Cagney ushers in a filmgoing experience in Lady Killer

Running a movie theatre was evidently a military operation in 1934; certain customers expected a different level of service.

 

In the film, Cagney will start as an usher, get involved with a criminal gang clipping gamblers, and end up a movie star. The bit in Lady Killer above is very  evocative of cinema as a social institution and part of an enormous and wide-ranging apparatus in America. But, at least as relates to film theatres, things were not too different in Britain. In ‘Working at the Gaumont,’ an unpublished interview Sheldon Hall conducted with Dennis O’Grady, who’d worked at the Gaumont in Sheffield for many years, in 2009, O’Grady tells us: ‘

‘The hours at the Gaumont were long: we started at 9 am and worked until the cinema closed at whatever time of night. We did have a break of two hours in the afternoon and one hour in the evening – unpaid, of course! We started the day by polishing every bit of brassware in the cinema, and there was plenty. The front entrance was a large marble-floored area which was scrubbed daily by an army of cleaners who used bars of hard soap and scrubbing brushes. Each woman had an area of “the marble”, as it was called, to scrub clean – it was rather like a scene from Dickens! While they scrubbed, we polished – the front doors then had brass handles, the stair rails to the circle were brass and there were about six steps up to the stalls area, which had brass hand rails.

Around 11.20 we went to the staff room and changed into our very smart uniforms. The uniform then was pale blue with silver trimmings. We also wore a high peaked cap and a pair of white cotton gloves slipped through one of the shoulder epaulettes. There was then a staff parade where all the uniformed staff were inspected, usually by Barbara. The manager changed into evening dress from 6 pm. A great deal of pride was taken in looking smart as the Gaumont was then the number one cinema in the city centre, although we had in opposition the Cinema House, the Hippodrome, the Palace, Union Street, the Classic, and on the corner the Wicker and the Don. I can’t recall the exact date of the Odeon opening in Flat Street [16 July 1956] but we had very little to do with them.

The programmes were continuous throughout the day, starting with the main film, then the adverts and trailers for the following week (there was not then the endless stream of the same type of film trailers we get now in the multiplexes). There was also a newsreel and the second feature. The only breaks were for the sale of ice cream and drinks when at least eight sales girls went round the whole auditorium. The adverts for the various ice creams and drinks on sale advised patrons to “kindly remain seated – the sales staff will visit all parts of the auditorium”.

It was not considered at all unusual for patrons to enter the cinema halfway through a film, watch the programme until they reached the point when they had entered, then leave having seen the whole programme. At busy times there would be a large queue outside the cinema and the usherettes would advise us that we had, say, “three doubles and six singles” as people left the cinema. A doorman would then go to the queue and announce “Three doubles and six singles” to the front part of the queue, moving up the queue if the first people did not want the seats. At the end of the evening we all went round emptying the ashtrays on the backs of the seats before changing to go home. Unlike today there was very little litter on the floor; there was no popcorn and hot dogs were a novelty, sold from a barrow in the foyer. I dare not think of the mess if performances were continuous in today’s multiscreens.’

Michael Fisher, who managed several cinemas into the nineties, says tells me that, ‘Staff parades were carried out before premieres. Probably still are. It was written into Odeon Manager’s contracts to change into Dinner jackets after 6pm. This continued until the 1990s at least.  I was on the Uniform Committee for a while. Every time there was a new Managing Director there was a change of Uniform to show they had arrived and were doing something. The worst one had the Odeon O over the left tit of the usherettes’ blouses. Just like a target’.

Seeing the clip also reminded Chris Schneider of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’: ‘You’re the top, you’re the pants on a Roxy Usher’. The cinema in the clip is the legendary The Strand, Warner’s New York showcase, and one of the first luxurious movie palaces built to show only motion pictures.

José Arroyo

 

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