The experience of UK cinemas in the 1940s and 1950s
Inside the cinemas
Our Ritz cinema was almost certainly not unique in being really sumptuous inside, with everywhere except the toilets carpeted, and with superb decor and lighting.
During the showing of Caesar and Cleopatra with Claude Rains and Vivian Leigh in 1945, the whole building was transformed into an Egyptian Temple with props from the film.
Our Edgware Ritz cinema, which must have been typical of most cinemas, contained a reception area and one large theatre. (Splitting cinemas up into several smaller ones was years away.) At the front of the theatre was a large screen with thick curtains at either side which opened and closed indicating the start and finish of the day's show. Behind the curtains, but in front of the screen was a fire curtain which I understood had, by law, to be raised and lowered once every day that the cinema was open.
At the back of the cinema was a large balcony.
There were customer lavatories, but I don't remember any form of cafeteria - but I don't remember any intervals either. Usherettes with trays of ice creams for sale would walk up and down the aisles from time to time. I don't remember any ushers, but am told that they existed. In my experience they were always women and it never occurred to me that the word 'usherette' was the feminine of 'usher'.
I was always fascinated by the colourful and brightly lit organ. I can't remember the details of when and what the organist played, but I clearly remember how the whole organ was raised up for all to see while the organist was playing, and then how it was slowly lowered to below eye level for the films.
Cinemas were always dark during the films and usherettes with torches showed customers to their seats. This was rather disruptive as everyone in a line of seats had to stand and push their seats back up to let newcomers pass even in the middle of the films.
The toilets in our Ritz were 'a world apart' for most people. Compared to the outside loos at home and the Spartan and dim public toilets, the Ritz toilets were superb. They were fully tiled and well lit. They had hand basins with hot and cold running water and large mirrors, and there was lots of chrome. Everything was gleaming.
the courting couples
Cinemas were one of the few places where courting couples could go to sit in the warm and relative seclusion of darkness.
They sat in the back row which had a partition behind it, shielding them from the view of casual observers - although anyone who wanted to see them could easily do so.
It was well-known that such couples saw very little of what was being shown.
Cleanliness inside cinemas
We knew a lady who was a cleaner at the Regal in Edmonton. She would collect all the cigarette butts that were swept from the floor and take them home. Then she would sit at the kitchen table and with a sharp single edge razor blade would top and tail them, there were no tipped cigarettes in those days. Then she would slit open the paper and create a pile of tobacco, to which she added a very small amount of fresh tobacco. This she sold to a local newsagents shop which was then sold on as "under the counter rolling mix". Some people called it 'cough mixture'.
My father used to roll his own cigarettes around this time because it was cheaper than buying the packet variety. I wonder if he knew where the tobacco came from!
Pat Cryer, webmaster
At the beginning of the afternoon and the end of the evening, the lights 'went up' but I don't remember them as particularly bright. I can't help wondering how clean the cinemas were.