Projectionist lands starring role in Sunderland cinema revamp

SCB BGR-426 (Daimler Roe) making its way up Bedford St passing the Royal Cinema in 1953.
SCB BGR-426 (Daimler Roe) making its way up Bedford St passing the Royal Cinema in 1953.
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Plans to rebuild a Wearside picture house brick-by-brick at Beamish Museum have brought memories flooding back for a former projectionist.

Bill Mather developed a fascination with The Grand at Ryhope when just a baby in the 1940s and, by the age of 10, was helping out behind the scenes after school.

The former Grand Electrict Cinema, in St. Paul's Terrace, Ryhope, which has been donated by owners Gary and Angela Hepple, pictured here handing over the keys to Director of Beamish Museum, Richard Evans.

The former Grand Electrict Cinema, in St. Paul's Terrace, Ryhope, which has been donated by owners Gary and Angela Hepple, pictured here handing over the keys to Director of Beamish Museum, Richard Evans.

The experience helped pave the way for his role as CEO of Fairworld Cinemas in later life, but the St Paul’s Terrace theatre still holds a special place in his heart.

“I was ecstatic to hear it was to be rebuilt at Beamish. Too many of our wonderful cinemas have been demolished over the years, but The Grand will now live on,” he said.

Bill’s fascination with The Grand developed as a toddler, when his mother routinely had to take him to the cinema at midnight, just to prove it was closed, before he would go to sleep.

By the age of six he was helping projectionist Jack Thompson put up photos and posters each weekend, and at “barely 10” he was granted his greatest wish - to work in the projection room.

I still have vivid memories of The Grand, from the foyer to under the stage. I’m so pleased it will never be forgotten now.

Bill Mather, former projectionist at The Grand cinema in Ryhope.

“Jack had left school at 12 to work at The Grand when it opened in 1912 and was a legend in Ryhope. He knew absolutely everything there was to know about working with film,” recalls Bill.

“The cinema was his passion. He made lots of the fittings himself, such as the wooden letters used to promote films. He even made the lights on the front canopy - using empty pots of Shipman’s paste. His wife told me she never ever wanted to see fish paste again!

“But best of all he made me a little box to stand on, because I was too small to see through the projection hole, and taught me all the mechanics of being a projectionist - from splicing film to warming up the projector on cold days. He was my mentor.”

Young Bill would dash from his home in Roselea Avenue to the cinema each day after school to help Jack and finally, in 1952, he was given the chance to work the projector on his own.

The Grand at Ryhope circa 1948.

The Grand at Ryhope circa 1948.

“I still remember the film - it was Ruby Gentry, starring Charlton Heston,” he said. “Jack told me he was going to let me start it up by myself while he went to open the curtains.

“But, instead of the film running in its usual black and white form, it was a blueish colour. The next thing I knew I had a foot up my backside because I’d got it wrong! But I soon learned my lesson.”

Bill spent almost every moment he was not at Silksworth School learning the tricks of the trade from Jack and, by the time he was a teenager, he was earning more than £1 a week - as much as the adult doorman.

Indeed, Bill soon became so proficient as a projectionist that Jack often left him in charge during school holidays - using the free time to put up film bills in the village, or even weed the vicarage garden.

The balcony of The Grand at Ryhope.

The balcony of The Grand at Ryhope.

“Another of my tasks was to make sure the cinema smelled nice, by spraying perfume around the place each night - rose, carnation and others. Some cinemas were called flea-pits with good reason - but The Grand was nothing like that.

“There were only a couple of things Jack wouldn’t let me do, and that was just to protect my safety. He wouldn’t let me climb the ladder to glue the film posters to the wall, and I wasn’t allowed to up in the roof to clean the main house lights.

“These lights had to be taken down from the ceiling every six months or so, but Jack said it was too dangerous for me up there. There were 24 to 30 lamps and all the fittings had to be cleaned. It was a big job.”

Bill spent five happy years at The Grand until, after leaving school, he moved on to The Royal in Sunderland - followed by the Princess Theatre at Dawdon.

“My mam always said I was born to work in cinema, and even as a boy I dreamed of having my own cinema - a dream that later came true,” he said.

“But it was all thanks to The Grand and Jack that I got such a good grounding in the business. Jack had such a wealth of wisdom and was kind enough to share it with me - I will never forget his kindness.”

Bill has now been asked to share his memories of The Grand with Beamish, to help museum staff restore the dilapidated building to its former 1950s glory.

It is a role he is already relishing and added: “I still have vivid memories of The Grand, from the foyer to under the stage. I’m so pleased it will never be forgotten now.”