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Cinemas early-mid 20th Century


Inside UK cinemas in their heyday

The cinema foyer

When we first entered a cinema, we found ourselves in a reception area known as a foyer with a cashier's cubicle where we paid our money. Various colourful placards and a small sales stall was also there. The placards changed frequently, so that there was always something new for customers to admire.

Foyer of a cinema, mid 20th century

The wide open space of a foyer of a luxuriously appointed cinema.

cinema foyer decorated for Christmas, mid 20th century

The foyer of the Regal cinema decorated for Christmas, courtesy of David Daniells.

Guest contribution

The elegance of the foyer

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.

Desmond Dyer

Box office in the elegant foyer

Box office in the elegant foyer.

The balcony, known as the circle

From the foyer there was an elegant curved flight of stairs leading to the balcony - known as the circle - and a set of double doors leading to the one large theatre. (Splitting cinemas up into several smaller theatres was years away.)

stall in a cinema foyer

arrangement in old cinema foyer

Various foyer arrangements. Photo courtesy of David Daniells.

The stalls

The seats in the main theatre were known as the stalls. I seem to remember three sets of prices. The front stalls were the cheapest because necks cricked looking up at the screen, and the back stalls were the most expensive - a price that courting couples were glad to pay.

The stage and screen

At the front of the theatre was a stage with a large screen and thick curtains at either side which opened and closed to indicate the start and finish of the day's performance.

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.

Cinema stage with curtains across the screen

Cinema stage with curtains across the screen. Photo courtesy of David Daniells.

cinema organ, 1040s-1950s

Cinema organ that raised up while no film was showing and sank down during a film. Screenshot from an old film.

The cinema organ

I was always fascinated by the colourful and brightly lit organ which played while customers were waiting for the film to begin. I can't remember 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.

In the same pit as the organ was space for an orchestra.

old cinema organ

The organ at the Regal cinema showing how it changed over time. The original of the second photo is good enough to enlarge. Tap/click to view the enlargement.

Guest contributions

More about the Regal organ

The Regal only ever had one organ - a superb 'Christie' organ with 4 manuals and 14 ranks of pipes. The console started life with a large glass surround, but that was damaged in the 1940s. In 1947 Wurlitzer rebuilt the console and fitted the wooden sides visible in the photo. So the glass sided photo is older than the wooden sided one. The man in the white suit is Phil Park, the organist at the Regal in the 1930s and 40s. My father used to visit the Regal in his teens.

The Regal organ still exists. It was removed from the Regal prior to the cinema's sad demolition and was installed in a hall in Barry, south Wales where it played for many years. More recently it was removed from there and is now (2014) being installed in a new arts centre elsewhere in South Wales.

Peter Hammond

More about cinema organs in general

Cinema organs were pipe organs, similar to those in churches, but designed to sound more like orchestras. Only the organ console (the part the organist sits at) was visible and was often on a lift. The rest of the organ, which was usually a couple of tons or more of pipework and equipment, was situated behind a wall grill or under the stage.

Peter Hammond

The cinema auditorium and seats

At the cinema which I frequented all the seats were on a floor which sloped upwards towards the back. As I have since seem cinemas with steps rather than a slope, I suppose some cinemas had steps too. The difference in height was necessary in order to be able to see over the heads of people in front, although tall men and women with hats could still obscure. It was pleasantest to sit behind a small child - but not in front of one as they tended to kick and the jolt could be felt through the back of the seat.

Inside a mid-1900s cinema, showing the large balcony

Inside a cinema, showing the large balcony/circle. Screenshot from an old film.

All the seats flipped up for cleaning and to allow people to move along a row.

The seats in the balcony were the most expensive, particularly at the front of the balcony.

The whole space was huge.

Inside a mid-1900s cinema, showing the large auditorium

Inside a cinema, showing the large auditorium. Screenshot from an old film.

Cinema lavatories

There were customer lavatories, but I don't think I ever used them. See the following box for the recollections of Desmond Dyer.

Guest contribution

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.

Desmond Dyer

Cleanliness and elegance inside cinemas

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.

Guest contribution

A cinema cleaner's story

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'.

Peter Johnson

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