottom of the screen to let you know the episode was ending.
We went away convinced Flash was now the consistency of wallpaper paste but the following Saturday, when the next episode started and the re-run of last weeks horrifying plunge was shown, Flash wasn't there at all. He had apparently triggered his anti gravity belt at the last second, and soared gracefully away leaving Mandor to fall alone into the acid, only a grease spot to mark his passing.
We scratched our little heads, sure that we had seen Flash go down as well, but it was a week ago, maybe we were mistaken? We inevitably convinced ourselves we were mistaken, and eventually we found it easier to believe our lying eyes week after week.
That green glow was also the signal for the ice cream lady to take up her position at the railings below the screen. She was a small, grey haired, elderly scottish woman who wore so much make up she looked positively scary in the dark. She was incredibly grumpy, and used to swear worse than any sailor. The rumor among the kids was that she was Uncle Ernie's mother. We never found out if that was true because the rumor also had it that any kid who asked her that question disappeared, never to be seen again.
The more observant in the audience would spot the 'ice cream bitch' (as she was known by the braver members of our little community) quietly crossing the floor and adopting a 'braced' position against the rails. As the green glow grew deeper, she would turn on the little light that illuminated the tray of ice creams suspended on a strap around her neck. Unfortunately, it also illuminated her horrifying make up from below, and would under normal circumstances have been enough to deter any sensible person (other than Professor van Helsing) from going anywhere near her, but ice cream, since it's invention, has always exerted a particularly strong hold over children and the need inevitably overcame the fear.
The green glow grew deeper as the serial ending reached its peak and a faint rumbling noise could be heard at the back of the cinema. Quietly at first, almost unnoticed amid the delighted screams of the audience watching Flash and Mandor beating the tar out of each other, but it steadily grew in intensity until finally, when the ice cream bitch switched on her little light it was like a homing signal and the roar of hundreds of tiny feet thundering towards that single light source drowned out everything else and she would suddenly disappear from sight, swamped by a mob of 6-9 year olds, awash in a sea of duffel coated dwarves. Surfacing occasionally to scream endearments like
"wait yer turn ya wee bastard!" or "gerroffa ma foot or I'll teer the heed off ye!" then sinking back into the maelstrom until the human tide finally receded. With the benefit of hindsight, I now have some small appreciation of what a visit to the Colosseum in ancient Rome must have been like.
Aisle seats were particularly popular with 'troublemakers' It was discovered that a leg, extended into the path of the human flood as it rushed down the aisle at just the right moment could generate a 'pile up' of epic proportions, sometimes so big that Uncle Ernie himself had to wade in and untangle the wriggling heaps of miniature misfortune. This activity had to be indulged in carefully as anyone caught causing pile ups was unceremoniously frogmarched out of the establishment by Uncle Ernie's 'goon'
A large broad faced Mongolian man with a droopy mustache who wore the old faded green doorman's uniform even though he was at least two sizes too big for it. He spoke broken English and when we were teenagers, he would let an entire gang of kids sneak in to watch whatever we liked for a packet of cigarettes. (But that's another story!)
The intermission lasted for fifteen minutes. After the 'refreshments' had been obtained the lights were dimmed slightly and a psychedelic light show was projected onto the screen accompanied by the latest top 20 pop tunes. The girls took the opportunity to meet each other in the open space between the front seats and the screen and dance to the music....The boys however, had other plans.
The children that made up the vast majority of the Saturday club were well mannered rational human beings who under normal circumstances were a pleasure to be around but like most kids of that time, they were expected to be 'seen and not heard' in adult company so there was a lot of pent up energy looking for an outlet and in a large dark building full of your peers with no parents around, it was simply too hard to resist a spot of misbehaving.
There were two rival factions in the audience. The local kids from Ealing and the kids from the nearby town of Brentford, which had no cinema of it's own but the Odeon was a short bus ride away for most of them. The groups usually stuck with their own but I was in the unenviable position of being an Ealing kid but going to primary school in Brentford. There was no catholic primary school in Ealing at the time and I was sent to the nuns of St John's convent school in the very heart of Brentford. Therefore I had friends in both camps but all my classmates were from Brentford and so I had to sit with them. Under normal circumstances not a particular hardship but the circumstances at the Odeon were rarely normal and I found myself on more than one occasion wishing I had sat elsewhere.
The events of any Saturday morning depended a lot on what the 'big picture' was. An action picture, perhaps an Errol Flynn pirate story like 'The Sea Hawk'or a horror adventure like 'The Abominable Snowman' and everything would be fine. Our attention would be harnessed and there were no problems. If however, the film was boring, (the very worst example would be an 'Elvis' picture,) there would be unrest of heroic proportions. I still remember seeing the film title 'Kid Galahad' on the poster one morning as we queued to get inside and the excited consensus was that it was a film about the knights of the round table when they were children. It's impossible to describe the outrage when instead of a young King Arthur and his pals, Elvis appeared with his 'gittar'
Disapproval was shown in several ways. The first was foot stamping. Slowly and rythmlically at first then getting faster and faster until it dissolved into a raucous uncontrolled crescendo, fading away only to start again in the same way. This was also used when the film melted and we were waiting for the projectionist to repair it. (That usually occurred when Uncle Ernie had frozen the image on screen and was on stage threatening to send us all home.)
If there was nothing of interest on the screen, our thoughts inevitably turned to making our own amusement, and in those days that meant 'projectiles'. Pea shooters had been popular in the UK for about a hundred years and most boys in Ealing had at least one. They were silent, annoying, accurate and cheap to operate. A pocket full of dried peas would last the entire one and a half hours of Elvis's love life. An observer could accurately judge the level of unrest in the first five minutes of the film by how many dried peas fell around them. An Elvis picture generated a veritable hailstorm of peas and worse would invariably follow. At that time, the ice cream bitch sold tubs of ice cream in two sizes, small and large. The large tubs were not much more expensive than the small ones but contained too much ice cream for most kids to eat at at one time so another use was found for the excess. In the winter, the radiators ran continuously and were very convenient for melting the remaining half of the unwanted ice cream. When the ice cream was hot, liquid and sticky, the lid would be replaced and hurled into space in the direction of the Brentford kids and vice versa. When the correct spin was applied, the lid would fly open at the highest point of the arc and as gravity took over, resulted in a truly magnificent spray of hot ice cream, captured for a brief shining moment suspended in the beam of the projector before descending again to cause screaming havoc below! It was this activity that made a duffel coat a vital piece of survival equipment as the hood could be raised and lowered according to the intensity of the bombardment and was also the reason for my discomfort at sitting in the Brentford 'target zone'
The stick from a popsicle (known as a 'lolly' in the UK) was never placed in a bin, it too was flicked into the dark void. The distance achieved could be quite considerable if an uneaten portion was left at the end of the stick. This behavior was of course unheard of in most of our homes but as long as the velvet darkness covered our Saturday sins, we embraced our debauchery completely.
I well remember the first blockbuster movie I ever saw at the Odeon. It was 'Anthony and Cleopatra' with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1964.
I badgered my Dad for days to take my brother and I to see it and he finally relented. Not only that but he decided to make a big deal of it and he bought tickets upstairs in the circle. I had never been in the circle before and was delighted by the opulence. The thick carpets and comfy seats were a new experience for my brother and I as we were only used to the more basic accommodations downstairs.
The film was around three hours long, and at the intermission Dad went off for refreshments returning with popsicles just as the lights went down for the second half. It took me about ten minutes to finish my 'lolly' and then, completely forgetting where I was, I launched it into space as I as I normally did downstairs on Saturday mornings. I had left an uneaten lump on the end of the stick as usual but unfortunately I held onto the stick a fraction of a second too long and instead of spinning off into the darkness, due to the steep seating arrangement of the circle, it landed with a loud slap on the balding head of the man sitting directly in front and below me. I froze in horror as he raised his hand slowly to pick the sticky remnants out of his hair and turned around to locate the perpetrator. I knew he was staring right at me but I kept looking straight ahead at the screen not daring to breathe until he produced his handkerchief, wiped the remainder off the back of his head and returned to the film.
I thought no one had seen me until we were walking back home afterwards and Dad asked us what our favorite bit of the film was. My brother thought for a moment, then looked at me and said "When the bald geezer got the lolly on his head. That was hilarious"
"I don't remember that bit" Dad said.
"Neither do I" I replied and launched into a coughing fit until the subject changed.
It was a world away from how children today entertain themselves but I can say with some certainty, if anything equipped me for survival in adult life, it was Saturday mornings with Uncle Ernie and the ice cream bitch!