TOM Foley remembers when he could pay to get into the cinema with jam jars.
“You could get a ha’penny each for a jam jar, and it was fourpence to get into the Lido,” Tom recalls.
One of eight surviving siblings born in one of Blackpool’s two up, two down cottages on Dublin Street in the 1940s, Tom, now 77 and the treasurer of Blackpool Historical Society, has vivid memories of the role the local Lido cinema played in the lives of children growing up in the area in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“When they’d start the projector, it took extra electricity and so the exit lights would dim,” he says.
“That’s how we knew the picture was going to come on. There were wooden seats in the front and padded seats that cost a shilling in the back; when the lights went down, five or six would hop over into the padded seats and the manager, a Mr Coughlan, would have to come down with his flashlamp to try to get them out.”
With Blackpool traditionally a working-class area, cinema was a vital, and affordable, form of entertainment for children, even when paying the entry fee required a little initiative.
“I grew up in the fifties and we didn’t have much money,” Tom says.
“There’d be three films on a week, and it cost the same to go in to the three in the Lido as it cost to go into the Savoy in town once. Most of our teenage years were spent going to the Lido three times a week.”
Running messages for elderly neighbours was one way of earning the entrance fee, and another was to collect empty jam jars, eight of which would cover the price of a ticket. But failing that, there were always less legitimate ways of gaining entry.
“When the lights would go down for the films to start, someone would make a run for the fire exit door and kick up the bar,” Tom says with a grin
“Twelve or more people would run in and then they’d split up and sit down; one or two might be caught, but most wouldn’t.”
The long-suffering cinema manager was also the usher, charged with trying to control the audience of raucous crowds of children. But he wasn’t alone; Cork’s famed Shawlies were also regular cinema-goers and would keep order in their own way.
“The Shawlies didn’t know how to queue at all: they’d go right in past you,” Tom says.
“They ruled the roost. You’d try to sit far away from them because it was like mass: if you spoke, you’d get a belt of the shawl. When the lights would go out, some fella would try to climb over their seats and they’d all shout for Mr Coughlan.”
Tom recalls that childhood nicknames for the cinema included The Shed and The Ranch, the latter because of the number of Westerns shown. Following the film, children would stream out to play “cowboys and Indians”, emulating their silver screen heroes on the way home.
Although his own memories of specific films are hazy, one of his stories perfectly illustrates how powerful cinema was in the lives of the pre-television generation.
“They showed what we called ‘following-up ones’ after the main film: they’d show one part and then they’d show the follow-up the next week. I remember my sister telling me they were so engrossed that if they didn’t money to go in, they’d go down Saturday night and wait until one of their buddies came out to tell them what had happened in the following-up one.”
Tom started work in Murphy’s brewery at 16, and worked for 20 years in Youghal Carpets. He’s still a resident in Blackpool today, where he raised his own family of five children just streets from his birthplace.
As with so many, for Tom, the arrival of the community’s first home televisions would trigger the death knell for the Lido; home entertainment was cheaper and more convenient.
“We got a black and white TV, and that turned me off going to the cinema, because every film they showed on the box I’d seen it in the Lido,” Tom says.
“I decided to stay away, so I’d have something to watch on the telly.”
Blackpool Cinema first opened on the site in 1920, and was re-opened as The Lido in 1931 following renovations. It closed in the early ’60s following a stabbing incident, and re-opened as The Palladium for a short time, before closing for good in 1965.
Having housed O’Meara’s camping supplies shop for many years, it’s now home to Cork Community Art Link (CCAL). The group had planned to commemorate the history of their building by building Lido-themed floats and props for this year’s Patrick’s Day parade — but it was cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis.
William Frode de la Foret, artistic director of Cork Community Art Link (CCAL), says it’s hard to imagine what a powerful impact the Lido had in its early years.
“Culturally, it was suddenly a window on the outside world,” he says.
“You’d have newsreels before the movie, about the wonders of civilisation and technology, which was probably an incredible source of information for people who didn’t have a lot of access to things like college education.
“People from the southside or from more privileged backgrounds wouldn’t have come here. They would have gone to the Savoy or the Pavilion, where you could have tea and pastries. Blackpool was a very industrial, working class area and this was one of the only cultural buildings here.”
Cork Community Art Link worked with community groups including COPE, SUISHA Inclusive Arts, Cork City Firebirds and the Irish Girl Guides for the Cork Patrick’s Day parade.
They also planned on having one figure in the parade that was a tribute to Tomás Mac Curtain.
Most of all, William says, continuing a tradition of community-centred culture in the space that was Blackpool’s beloved cinema for so long is something deeply in line with CCAL’s philosophy of working with communities.
“When we moved in, some people were not very happy that we had arrived because they thought we’d be a bunch of artists who would just lock ourselves into the building, that it would be like so many art places are: not very open,” he says.
“It’s taken us time to build trust and convince them otherwise. Culture is at the heart of every community and we want to continue that in this building for as long as we can.”
Reacting to the cancellation of the parade, William says: “It would be hard not to feel disappointed, especially for our team of 12 young European volunteers who now may never see their work in action, as well as for all the community groups who were really looking forward to the big day.
“The floats will remain stored here in Blackpool for now. If no alternative parade is organised, Cork Community Art Link will find another platform to show all of this wonderful work that’s been created, even if it means holding a smaller parade of our own when it’s possible to do so.”
CCAL also plan to celebrate 100 years of the Lido building with a special evening of cinema in October — which was when the Blackpool Cinema first opened to the public one hundred years ago.