Throwback Thursday: An era when cinemas were a star attraction

Back in the day, a trip to the cinema was a regular treat in Cork. In Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN talks to people about their memories of the cinemas, the films, and the ushers...
Throwback Thursday: An era when cinemas were a star attraction

MOVIE VENUE: A view of Grand Parade including the Capitol Cinema, in 1973

THE stories you share with us show very clearly what an influence certain features of life in the 1950s and ’60s had on our very existence.

This week, we have even more evidence of the huge role played by the cinema, and what an important part of everyone’s life it was.

Taken there first as a child, then going alone when slightly older, ganging up with friends to go to Saturday matinees, later meeting someone special for a first date there... and every experience remains enshrined in happy memories.

Dermot Knowles has particularly vivid recollections.

“Being a certified 42-carat cinema obsessive, growing up in Cork city as a child in the ’50s and ’60s truly was heaven. I was cinema-obsessed from as far back as I can remember. So much so that whenever I stepped out of line, all my mother had to say was ‘no pictures for you next Saturday’ to be on my very best behaviour.”

What a choice we kids had back then, he muses.

“You had The Assembly Rooms (De Assems, boy), The Capitol, The Ritz, The Pavilion (De Pav), The Lee, The Savoy, The Palace, and The Coliseum ( De Col).

“As a Southsider, I wouldn’t include The Lido in Blackpool or The Cameo up on Military Hill, as these were too out of the way for my friends and me.”

His very first cinema-going experience at seven years old was to De Assems, being accompanied (minded) by his older brother. “I have a vague recollection that the admission price was 7d. That was shortly increased to 8d, then 10d, and finally a bob, which was in line with prices throughout the city. So a shilling was the golden currency to get you into the Theatre of your Dreams.”

There were two exceptions to this rule though, he points out, The Savoy and The Lee.

“The Savoy was 1/1 ( wan and a penny). But De Lee was 1/3. I could understand paying a shilling and a penny for The Savoy. Even as children we knew De Savoy was class, a cut above the rest. But 1/3 for a small, pokey cinema like De Lee? That was a rip-off to our little minds. That meant thruppence less for sweets. Torture.”

Looking back, Dermot is now amazed at the frequency with which the programmes changed.

“De Assems had a special billing for Sunday night, then a Monday to Wednesday programme, followed by a new programme running Thursday to Saturday.

“Imagine — three double bills in a single week. Six films plus a newsreel plus cartoons. Try explaining that to today’s kids where they get one film showing for a few weeks in their local cinema.”

De Capitol, he recalls, ran a double bill from Sunday to Wednesday and a changed programme for Thursday to Saturday. The Savoy had a similar policy unless it had a first-run film which would then show for the week. These were the only Cork cinemas to show first-run movies.

Do readers remember when great movies came back again and again? You would catch them first time round at the Savoy or the Capitol, if you had the necessary cash, but if you missed them (or indeed enjoyed one very much) you could see them second or third time round at the Pavilion or the Lee.

It was actually normal back then to have a golden oldie showing years later and it made it very pleasant to go and see a special favourite again. “I remember going to see Interlude, with Oskar Werner, at least five times,” admits Katie O’Brien. “The last time was definitely at the Lee. You would look through the Echo to see what ones were coming up the following week and let your friends know you were up for a trip down memory lane. Another one was Mary Poppins. Think I saw that nine times!”

The film poster for Interlude, starring Oscar Werner, released in 1968
The film poster for Interlude, starring Oscar Werner, released in 1968

Today, of course, this facility is amply supplied by TV channels which specialise in old movies, but we had it back then in Cork, before anyone had even thought of inventing 52-inch sets and Netflix.

Dermot Knowles can remember every detail of the lay-out at the Assembly Rooms.

“It was divided into three sections. The hard bench seats at 10d were up front. They were cordoned off from the softer ones just behind, at 1/3.

“And at the very back there were slightly plusher seats, maybe for courting couples, whatever that meant to a 10-year-old.

“But as soon as the lights went down, all the hard chaws skipped over the cordon to get to the soft seats. That’s if we could dodge the dreaded Georgie, the usher. It was Georgie’s job to wade in and herd them back to the timber benches. That provided entertainment in itself.

“And, of course, when Audie Murphy or Joel McCrea plugged a few bad guys the cry went up ‘Georgie, remove the bodies’. We had great fun teasing Georgie.”

A lot of the films were in black and white at the Assembly Rooms, and a popular belief at the time, says Dermot, is that the hard chaws would be convinced that if the same film was showing in The Savoy, it would be in colour. “Casablanca boy. I seen it in De Savoy and it was in colour, I tell ya.” The Savoy, though, he maintains, really was a prince of theatres, well worth the extra penny.

“For the Saturday afternoon matinee, the entrance was on Little William Street, the lane between Dunnes and The Savoy. It was known colloquially as ‘De hundred steps’ because after paying your bob and a penny you had to climb a hundred steps to get to the cinema upstairs.

“Not for us little cafflers the golden entrance on Patrick Street. We were too wild and unruly for that.

“Settled comfortably in our seats we could then look forward to our incredible treat. First Fred Bridgeman rising up from the pit seated in his organ and playing the latest hits while the words of the songs were posted up on the screen.

“We had Elvis, Cliff, and The Beatles, and enjoyed ourselves mightily blasting out Return to Sender, Summer Holiday, and She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. What memories, truly magic. Andrew Lloyd Webber must have been in the audience back then because I’m convinced he stole the idea for Phantom of the Opera from the great Fred Bridgeman!”

Another memory of De Savoy that Dermot Knowles treasures is the mad dash for the doors after the show had finished.

“The exit was through the restaurant upstairs. I can still see the incredulous look on the faces of the diners to see the mob of half-crazed kids screaming like the Apaches we had just witnessed on the silver screen as we raced to the exit.

“We were amazed that people could be so posh that they could dine at The Savoy. So sad these wonderful picture palaces are all gone now. Like Rhett and Scarlett, they are Gone with The Wind.”

Dermot even thought up a quiz for Throwback Thursday readers. Remember the newsreels which kept us up to date with world affairs? Which Cork cinemas, he asks, showed the Movietone News, Look At Life, and Pathe News? Answers next week!

The Assembly Rooms in South Mall
The Assembly Rooms in South Mall

And here is some interesting news from Harry O’Halloran. Remember way back before Christmas we unearthed the true story about the Lido and showed that the legend of the jam jars used for payment was in fact true?

Well, Harry, who lived on Friar’s Walk, vividly remembers collecting those self same jam jars and using them to get in to D’Assembs.

So it wasn’t only the Lido that acted as a practical go-between for cinema-goers and Ogilvie & Moore, the jam makers, the Assembly Rooms was in on it too.

The prices Harry quotes for the Assembly Rooms are slightly lower than those remembered by Dermot Knowles, indicating an earlier date, but the traditions (and the staff) were exactly the same.

“When we shouted ‘Georgie, remove the body’ we made a frantic move from the 4d ‘hop’, to the back shilling seats, that had cloth covering on them.

“Georgie, if he spotted movement, would shine his torch on us, demanding to see our tickets, which of course were the cheaper 4d ones. Back we were all marched to the cheaper seats, heads down to illustrate our contrite hearts.

“Oh, also we used to collect old newspapers, sell them on to the wastepaper recycling company, and visit D’Assembs on the strength of the proceeds of our labours. Happy days! I was 10 years old in 1954.”

Send your memories to jokerrigan1@gmail. com

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