Let’s reel in the years to cinema days of yore

Welcome to our new weekly nostalgia slot, called Throwback Thursday. In this week’s instalment, in the days before Netflix and umpteen TV channels, the cinema was a common treat for generations of Corkonians. JO KERRIGAN shares her own memories...
Let’s reel in the years to cinema days of yore
Children queue to see 'David Copperfield' at the Savoy Cinema, Cork city centre on January 23, 1936. 

PLANNING a box-set marathon tonight? Counting the days until they begin filming Fair City again? Or perhaps you just might download something from Netflix while waiting for the kettle to boil.

Those are today’s normal options of TV viewing, but there was a time when our whole world of entertainment revolved around ‘the flicks’. Going to the pictures was the biggest event in most people’s week back in the mid-20th century.

Old and young thronged to the cinemas — the kids to the matinees, the adults to the evening shows — and every twist and turn of the plots was discussed in detail next day, in the playground or the office or factory line.

We had plenty of choice of venues in Cork back then. Up at the top, definitely, for me was the Savoy, providing both luxury and elegance at a time when many homes lacked these comforts.

Not only was the décor in the Savoy as sumptuous as that of a sheikh’s tent, we also had the excitement of Fred Bridgeman on the organ, leading everyone in gigantic singalongs as the words of popular numbers were projected on to the screen.

Crowds queueing at the Capitol Cinema in Cork city in April, 1947. 
Crowds queueing at the Capitol Cinema in Cork city in April, 1947. 

The sound of 2,000 voices rendering Are You Lonesome Tonight? or The Yellow Rose of Texas is a lifetime memory.

If you could afford the good seats there, you went up a marble staircase and through a hushed carpeted restaurant, where elegant ladies took tea together and eyed you disapprovingly as you tiptoed past on a narrow strip of lesser carpet which conveyed you through swing doors into the cinema itself.

Even now, the musty scent of plush, overlaid with the perfume of Earl Grey and Thompson’s cakes, can still be recalled.

Those with less funds went down William Street at the side, and up a long long staircase to the cheaper seats in the ‘gods’.

Later, when the Savoy opened the trendy Talk of the Town on a lower level, where you could actually get freshly-made doughnuts with your coffee, we thought we were in paradise. That was a real sign of the old ways changing to the new as the 1960s arrived.

Then there was the Pavilion, which also had a chic restaurant for cinemagoers and ladies who lunched.

On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, a small school friend had a birthday and for a treat the two of us were allowed to have tea at one of the small round tables overlooking Patrick Street before going in to see the movie.

A red letter day back then, when such glorious occasions were few and far between.

The Pavilion had splendid decorative plasterwork, some of which can still be seen (or could be when we weren’t in lockdown) in a café down the side of the original cinema.

The great old Palace on MacCurtain Street — still trailing its glamorous if dusty skirts of a music hall past — and the more modern Capitol on the Grand Parade, with its rather Cecil B. de Mille frontage, completed the foursome of first-run cinemas showing the very latest Hollywood hits, which of course everyone wanted to see.

Fred Bridgeman, organist at the Savoy Cinema for many year, pictured in 1934.
Fred Bridgeman, organist at the Savoy Cinema for many year, pictured in 1934.

But how did you know what was coming to Cork in the near future? Oddly enough, the answer was usually found at the church gates on Sunday.

The Fold was a monthly diocesan magazine founded by Bishop Cornelius Lucey. Mostly it contained strict exhortations to a better life, virtuous stories, and advertisements for pilgrimages — but at the back it had a couple of precious pages listing films that would be seen here in the ensuing month.

This was not for the purpose of publicising the films, of course, but to warn parents of the risks inherent in letting their offspring go to them.

Capital letters gave an indication of episcopal approval (rare) or disapproval (regular). O meant Objectionable, OP meant Objectionable in Part. Woe betide if you were discovered to have attended one of these on a spare Saturday afternoon.

It should, of course, be remembered that these productions had already been under the knife before ever Bishop Lucey cast his disparaging eye over them. By the time the Irish film censors had finished going through every frame, the chance of there being anything whatsoever which might bring a blush to a maiden cheek was pretty slight.

(I can still remember my father giving my sister and myself a dreadful scolding session for having been to A Breath Of Scandal, a gentle musical starring Maurice Chevalier, because its title suggested something questionable.)

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

Nevertheless, we combed those few pages in The Fold avidly each month, excitedly discovering what great delights were coming up. Elvis of course. Musicals like Annie Get Your Gun or Calamity Jane, and Gigi (now there was a movie with a questionable theme, but it never seemed to occur to either the censors or the bishop — perhaps that was because of the strong musical content?)

My mother used to tell me of the great old serial movies of her childhood, like The Perils Of Pauline, where one week’s reel ended with the heroine tied to the railway track or hanging by her fingers from a cliff, and you had to go back the following week to see what happened — much as you do in TV series today, although on many TV platforms, the next episode is now just a click away and hang the suspense!

By the time I was old enough to be escorted to the movies, those days had gone, and it was Alice in Wonderland that met my entranced eyes.

The scene which most impressed a four-year- old was one where Alice was lost in the forest and a small dog toddled past, the stiff hair underneath its chin carefully brushing away all the pathways until she had no idea where she was.

In later years, what joys there were in going to the pictures on Saturday afternoons with friends. Cowboy movies had us all leaping around with make-believe horses and rifles when we came out; musicals had us singing the hits all the way home.

The Palace Theatre in The Square, Macroom, Co. Cork, pictured in April, 1953, the month it opened with the film Scaramouche, starring Stewart Grainger. It later became the Briery Gap.
The Palace Theatre in The Square, Macroom, Co. Cork, pictured in April, 1953, the month it opened with the film Scaramouche, starring Stewart Grainger. It later became the Briery Gap.

I never enjoyed horror movies, although my brothers revelled in such creations as The Blob, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Fly, and, perhaps worst of all because for some reason I was there, The Haunting Of Hill House.

I spent most of that last-named film buried under the comforting tweed jacket of a friendly Christians lad who sat between us and shielded us from the most frightening moments (thanks Eddie!)

One of the great things about cinema-going back then was that if you missed a film first time round, you almost always got a second or even a third chance, as it turned up at the second-run houses, the Lee, the Coliseum, or the Ritz.

The latter also specialised in foreign-language productions, and the Sissi series, starring Romy Schneider as Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

So many films, so many memories. Ingrid Bergman. Doris Day. James Mason in the Prisoner of Zenda...

All brought glamour, excitement, and a hint of danger, and offered young Corkonians a glimpse of a wide and colourful world outside our own environment.

I wonder how many readers have vivid memories of their own young cinema-going days? Of the Assembly Rooms, the Lido, even Miah’s, places I was never permitted to enter? Is the jam jar story really true? Who was Georgie? Where was that small secret window? Somebody knows!

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