One for the upper circle - remembering the old days of the Sunderland cinema

The Odeon in Sunderland in the days when Bill Mather worked there.
The Odeon in Sunderland in the days when Bill Mather worked there.
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From the usherette to the shows for juniors – oh what wonderful memories of bygone picture houses!

Thanks to ex-cinema controller Bill Mather we can take this great trip down Memory Lane, and in such superb detail.

The auditorium at the Odeon.

The auditorium at the Odeon.

Bill worked at the pictures when there were nine screens to control in the Fairworld group. They were, he said, “Sunderland” twins, (High Street West), Washington twins, Seaham Harbour, Horden twins, Hartlepool (former ABC) and Guisborough”.

He even remembered the times when, as a nine and 10-year-old, he would help the usherette in her work.

He corrected us on one point in a previous article. Contrary to old Echo archives, Doris Hart was not the first female cinema manager in the region (she swapped a job in Sunderland for a manager’s position in Hartlepool in 1979).

“That award would go to Mrs Grey, who was the first female manager in the country to manage a cinema under the then, Gaumont British Circuit, which had some 275 plus cinemas around the country.

There was a doorman for years called Josh who was always on duty with his blue uniform and hat which was the Gaumont Circuit colours

Bill Mather

“She was manager at the “Palace” Sunderland, (near the Empire) from 1920 (the silent era), and continued, believe it or not, till around it’s closure.

“I remember her vividly in 1954, still in charge when I used to go – often on Saturdays and holidays when I was around 9/10-, and I used to half the tickets in the ‘upper circle’ helping the usherette.

“They all got to know me as, after that, I went to the Grand Cinema Ryhope where I started my official career in the projection room – long before leaving school, of course.”

Mrs Grey used to play the grand piano which was in front of the stage on a Saturday morning Junior Show, said Bill.

The Regal Junior Club in 1962.

The Regal Junior Club in 1962.

“I also recall that she told the cashiers I was to be barred as she used to catch me helping the usherettes in the upper circle halving tickets. But none of them took any notice of her.

“Every evening on a Saturday afternoon around 4.30pm to 5pm, she used to appear from the right hand prompt entrance at the right of the stage in the circle.”

She would have “a tray with bacon and eggs and tomatoes and the aroma vividly perfumed around the circle. Her office was behind the entrance pay-box to the circle – the posh end!

“She also had a doorman with her for years called Josh, who was always on duty with his blue uniform and hat, which was the Gaumont Circuit colours.

“One Sunday when I was about 10, our next door friend took me to the Palace and in the upper circle she must have been short staffed.

“She used to lead Josh a life of torment and recall she had him this particular Sunday with an ice cream tray and he had a white apron on (like a waitress) and this was hilarious as he was about the size of Charles Laughton, the actor.”

Bill spent more than 50 years in the industry. The Regal was his favourite and he remembers Alfred Black who “built the Regal when I was a junior projectionist starting my ‘leaving school’ career”.

He also knew Brett Childes who featured in previous nostalgia articles.

Bill told us: “The ‘Odeon’ actually started his career in 1962 as trainee manager under the late ‘great’ Frank Rae, who was another one not to cross and kept the cinema in tip-top condition.”

Another to share their movie days was John Lilley. He worked at the Odeon for five years until it closed.

“Trevor Faller recruited me from Fairworld Cinema’s but Richard Carlisle, Billy Souter and Keith (sorry the surname is lost in time to me) were the last of the cinema projectionists to see the place out,” he said.

“I was 16 when I started and worked with some great people there.”

As well as cinema screenings, there were wrestling bouts and concerts.

“I remember the Odeon, its staff, the laughs we all had, the trainee from the ABC who came down for a box of 35mm perforations as they’d been supplied a film reel without any (thank you for sending him over guys), beers in the Blandford and the Beehive pubs and the close-knit team we had. I thank my Dad (one of the greatest cinema projectionists to grace the cinemas of Sunderland!), for initially training me up down at the Studio’s 1 and 2 in 1977.”

Great memories. We want more. Email chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk