George W. Field
My life in the ‘box’ began in 1962. My Mother was an usherette in the Monseigneur News Theatre, Princes St., Edinburgh and I had just left school and was looking for a job. The Cinema manager was a little sweet on Mum and when she told him about me, I was employed as the spoolboy. So began a sporadic lifetime in films, culminating in present-day 2007 which finds me as a part-time projectionist/f.o.h. at a couple of country cinemas near Melbourne, Australia.
But, back to the Monseigneur. It was the only Scottish site of the small chain of news theatres, all in London and situated in or near railway stations. Starting at 12 noon, we screened a continuous one-hour programme of cartoons, shorts, comedies and a newsreel. My job was pure and simple – wind the film reels and hand the right one to the duty projectionist. Also, on a Monday and Wednesday, cycle along to Waverley Station and join the other spoolboys from a dozen cinemas in collecting Movietone News, which had been rushed via overnight train from London. Because the film was fresh from the laboratory, it was ‘green’ and had to be waxed, in order for it to run smoothly through the machine. We had Ross C3 projectors, Peerless arcs and an RCA sound system. The non-sync was a normal record deck and occasionally we would get a 78rpm record to play with film. This was almost always a Charlie Chaplin comedy. It is true to say that the sound-on-disc ran ‘more or less’ in sync with the picture. Thank goodness it did not happen very often.
To access the box took nerves of steel, especially when carrying heavy film cases. After climbing the three flights of stairs to the roof, one then had to descend a steep, narrow steel stairway into the box. The rewind room was originally a concrete room on the roof, but by the time I arrived there, the rewind area was situated at the rear of the machines. Very cosy, but considering that a lot of film we ran was nitrate, it was a monumental fire risk, bearing in mind that we were running carbon arcs and most of the nitrate was Disney cartoons!
The curtain was a magnificent scalloped velvet affair coloured gold and looked most impressive when it was lowered at the end of each show. After about one minute, it was raised again and away we went with the next show. We ran nine shows daily and, especially at weekends, the queues stretched quite a way down the street. Bill McQueen was the Chief and John Dingwall was the 2nd. Bill passed away in 1973, but John was quite a young chap. I wonder where he is now? After a short while, it was decided that I should be indentured as an apprentice, do the technical college course and, after three years, gain my 2nd projectionist’s certificate. So, off I went twice weekly to Brunton College, Edinburgh University to study how to be a competent projectionist. One had to learn all sorts of things back then. How to build a valve amplifier; understand the use of ‘push/pull’ tubes ; and design a cinema from the ground up, with all the relevant regulations of fire exits per capita, screen ratio and size etc,etc. Can you imagine today’s operators having to do all that just to run a computer-controlled multiplex?
A few months after I started at college, we were given the bad news that the cinema was closing, to be re-furbished by the new owners, Jacey Cinemas. It was to be closed for quite a while, which meant that everyone was out of work. Except me! Because I was indentured as an apprentice, Jacey had to find me another position. So, I was transferred to the ABC Lothian Road. Wow! This was the big time, as the ABC was the flagship cinema in Scotland for Associated British. Not only did they screen roadshows for several months, often in 70mm, but touring rock bands and singers performed on the fair sized stage area in front of the screen. In fact, back when I was at the Monseigneur, Cliff Richard and the Shadows popped in for the film programme, in between shows at the ABC. Mum, who was on tickets that day was beside herself with excitement. They all came in with handkerchiefs over their faces, but once inside, bought tickets and nibbles quite happily. I missed it, but Mum remembers them as being most delightful.
Right, back to the ABC. There was a large crew in the box, with a Chief, two 2nds and an apprentice on each shift. I worked with Walter Chapman, Ronnie Sinclair and David ????, but I cannot for the life of me remember the chaps on the other crew. From memory, David was in charge of one machine, Ronnie in charge if the other, whilst Walter seemed to wander around, not doing very much. I, of course was still in charge of the rewind room. It was a rigid ABC rule that, when your projector was ‘on’, you sat beside it and did not move until changeover time. It must be stated that all this happened several years before 6000ft reels, so every thing was running off 2000ft reels.
Which brings me to an amazing incident involving David. I must explain first that the projection suite at the ABC was made up of several rooms. The main projection room, with the rewind room through a couple of doors (fireproof) at the far end. Before you entered the projection room, you passed through the rectifier room and the lunch room. Also, there was a large flat roof, which was used in fine weather. It happened to overlook an office building, filled with pretty young typists etc. Many a paper aeroplane note was flown between the two buildings. Some of them actually made the trip!
So, on this particular occasion, Ron, Wattie and I were on the roof having a cuppa, when the house phone went. It was the irate manager, demanding to know why we had a white sheet. We raced in to the box, to find David staring at the feed spool (empty) and the take-up flapping around. Ron started his machine and we discovered that David had been watching his feed spool going round and round and he had actually been hypnotised, so that he was in a trance!!! Enter one angry manager, as this was a sackable offence at ABC. With a lot of fancy talking, plus one look at David, he was convinced of David’s innocence, but he warned us not to let it happen again.
The other funny anecdote that has stuck in my mind all these years is from the time we were screening “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Brando in 70mm. It had been running about 4/5 months and being an even 14 reels, then David had always run 1-3-5-7-9 etc and Ron had run 2-4-6-8 etc. However, one afternoon, we arrived and were told that, due to a minor problem with a machine earlier, which had been rectified between shows, the reels were on the opposite projectors. No problem, or so we thought. During the evening run, I dutifully brought out reel 10 for Ron. He checked it, threaded it and then changed over on cue.
We immediately realised something was wrong, because the scene had gone from Brando and Tarita making love in the bushes, to Brando on the stern of his ship waving farewell, as he sailed away. I dashed back to get reel 9 and David threaded it and changed over immediately and there was Brando and Tarita still at it back in the bushes. I was so lucky that nobody noticed, because I could have easily been dismissed for that.
During my time at the ABC, I was also using my spare time in being a holiday relief all over the place. I did many shifts at the Caley Cinema, the only cinema with a lift to ferry the patrons (and projectionists) to the circle and beyond. It was a huge cinema, in excess of 2000 I think and one of the few to retain the ‘cuddle’ seats, which was simply a twin bench seat with no armrest, designed for smooching. I vaguely recall putting one of them to good use with an usherette.
I spent a lot time at the Tudor, Stockbridge with a dear friend, Willie Temple. The Tudor was the epitome of a ‘fleapit’ and I am reminded of it whenever I watch the film “The Smallest Show on Earth”. The box was equipped with Simplex 8 projectors, with awful front shutters that clattered very noisily. But it was the screen that was the most amazing thing. It was simply the rear wall painted white. No masking, so that Cinemascope and wide screen shared the same size image.
Quite a problem if the action was at the extremes of a Cinemascope frame. Do you remember ‘Pillow Talk’ with Rock Hudson and Doris Day? There was a long dinner scene wherein they are holding hands and murmuring sweet nothings across a candlelit table. Trouble was that at the Tudor that’s all you got. No faces at all as they were outside the screen size.
When the Tudor closed, Willie went down to the George, Portobello and I did quite a few shifts for him there. Sometime during all this, the Jacey had re-opened as a news theatre, closed again and re-opened again as a Continental cinema, but I never went back. I was quite happy, doing relief work here and there, gaining experience with many different projectors. I saw time at the Savoy, the LaScala, the Cameo and I even did the Edinburgh Film Festival one year. That was hard work, as you were on duty by yourself all day, with a vast array of films to deal with. There were features, documentaries, shorts and anything they could throw at you at the last minute. There were two 35mm machines and a 16mm projector. It was held in a small cinema, about 75 seats and there was no guarantee that a film would actually get it’s full run. After a while, the phone would go and they would request something else, ‘as soon as you can please’. I wonder if it is still the same today.
I had gained my projectionist’s certificate, which in those days was a lot harder to obtain than it is today. Sad thing about it was that, on arriving in Australia, it was not worth the paper it was printed on.
My parents decided to move to Kirkcaldy in 1968 and I was fortunate to find that the Odeon required a 2nd projectionist. For some reason, there was only one projectionist at that time, so they welcomed me with open arms. John, the Chief had been doing long hours, seven days a week for a while, due to the staff shortage. Anyway, I started and a few weeks later Bill Danks came from Grangemouth and filled the other vacancy. Within a few more weeks, John announced that he was leaving due to ill-health and I was duly appointed as Chief Projectionist, at 23 the youngest Chief on the Rank circuit! Bill and I soldiered on for quite a while, then Alec Greenhorn joined us. I have wonderful happy memories of the Odeon. We had a large Saturday Morning Minors Club and it was not unusual to have 400-500 kids screaming their lungs out at a Roy Rogers feature. During the final thrilling race sequence in “The Iron Maiden”, I thought the roof was going to be lifted off by their cheering.
Being a Rank house, it had the standard Kalee 21, President arc and Westrex sound set-up. It was the first cinema I had worked that had the box on the ground floor, in between the candy bar and the rear stalls. It seated just under 1000 and every weekend our doorman Peter Bain would be out front, controlling the queues for stalls and circle. The programme always consisted of support feature, news and Look at Life, then main feature. Most shows would screen seven days, but a lot of minor films would only be on for three days, with a special art house film occupying the single day left over. We ran a lot of midnight matinees, so there were many occasions where we have up to 20 features piled up. My records still list October 1970 as having 23 features in one month, plus 4 weeks of Minors Matinee films.
I want to take time to explain our geographical location, as it resulted in a most embarrassing moment. The rear carpark of the cinema backed onto the Esplanade and sometimes during the spring tides would be subject to flooding, as would the rest of the Esplanade. Our sound system, for some unknown reason was controlled by the amplifiers and cross-overs being located under the stage, where an organ used to be in days gone by. The amps were run by hefty power supplies and they too were under the stage.
We were screening “Diamonds are Forever” and had virtually a full house. It was raining cats and dogs outside and the sea was being whipped up by the very strong winds, but all was cosy and warm in the cinema.
About 45 minutes into the main feature, one of the usherettes called me and asked what was wrong with the sound. It was fine in the box, so I went out into the auditorium and there was nothing. Back into the box and everything on the monitor was fine, so the problem had to be with the amps. I shot out and notified the manager and ran down the stalls, opened the door leading to understage and saw the amps and power supplies sitting in about two feet of water! Poor Basil Laidlaw (the manager). He had to issue nearly 900 re-admission tickets and close his cinema while Rank’s technicians came and installed new equipment. We were shut for three days, but the final humiliation came when we read the next edition of the Fife Free Press local newspaper. I wish I had kept a copy, because right across the front page in big print was the headline – BOND SILENCED AT THE ODEON.
We had a lot of promotional fun at the Odeon. Not many cinemas can boast of having Herbie the Love Bug parked in their foyer, but we did, in order to promote the first Herbie film. When the first Planet of the Apes film was released, an actor turned up, hired to go around town in an ape costume handing out ‘comps’ to see the film. As he was a stranger in town, it fell to me to drive him to the various shopping centres and escort him as he terrified the local populace! Some of the reactions were quite hilarious!
Another amazing technical feature was the house lights dimmer. The footlights were dimmed by a normal rheostat slider, but the house lights relied on a remarkable tall ceramic affair with a conduction rod sliding up and down in water, to create the resistance. God knows where it came from. It was about five feet tall, with a thick rod attached to a cable and a counterweight. You raised and lowered this thing into the water via a series of pulleys and it gave the most perfect dimming you have ever seen. You could do it fast or slow, but if you lowered it too fast, the rod had a tendency to jam. By today’s standards it would be the most hazardous device, but I would dearly love to know who came up with it.
Sadly we will never know, as the Odeon burnt to the ground in December 1974, three months after I had left for Australia. The cause was three youths who had broken in and were trying to find their way about using matches. It was not rebuilt and the site became a clothing store.
I arrived in Australia to a job with Hoyt’s theatres in the heart of Melbourne, but that’s another story……………………….