The Flicks

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The Flicks is another of Eric Sanderson’s great tales this time about the cinemas of East Leeds in the 1940s/50s. And also the characters who ran them. Particularly Abe White at the Easy Road Picture House and Big Ernie at the Princess. Was Big Ernie’s the best known voice in East Leeds? Blog Flicks 

The Flicks

By Eric Sanderson

Cinemas (picture Houses – or even more colloquially ‘the Flicks’) were numerous right throughout the city and East Leeds had its fair share. During the 40s and 50s my favourite establishments were: The Shaftsbury and The Star, both on York Road; The Regent in lower Torre Road; The Princess in Pontefract Lane and The Easy Road cinema.

            They all followed a similar schedule, having a programme Mon to Wed, a different one Thurs to Saturday and a further change for a single house on Sunday evening (after Sunday opening started in the early fifties) They were without exception, well supported, often necessitating queuing outside and gaining access only after the show had begun such that you had to stay for the ‘second half’ to see the beginning of the film – seeing it back to front so to speak. Who would stand such nonsense today? They were also heavily smoke laden to the equivalent of a ten fag inhalation; you’d only to look at the beam from the projection room to see a swirling nicotine mist of eye watering density. The modern day elf ‘n safety Nazis would have a fit of vapours if confronted with such conditions.

            THE  SHAFTSBURY, known as ‘The Shaffs’ was the northern boundary of my cinematic circuit at the junction of York Road and Harehills Lane boasted a magnificent marble frontage (which in fact remains) atop several steps and leading to an impressive gilded vestibule and ticket office. It was probably the most modern cinema in the area, also the most expensive, but usually had the most recent films. The seating was red plush upholstery, many double seated but it suffered from the unpleasant characteristic of an absolutely scorching temperature. The building must have had its own uncontrolled nuclear reactor because by the interval, many had discarded their outer clothing and would dash for one of the several queues for ice creams and drinks, sold by strategically placed attendants from trays hung around their necks. The first ten minutes of the resumption of the film was drowned my the sucking and slurping of Kia Ora and orange flavoured lollipops, every last drop being siphoned up to quell the raging thirst induced by the tropical temperatures.

            The STAR (which had been built in the late 20s on the site of an earlier cinema called The Victoria), further down York Road, opposite Victoria School was also a fairly modern art deco style building. It had a peculiar feature in that while most cinemas sloped downwards from the rear towards the front, the Star reversed direction and began to slope up towards the screen. I suppose this was to reduce neck strain on those in the wooden, unupholstered cheap seats at the front when staring up at the screen. A very modern innovation or a cunning way to save building costs? It also boasted a balcony with very plush seating for its wealthier clientele but I only visited the balcony once and only then because my favourite aunt took me there for a birthday treat.

                        The staff were magnificently attired in maroon uniforms, the usherettes sporting little pillbox hats, strictly tilted to one side whilst the ‘fireman’ with his peaked cap boasted enough gold braid to impress an Admiral of the Fleet his chest was adorned with so many medal ribbons that he must have campaigned in: The Crimea, Rorkes Drift, The relief of Mafeking and all major encounters since. However, the manager was the man. He was always to be seen in black tuxedo with silk face lapels, had a tiny clipped moustache and gleaming slicked back hair with central parting, resembling a silent movie star. Now I come to think of it I believe that all the cinema managers possessed these handsome, sultry movie style features. maybe they went into the job believing it was just the first step on the road to Hollywood stardom! The manager also had a magnificent furnished office to one side of the entrance vestibule. Oh yes a cinema manager was indeed as job to aspire to in those days. In fact many years later (about 1965) I came across an old school friend who’d become manager of the Pavilion, near Stanningley. Sure enough, the black tuxedo and hairstyle were all there and the icing on the cake was the complimentary passes to the best seats. I was still convinced this was a job to die for 

The Star also started around 1950 a Saturday morning children’s matinee. The programme was invariably, a cartoon, a serial of Flash Gordon (not the same Gordon as our revered leader whom I’m sure history will treat favourably – if only because he intends to write it), followed by the main feature which was usually a western staring, Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers, These matinees were often so rowdy that the film would be interrupted, lights thrown up and the manager (still in his black tuxedo) would clamber onto the stage and threaten to suspend the programme and expel all and sundry unless the racket was terminated. It never worked and I never remember wholesale expulsions. The Star also had an integral sweet and tobacco shop (as did the Shaftsbury) encouraging you to stock up on the necessities so as to maximise your enjoyment of the evening.

               The Regent was at the lower end of Torre Road and for us always a slightly intimidating journey because we had to go to it via Saville Green. This was an area at the lower end of York Road opposite the swimming baths and had a notorious reputation as a cross between Hogarth’s Gin Lane and New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Between Saville Green and Torre Road was an old quarry, local legend had it that unwanted or inquisitive visitors were disposed of by being tossed into its slimy green water filled depths. Until you were much older this horror story sustained the fear that most young people had of this district and was a good reason to give it a wide birth.

Digressing slightly, I once had to retrieve a football nicked from my younger brother by some Saville Green urchins. I had been informed just who and where the culprits were and so I fearfully entered the amphitheatre deciding that ‘boldness be my friend’ was the best approach. I was convinced that I would be beaten up and thrown to the swine in the nearby piggery, but completely unexpectedly they handed over the football without a murmur. Saville Green was never such a fearful place for me after that.

Back to the Regent, it never became my favourite venue as it always had a peculiar aroma inside the building. It may have been the product of the industrial strength insecticide in use coupled with boiled pigswill from the nearby pigsties and, it was always a chilly place. Not a good combination for an evening’s light entertainment.

The PRINCESS in Pontefract Lane was probably my favourite venue. It was older and smaller than the others so far mentioned but it always seemed a cosy place and as far as I know free of anything nasty. The cheap seats at the front were accessed from an ally down the side of the cinema. After paying you entrance fee you were greeted by ‘Big Ernie’ who would allocate your seat, often starting on the front row towards the side. This location resulted in a very distorted view of the screen with elongated characters and severe eye strain, but as the evening wore on you could usually move further inward and towards a more comfortable viewing position, hoping that your recently induced swivel eye condition would improve before the end of the film.

           Big Ernie who in fact lived quite close to me, was a dustbin man by day and a fairly quit person to boot- nothing like the fearsome character maintaining order in the cheap seat area by bellowing, ‘QUIET’ if the background murmur became too loud for his taste. Otherwise he would sit under the screen noisily munching his sandwiches and slurping his tea until it was necessary to evict anyone who offended his code of behaviour, which only happened about six times a night.

The Princess had a much steeper gradient back to front  the most other cinemas which meant you still had a good chance of seeing the screen even if sat behind a trilby toting man or lady with large feather trimmed headwear. The more expensive seats at the rear usually encountered children when accompanied by adults, otherwise it was the cheapies at the front which cost, if I remember correctly sixpence. Money well spent.

        The final cinema on my circuit was The EASY ROAD venue. I never knew its correct name (if it had one) but I guess at some time it had been called something like The Palace or Rialto but which had now fallen into disuse.   [In fact it was just called The Picture House, Easy Road and claimed to have the best ‘talkie’ in Leeds].

                This was, I believe the oldest cinema on my circuit and usually showed the oldest films, only after they had been shown everywhere else. It may have been privately owned because I always understood it to be run by a man [Abe] and his two sisters. The entry price was also the lowest which in itself was a considerable attraction when scraping up the entrance fee was a challenging proposition. Behind the cinema was some derelict land and nearby pigsties so it doesn’t need a quantum leap in imagination to guess the probability of local wildlife just there. Rumour had it that feral cats were allowed to roam the cinema so at to control the uninvited guests from across the way and I never felt too comfortable here because an involuntary itch often accompanied each visit, on a couple of occasions something furry brushed against my legs. I always hoped it was one of the feline species and not the long tailed, buck toothed, Rattus Norvegicus. For this reason many sat with their feet on the seat in front.

            During and just after the war, the local cinema was, for many, a heaven sent escape for a couple of hours from the hardship and worries of those years. The entertainment was by today’s standards often corny but this is exactly what people wanted. To spend a couple of hours in the fantasy of a Hollywood musical with a bag of liquorish allsorts and maybe five Woodbines was a welcome and necessary break from reality.

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