THIS is my third week writing about memories of the cinema in Cork, and the stories keep flooding in — the jigsaw of local history keeps having new pieces added.
Who would have thought that in the 1950s and ’60s the river divided cinema-going, just as it separated old Cork from new southside estates? But it did.
Middle-class children had tea at the Savoy or the Pavilion if they were lucky, and then were taken to the latest ‘suitable’ movie.
Over in Blackpool, the energetic and creative children of the lanes and back streets found many different ways to get in to see Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger at the Lido. Truly a tale of two cities.
Christians and Pres occasionally screened appropriate films, not only for their own students but for those of other schools as well (this writer first saw The Wizard Of Oz at Christians).
But the most exclusive place to attend on Saturday afternoons was undoubtedly The Junior Film Society, held in one of the lecture theatres at the School of Art (now the Crawford).
“It was in one of the big lecture rooms, with rows of seats going higher and higher towards the back,” recalls Frances Farrell.
“We saw Bush Christmas (1947) about courageous children following thieves who had stolen their precious horse. We loved the notion that Christmas could be hot and dusty in another climate than ours!”
“Mostly, however, they were what you would now call ‘art films’, like Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein’s 1925 silent, named the greatest film of all time in 1958), and The Childhood Of Maxim Gorky, (1938). For some reason, I enjoyed that.
“And we saw Mise Éire there. They had a competition for a review of it, I remember, but very few people gave anything in, so they said, ‘just review any film you’ve seen’. I did one on Gorky, and got a free ticket for the next film season!”
The organisers of the Junior Film Society, whose aim was clearly to improve young minds, took care to warn their tender audience about frightening moments coming up during the showing.
Frances remembers an earnest young man alerting them in advance to the terrifying graveyard scene in the 1946 film version of Great Expectations, when the convict Magwitch bursts out from behind a tombstone to confront Pip. “We still all shrieked at that moment!” he recalls.
Ger Fitzgibbon, retired head of drama at UCC, was another attendee. “My memories of the movies themselves are patchy, and the stand-out one was not Maxim Gorky (I may have blotted it from my consciousness), but Buster Keaton in The General (a silent from 1926), which I remember as being so funny I nearly had hysterics.
“Other fragments are a very worthy and low-voltage Scottish film about children in some village (you can see I was gripped by that) and the bizarre insistence on showing strange shadow-puppet short cartoons about mythological critters.
“I remember their visual idiom very clearly, and the sighs of boredom they induced in us as we waited for the ‘BIG FILLUM’.
“They were accompanied by something that seemed like Indian flute music and something about their visual style suggests they may have been Indian in origin.”
His stand-out memory, oddly enough, is a showing of Triumph Of The Will (Leni Reifenstal’s Nazi propaganda film). A strange choice for the Society, surely, although certainly regarded as the German director’s masterwork.
While the privileged attendees of the Junior Film Society yawned away the improving hours at the Crawford, down in Blackpool, intending Lido audiences were cadging jam jars from their household, their auntie’s household, their granny’s household, and anywhere else they could think of.
Yes, the story — which I wondered last week may have been an urban legend — is true! Jim McGrath can confirm it.
“I was born and bred in the poshest district of Blackpool — Hatton’s Alley Lane, the only double-barrelled street in the area! Right down there off Great William O’Brien Street,” says Jim.
He was one of ten children in the first house on the lane, and was going to the Lido from the age of six or seven.
“It was the place to be!” says Jim, “You should have seen the queues way down the side — we called it Lido Lane, but I think its proper name is Berwick Street.”
A ticket was 6d then, but — and here’s the important historical bit — at certain times of the year you could get in for three clean jam jars.
“I would think Mr Coughlan (owner of the Lido and later the Coliseum) probably sold them on to Ogilvie and Moore, who would always be in need of them when the fruit was ripe,” adds Jim. So here we have a very nice linkage between seasons, shortages, and seeking out. It makes sense that the jam-makers would send out a call for empty jars as the fruit came in.
They might have got their raspberries and strawberries of June from Rathcooney Farm up beyond Mayfield, where Mrs Grove-White presided over the sales to eager housewives on summer evenings, while her husband organised teams of kids to pick the fruit at early morning.
That was hard work for young Corkonians, rising way before their usual time and crouching on the ground for a couple of hours amid the dew and damp before getting their wooden trays weighed, the amounts noted, and only then heading home for breakfast.
And in the autumn, enterprising young lads — Jim McGrath might well have been among them — would be out in the suburban lanes, filling tin cans with ‘blackahs’ to sell to Ogilvie & Moore. Doubtless funds earned there also went on tickets for the pictures, if you hadn’t managed to find any spare jam jars.
To the front at the Lido there were serried ranks of wooden benches. “The last row of these, just before the soft seats at the back (which were more expensive) had backs to them,” says Jim. “This row was strictly reserved for the shawlies, and woe betide you if you tried to slip in there. You’d get a clip over the ear or a swipe of the corner of a wet shawl for yourself!”
The other places to avoid were just next to the doors of the toilets.
“You wouldn’t want to be sitting anywhere close to those because the smell could be a bit strong, to put it mildly. But we kids knew exactly where and where not to sit, and always headed for our favourite places,” recalls Jim.
In later years, when funds permitted, a hot date might be taken to the luxurious soft seats at the back, with the hope of a quick ‘shift’ while the lights were down.
The best pictures to see?
“Oh the cowboy ones, no doubt of that,” replies Jim, “We enjoyed the ‘folly-ons’ which stopped at an exciting place each week, to make sure you came back for the next instalment. They were Superman, Batman, things like that.
“But the big cowboy movies were the real draw. We loved Roy Rogers and Trigger, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, all of those. We’d come out firing six guns and galloping up and down Blackpool afterwards, playing all the characters.”
A big step up for Jim was when Mr Coughlan took him on as sweet seller in the auditorium. “I had a box hung round my neck, that my dad made for me, and all the sweets were under a pane of glass. You put your money in and got your sweets,” explains Jim.
It could have been a challenging job, with a lively and not too particularly young audience always on the look-out for a free grab — but perhaps Coughlan knew what he was doing when he gave Jim the job.
Coming from the same background as his customers, he would know all the dodges they might try, “and in any case, they would have to deal with my six brothers if they came on rough with me!”
For this responsible job, Jim was paid a lordly ten shillings a week.
The chocolate bars were the most expensive at 6d, and they went down from there through 4d (that would have been a Fry’s Cream Bar or a Crunchie), 3d (an Urney Cream Bar or some sweet cigarettes) 2d (maybe a Crispin) to the great old penny toffee bar.
When asked how you dealt with a hard little penny bar, Jim automatically curves his hand in the age-old way used by generations of Cork children as they hit the toffee against the corner of the nearest brick wall.
Like any kid of his age, occasionally Jim would take a small bonus in the shape of a bar for himself, but this could lead to problems at stocktaking time each evening.
“Luckily, Mr Coughlan would let me count the sweets left over while he checked the totals against the money, so I was able to be a bit creative with my totting up.”
One week, though, he remembers being extremely worried because his own surreptitious pocketing had led to a serious discrepancy between stock and cash.
“I came out into the foyer and put down the box, and didn’t this drunk come staggering in and fell against it, and broke the glass. Everything went all over the floor, and so I was saved!”
Well, we are heartily glad to discover at long last that the urban legend of the jam jars was in fact true. And thank you, Jim McGrath, for giving us the absolute proof.
That it links firmly into local industry and the fruit growing season of old Cork makes it even better.
Any more cinema memories out there?