The years between World War 1 and World War 2 were very dire times in Britain. Lack of employment, especially for War Veterans, caused much poverty and suffering for them and their families.
My father volunteered to join up in August 1914. He drove the first tank into the war zone. Over the years he was injured a number of times and only on the occasion of receiving a message that his 5 year old son was dying was he able to get leave to travel to London. On the way to his home he stopped at his brother’s Barber shop to ask “How is my Georgie?” to be told that the child had been buried that morning.
After being discharged from the Army in 1919 my father returned to England a broken and very sick man. He was being treated in a London Hospital for “heart troubles”, but it was not until traveling on a tram to visit the hospital when he had a massive lung hemorrhage. It was then discovered that his real problem was in his lungs due to having been gassed in the war zones. The Doctor at the hospital who cared for my father had to explain to him that, “Had we known what the problem was two years ago we might have been able to save you.”
Later, knowing he was dying, he applied to be examined by a panel of doctors in the hope that he would be classed as a war casualty and then his wife could claim a War Windows Pension. This, when it was finally paid after my father’s death, amounted to the “massive” sum of an extra two shillings and sixpence a week (about 50 cents at that time). This was added to the Widows Pension on which my Mother had to keep herself and three children.
I needed to write this piece of history in order to help a person understand the reason why it was such a mammoth thing for my Mother to spend some money on something that appeared to be frivolous. For in spite of taking jobs of house cleaning, washing and ironing, child minding, etc., we could just manage to survive and thus this cinema outing was so very special to her. Although I was only 5 or 6 then, my Mother told me what had happened to my Father time and time again. I can still remember whilst growing up over the years how sad her eyes always were, but on a “cinema day” her facial expression would change in the anticipated hope that, at least, for a few hours her world would become more bearable, and, perhaps, bring a spark of hope for our future.
I remember very well the day my Mother told me she would take me to the cinema. What a surprise! And a joyous and exciting occasion! I was beside myself with happy anticipation and eagerness to get there. We had to hurry because it was essential to be in the line-up before 5 p.m. as the tickets were then sold a lot cheaper.
It was raining quite hard when we left home and I had difficulty in keeping up with my Mother’s pace, but I would not complain for fear she might change her mind and suggest I return home. I raced along beside her, stumbling through the puddles. The speed at which we walked soon rubbed a large blister on my heel. I realized it was caused by a hole in my sock.
On reaching “The Palace”, as the cinema building was so rightly named, we immediately stepped into the line-up and from that moment onwards I was swept into another world as I studied the posters on the outside of the building. It appeared to be a world of fantasy, imagination, delight, terror and excitement – bringing day dreams such as I never thought could exist. Shortly after taking our place in the line up a London “Busker” started to entertain the crowd. I can’t remember exactly what he did but I do remember sensing how nervous my Mother became, and it frightened me.
I asked her, “Mum what’s the matter”? and she said “Don’t look at him when he comes round with his hat, I only have enough money to get us into see the film. Our seats cost 6 pence each”. We both crouched close to the wall in an attempt to miss the man’s outstretched hand. He pushed a very grimy cap in front of everyone’s face for his expected penny.
As we moved forward I asked my Mother “Where will we sit?” She replied “In the front.” “Why there Mum?” “Because that’s the cheapest seat.” “Oh, what do the others cost?” “Well, the next lines of seats go up to 9 pence, then one shilling.” “Wow, that’s a lot of money!” She then told me that the upstairs seats start at one shilling and 6 pence. This seemed like so much money to me so I asked, “Who can afford to go up there?” and Mother replied “Young couples mainly.” “Why?” “Er, well, oh look we are finally going in.”
On entering the stately entrance of the cinema I was thrilled with the coloured stucco, enormous chandeliers, carpeted aisles and red velvet drapes. We were shown to our seats by a young lady wearing a tight fitting uniform in a vibrant shade of blue and a cute little pill-box hat perched on the side of her head. She indicated where we should sit by shining a large flash-light. I found the seats fascinating as they tipped up and down with a loud banging noise, and I enjoyed tilting mine back and forth until I finally fell through the back of the seat onto the cold floor. Recovering, I felt a bit of a fool – I also found some crushed peanut shells in my hair!
At last the great moment arrived. The lights went down and the program started with the “Movietone News.” It showed people of all shapes, sizes and colors.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvbovcgPPoo
People with such weird accents that I could not understand what they were saying. I also glimpsed what it was like to live in other countries and the different ways that other people lived. This was my introduction to yearning to travel and visit as much of this wonderful world as I possibly could.
Next was a feature film – which I don’t remember at all. Then came an event called “The Interval”. This started in a very dramatic way. A strong beam of light was projected from the back of the darkened theatre. In the beam, one of the Usherettes was standing in front of the stage. She held a large tray which was attached to white ribbons around her neck. I asked my Mother what she was selling and was told “Ice cream tubs.” I had eaten one of these on another occasion, but knew now that this was not the time to ask for one. It was all very new and exciting for me – far more than I ever thought possible! I watched carefully as the Usherette moved up the aisle and noted that people in the rows of seats indicated by their hand that they wished to buy from her. They then called out their order and persons sitting next to them passed up the money and also passed back the ice cream tubs. I was very impressed!
My Mother and I gravely watched the “Fire Curtain” being dropped and raised on the front of the stage. I asked why this happened and I was told “Because it’s the Law”. I didn’t really know what this meant but sensed that it was something very important. After this ceremony was over, the most magnificent velvet curtain dropped in front of the screen. It was of a very rich “royal” color. The patterns on it were all a-glitter. I was overawed beyond all measure. My Mother told me if it hit someone as it was being lowered it could kill them. I decided there and then never to let myself get into such a situation.
Suddenly my ear was stung by something being thrown from behind. I looked back and saw a boy peeling an orange. He grinned at me in a fashion that I knew meant “Do you want to make something of it?” and so I sank down into my seat and once again started to tip it up and down – until I was told to stop. The only other happening that disturbed me in the cinema was the cigarette smoke haze that hung over the audience like a transparent blanket.
Just as the lights dimmed once more, one of the Usherettes walked down the aisle carrying a very large sort of gun in her hands. As she pumped it, the most beautiful scented aroma shot into the air. I thought it was simply fantastic and quickly positioned myself at the end of the row in the hope that some of the spray might fall on me. My Mother explained that the spray was a precaution against colds etc.
Finally, the lights went right down and at last, the big picture (as the main feature was then known) started. It was about a young man and woman who were down and out but trying very hard to make a living in New York. Ultimately, they got the breaks they needed to become stars on Broadway. I was utterly entranced by the story and lived every moment with the actors. The dancing, singing and clothes were more glamorous than anything I had ever seen.
Going to the cinema was a turning point in my life. I became a film fan of intensity. I saw and wanted other ways of life. I daydreamed incessantly. It gave me ambitions about things unknown. It also gave me a fantasy world into which I could drop when I needed a break from the world in which I had to live. For this was a world that could not hurt me, one in which I could live and in which I was very happy. I still am a film buff, but very selective now about what I see. However, I don’t regret one penny or one moment that I have ever spent in the cinema.
London 1920’s – Wikimedia Public Domain
Red Velvet Theatre Curtain – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Vintage Movie Screen Snapshot – Wikimedia Public Domain
Feature Image – Red Velvet Theatre Curtain – The Microsoft Office Clip Art Collection
Edited by Wanda Lambeth
Guest Author Bio
Mary was born in London, England, the youngest of four children. Her Mother was widowed when Mary was only one year old. This led to her Mother working long, hard hours at whatever she had the opportunity to do. A lifetime of “making do” and scraping was the only life the family knew and this also resulted in each child having to leave school early to find work. Mary always had the ambition to travel and has visited over fifty countries. In 1967 Mary and her husband Colin emigrated to Canada with their little daughter. Mary is a talented artist who enjoys painting, writing and the challenge of crossword puzzles.