I loved my days as an usherette at The Pav cinema

Lots of readers contacted JO KERRIGAN after last week’s Throwback Thursday on the 100th anniversary of The Pavilon opening, including a former worker there
I loved my days as an usherette at The Pav cinema

The Pavillion Cinema restuarant, Patrick Street, Cork 12/12/1958 

OUR article in last week’s Throwback Thursday on the centenary of the great old Pavilion cinema in Cork city brought in a huge response from readers, and some great recollections.

One of the first was from Sandie Brown (nee Sheehan), who worked as an usherette at the Pav in the 1970s.

“It was my first job out of school, and not what I had hoped for, but heck, we were in a recession back then, and in those days as a big family, everyone chipped in as they could. I will say though, that as an usherette, it’s the only time I ever got paid to put a man in his place!”

Once she had read last week’s feature and started to remember, says Sandie, so many memories came flooding back.

“In the late 1970s, the Pav ran two shows a day, matinee and evening. Our shift started about 2pm, depending on the programme, and generally finished about 10.30pm or 10.45pm. Sometimes we had a double bill, and then at other times we had some ‘shorts’ which ran before the main feature. These were usually like mini-documentaries to keep the audience entertained before the main event.”

The principal tool of the trade, she says, was of course a torch (which you guarded with your life), and it was each usherette’s job to check constantly to make sure the batteries didn’t need replacing.

“We also had a darning needle with a piece of string, to thread the tickets which we had to tear in half as the customer went in to the auditorium. This was usually to stop people passing the tickets to anyone else!”

The busiest times were when new block busters were released, usually around Christmas, Easter, and of course school holidays.

Sandie adds: “We’re coming up to Easter now, and I remember that the Pav used to shut from Good Friday, and open up on Easter Sunday with a huge film. 

"At times like that, the queues stretched right down Patrick Street, and as usherettes we had to make sure that all the seats were filled. 

"Sometimes this meant going along the rows and making sure that vacant seats weren’t hidden under people’s coats and bags.”

They never worked on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, observes Sandie, “but again, on St Stephen’s Day we anticipated the hordes of people who were already bored with the festivities coming in to see the latest family film, and we had to be ready for them.

“We dreaded the kids’ films as once one performance was over, we would have to stay back and do a clean up of the rows — empty popcorn bags, ice cream cartons, sweet wrappers and mineral bottles — so that the evening show audience had somewhere clean to sit! The mess that second house made was then left for the cleaners next morning.”

HISTORY: The old phone from the Pavilion cinema in Cork city, which was salvaged by a passer-by when it was being demolished
HISTORY: The old phone from the Pavilion cinema in Cork city, which was salvaged by a passer-by when it was being demolished

Some films were memorable for the capacity audiences and for their long runs.

“I remember that Grease ran for about 10 weeks and we had similar long runs for E.T and Rocky. All of those brought huge crowds out. You were there for every performance, and by the end of the run you would be able to understudy all of the roles within the film!”

The elegant Pavilion building itself was of course always noticed by tourists, who would often wander in to see the inside, with the beautiful marble staircase leading to the balcony and the newly refurbished café upstairs.

“I remember them asking about the history of the building, and the legendary Donal Kelly, God rest him, who was front of house, would revel in telling them,” recalls Sandie. 

“Cinema was in his blood, as anyone who knew him would tell you.” 

And what was the pay like back then, for an usherette?

“My very first pay packet was in a little brown envelope with the huge sum of £27.72 pence for a week’s wages.

“Not a great sum for the hours you had to put in, but it was great to be able to give it to my mam and let her take out my contribution to the family pot!”

Looking back, muses Sandie, she feels that she has a lot to be grateful for from her time at the Pav and the lessons it taught her.

“As a girl, I was shy and not very confident, but the job taught me to deal with the public, both good and bad, and gave me confidence which stuck with me all my life.

“I learned the skills of dealing with five-deep crowds of children at the sweets kiosk, all shouting their orders over the counter in a rush to get in before the start of the film; and dealing with the cash office machines which released tickets. 

"You turned a counter to the number of tickets required, and then pressed down on a lever that would break every nail you had on your hand if you got it wrong!

“Cashing up the day’s takings, too, which had to balance exactly against the tickets issued. Then there were the bank deposit slips to be filled in, and the cash seen safely off to the night safe. Weekly returns letters had to be typed and posted to Head Office in Dublin. My friend was the full-time cashier and office girl, and I covered her days off and holidays.”

Sandra has worked in office situations all her life since, she says, so all of those skills of team-working, dealing with pressure, and understanding business and how it works, proved to be really valuable great life skills.

“Even when I left the job in 1980, to work for Mac Sweeny’s Photo Labs, a ten minute walk from where we lived in Togher, I still would call into the Pav regularly to see those left behind.

"I made real friends there, with whom I have stayed in touch, even though I went to live in England in 1985, and am still there.”

FACING THE FINAL CURTAIN: The Pavilion Cinema in Patrick Street, Cork, in December, 1989 — it had closed down in August that year, when Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was showing
FACING THE FINAL CURTAIN: The Pavilion Cinema in Patrick Street, Cork, in December, 1989 — it had closed down in August that year, when Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was showing

Sandie now gets the Echo online and her family also send on articles of interest over their WhatsApp group, so she is looking forward to seeing if we have any other responses from people she might have worked with, or patrons (as they called them) who might have been there in those golden days of yesteryear.

“Looking back, they were happy days, but we worked hard, and you went home and slept well afterwards.”

Now here is something we didn’t expect. Tom, a fervent cinema-goer from the 1950s onwards, read last week’s page and immediately got in touch.

“Would you like a picture of the original Pav telephone system?” he asked.

Gosh, would we heck! How could you have got that?

“Well,” explained Tom, “I have the phone right here next to me, so I will take a shot on my phone and send it through.”

Might we enquire, ever so tactfully, how you got hold of that wonderful object from the past?

“Well, I know the Loftus demolition people pretty well, and I was walking past when they were clearing out the Pav after it had closed, and went in to lend John Loftus a hand.

“I saw the phone in a skip and asked if he minded if I took it, and he said go right ahead, so I brought it home. It didn’t seem right to have something that had been part of our cinema history get dumped.”

The venerable telephonic equipment has different switches for contacting parterre, balcony, box office and the manager, with one red switch for an outside line.

How many calls did that phone receive, how many frantic messages did it convey from office to balcony, manager to parterre?

Gosh, Tom, that is nearly as good as having one of the old seats from the Palace stashed away!

Of course, we notified Sandie immediately and she responded with delight.

“Oh yes, I remember those. They were internal. You had to put one knob down for where you wanted to contact and then push the ring knob/lever and hold it down.”

Now what are the chances of hearing from somebody else who worked at the Pav? Well, it happened. Liam Cashell sent us this:

““We were looking through The Echo today and your excellent coverage of ‘The Pav’, as my mother always referred to it. We encouraged her to write down a small bit about it, which she eventually did reluctantly, so please see below a small note from Pearl Cashell (Kennedy at the time):

“I had the pleasure of working in The Pavilion cinema back in its heyday of the late 1950s and early ’60s. 

"We had great days there and Leo Ward was an excellent boss who always stayed in touch up to his passing in 2013. The Kelly family were also a pleasure to work with.”

Pearl added: “One day that I remember very fondly was the day that John F Kennedy visited Cork. It seemed like all of Cork was out to see him.

“Of course, we had a great vantage point on the steps of the Pavilion, and waited patiently for the presidential motorcade to work its way up Patrick Street. There were a few of us ‘young ones’ and our boss Josie, who seemed very old to us but was probably only in her forties at the time. We were very excited.

“Eventually, the motorcade slowly made its way past us, the flags waved, the people cheered.

“Kennedy was such a handsome man and as he passed and waved, all I remember is our boss looking longingly at the tanned American president and uttering ‘I’d smother my mother for him’.”

Pearl recalled: “The Pav always had a buzz about it and I was delighted when asked back after I was married, to help out for the much anticipated release of Dr Zhivago. It became one of the longest running movies of all time in Ireland. Everyone was so captivated by Omar Sharif in that film, me included. So much so that as I was pregnant at the time, I was severely tempted to call the child Zhivago if it was a boy. Ultimately it was a boy, but we thought better of the name.

“Can you imagine calling out to the park as he played football with his friends, ‘Zhivago come in, your tea’s ready’?”

Pearl concluded: “I could go on but will just say working at The Pavilion was such a wonderful experience and I loved every minute of it.”

Well, there is no doubt about it, we love to remember the days when the cinema was a magical world and an afternoon in the ‘gods’ was a wonderful experience. Let’s hear more from you about the Pav.

However, next week brings St Patrick’s Day, even though we will be enjoying it at home, watching shows online, rather than crowding the streets as in the old days.

What do you remember most about the Paddy’s Days of your childhood? Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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