THE TUP’NEY RUSH
by Eric Fowler
My life has centred around show business, much of it revolving with the flickering shadows cast by a turning reel of film.
My sister, required to look after me, pulled me into the scramble for seats in the frightening blackness of the ‘twopenny’ (‘tup’ney’) rush on Saturday mornings, where, squashed two to a seat, most kids preferred the front row so that orange peel could be thrown or pomegranate seeds spat at the baddie.
We thrilled to ‘Flash Gordon’ serials with cliff hanging endings. Loved Tarzan, Rin Tin Tin, Old Mother Riley, Our Gang and Cowboys, Tom Mix and Buck Jones.
Perhaps singing cowboys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers influenced my own singing which by the age of 10 won me a talent contest at ‘The Gem’ picture house and it was here that my show business career was established. The manager booked me for several concerts in his cine/variety shows, but importantly allowed visits to the projection box, via a vertical iron rung ladder that rose from the foyer.
Enthused, I soon had my own toy projector. Bought from Woolworths for one and eleven, it stood about six inches high with a small reel to take professional 35 mm film, wound by hand. Fitted with a torch bulb, the power source was a battery borrowed from my Dad’s cycle lamp, causing him to push his bike home from work. The projector made a rectangle of light on a piece of white card about six by five inches. If only I had a film!
My cinema manager friend came to the rescue with a pair of scissors, cutting a few yards from that week’s second feature.
My silent movie of a man sitting behind a desk ran for nearly 30 seconds. Longer if I wound slowly.
Soon I was to enjoy a more sophisticated machine………………
My second projector came in 1941 when I was 12, hand wound, it had a gate to take 9.5 mm film with centre sprocket holes. The light source a 60w bulb in a lamp house. Top and bottom reels would take 3 minute shorts or cartoons, but I was ambitious.
Re-prints of real cinema features, but silent, could be hired from a shop. Up to four reel comedies and dramas, each reel lasting about 20 minutes. To accommodate them I built a tower for the reel from Meccano but could not drive onto a bottom spool. The film had to run out and collect in a box on the floor! Rewinding carefully by hand between reels was a lengthy business for each changeover! The painted wooden screen was a whole 1ft square and the audience of family and friends, admitted by hand made tickets had to crowd around very patiently.
My friend Winnie Wilkins, played gramophone records between reels. Audiences paid one penny each. Even so the cost was not covered. Sister helped with a permanent loan, my first taste of art subsidy.
Favourite films were ‘Lorna Doone’ and ‘Midshipman Easy’ featuring the young Hughie Green.
As the war raged across the world, in the blackout of our small house the toy projector churned merrily on each Sunday evening unaware as we were of the furore. Professional picture going was regular on Saturdays to one or other of the many cinemas in my home area, the Medway Towns.
My life has been a mix of live theatre, cinema and TV. During national service in the R.A.F. I ran 16 mm film shows, concerts and plays in the station gymnasium and began my professional career after demob as a doorman at the Lido cinema (A.B.C.) Golders Green, starting at the bottom-cleaning toilets.
Having started at the bottom of the cinema business at the Lido, Golders Green progress was swift. After three months I was made foreman, in charge of usherettes and doorman’s duties. I got a badge and the chance to help with publicity stunts. Three months on I landed a trainee manager’s job at the Ionic cinema Golders Green and was soon made assistant manager at an incredible £8 per week. Uniform was changed for dinner jacket.
The Ionic with its Greek style Ionic columns was opened by Pavlova in 1913. The auditorium was horseshoe shaped with the “box” housed between stalls and balcony, with huge gleaming Kalee machines. An enjoyable job was collecting publicity material from Wardour Street.
The company also owned the Streatham hill and Golders Green Hippodrome theatres and it was a great joy to occasionally help out at the latter. But their days were numbered, as were many cinemas. TV was beginning to bite. The industry tried biting back with CinemaScope, Vista Vision, Panavision and Stereophonic sound.
After three happy years my future at the Ionic did not look promising until I found a company that was actually expanding- Essoldo. I was appointed as a London relief manager, touring their venues on a daily basis starting at the Grand Clapham Junction that had just been converted from live theatre to film by means of rear projection and using the new Essoldomatic, an early robot device for running the show – lights, curtains, music,striking carbons and controlling change-overs.
I stood in at Essoldos at Barnet, Hounslow, Penge, Kilburn, Chelsea and notably Tottenham, an exceedingly grotty “bug hutch”. I trailed around for nearly a year before being offered my own residency, the Danilo (Essoldo) Hinckley Leicestershire.
The Danilo was the largest of three cinemas in Hinkley, having 1,100 seats with tickets from 1/6d to 3/4d and a huge CinemaScope screen. Met by the area supervisor, I was embarrassed to be present at his sacking of the resident manager who was to be replaced by me. I was only 26 years old and the film that day was ‘ There’s No Business Like Show Business ‘!
The staff, particularly the team of six projectionists, where hostile to me but after changing the ‘Chief’ the rest and I settled to a happy and industrious time of promotions, publicity stunts, charity shows and dine/variety evenings. Two things bugged me: the large amount of paper work and unruly teenagers whom I eventually tamed.
Four years later, in 1958, I was fortunate in being appointed manager of the Commodore Theatre, Ryde. Not an Essoldo but an independent of 1,560 seats plus ballroom and restaurant. We moved to the holiday island and my salary leapt from £12 to £15 per week.
The large foyer boasted grand staircases and the box office was a replica of the aft of Nelson’s flagship, Victory. A capacious and fully equipped stage had housed pantomime and summer shows. Sunday night live shows were to continue with films on weekdays. We ran South Pacific and The Guns of Navarone alternately for a whole summer season. I was able to direct occasional plays and organise many publicity stunts (what has happened to showmanship?). It was heaven.
But nothing lasts. Southern Television (now Meridian) opened in Southampton and a dark shadow swiftly fell across live and cinematic entertainment. The Commodore was sold and in 1962, although kept on by the new owners, I began looking for a better future………………..
In 1962 I left the Isle of Wight and the cinema business to become an arts and entertainment manager in Local Government, first for tithe Borough of Watford, then Camberley, next Aldershot and finally to Slough in 1974. The work was mainly theatrical covering plays, pantomime, concerts, shows, wrestling and various types of leisure functions, booking and and meeting many international stars and royalty, and helping local drama and music societies.
It was as general manager of the huge entertainment complex in Slough, a part of which was the Planet Theatre, that I was able to introduce occasional films into the theatre programme.
Cinemas in Slough had contracted to just one by 1977, so although barred from first run films my theatre found a small market for blockbuster re-runs and specialist titles. John Huntley’s railway and wildlife films proved popular.
Henry V was shown to 6th form students, it being their curriculum subject. Amazingly not even a teacher commented when a reel was inadvertently shown in the wrong order causing Laurence Olivier to deliver his victory speech BEFORE the battle had taken place!
An Indian society hired the theatre on Sunday’s to watch Indian language films. The shows, always packed with a sea of dark faces only distinguishable in the gloom when white teeth gleamed in laughter. Films with the same plot and actors frequently ran for six hours, and next morning the cleaners almost revolted over the large amount of refuse to be dealt with. The volatile mix of Indian, Pakistani and West Indians sometimes came to blows. They never damaged the theatre, just one another.
Regrettably illness struck me in 1980 and I was advised to find a less stressful occupation. I resigned from Local Government. The wonderful entertainment centre became a multiplex cinema and popcorn palace a few years later.
Having left employment aged 51 I have been casually or self employed ever since. To begin I worked part time helping a young couple running their own cinema, the 260 seat Picture House, Sunninghill.
Built by the Maharajah of Sarawak (The White Rajah) it was the first talkie house in Berkshire, and though retaining its Art Deco decor had fallen into the “bug hutch” category. The young couple were desperately short of money for repairs and decoration, bravely struggling on for a few years, still using the old carbon arcs.
To help I invested in a 16mm projector, a second hand Elf, and we took to the road giving shows in rural halls. At bet we made some petty cash for the cinema. It was hard going though a great joy with the occasional full house. Soon though the supply of new film prints dried up and we were forced to abandon the project.
Meanwhile I further invested in a new super 8mm Sanyo projector, speakers, 6ft screen and stock of 20 minute re-makes of children’s films and cartoons, and began a round of quite profitable children’s parties. By 1984 I had given 130 shows in all manner of homes and venues.
But nothing lasts. Videos came strongly on the market and children’s party film shows faded out. I still have the unused equipment. Now many things variously occupied me, particularly theatrically at the Redgrave Theatre Farnham and South Hill Arts Centre, Bracknell among others, settling into two main areas-writing and acting.
Writing has taken me from newspaper and magazine articles, theatre reviews, children’s stories (one televised) to 25 published Pantomimes and plays with over 200 productions including in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Bermuda, Ireland as well as Great Britain. Last year saw my show business novel entitled ‘The Cosmopolitans ‘ published.