Organ music, cinemas smelling of roses, usherettes and page boys - memories of Sunderland’s bygone cinemas
Sweet perfume smells and staff dressed in the smartest uniforms. It was the norm at the pictures.
Cinema stalwart Bill Mather is the perfect person to turn to for memories of the Sunderland picture houses.
After all, he spent 53 years in the industry and got in touch after spotting a recent Wearside Echoes story. He loved the memories of reader Allan Thompson and decided to share his own.
He starts his own recollections with the Blacks Regal, which later became the Odeon in 1955.
Black’s Regal was without doubt the “Buckingham Palace”, of Sunderland Cinema, said Bill. It opened in 1932 and was ‘a truly magnificent building’.
“The long walk in passage surrounded each side by mirrors and leading into the main stalls foyer was a sight to behold.”
Bill told us: “I recall well my first visit around 1949 when my mother took me after school to see “Samson & Delilah” (Victor Mature) and we went into the side lane to the front stalls area, which had a “waiting area”.
“The matinee was full and we waited to get in.
“I always recall the giant screen (being a mere nine-year-old) and vividly recall the staff all dressed in “military style” uniforms.
“The usherettes wore trousers (brown) striped with gold cuff, and the adoring aroma of perfume sprayed around the auditorium made one feel like youre sitting in a palace.”
It wasn’t long before Bill was a regular.
He remembered: “Every Monday around 4.30pm, I made my way to the front main entrance where I purchased my “rear circle” half price ticket (2 shillings and sixpence) - 12 and a half new pence!.
“I made my way up that long entrance and the front of house doorman was like a ergeant in the army as he wore a dark (navy colour) uniform with red braded and a cap and 3 stripes (sergeant).
“I later learned that the promotion was down to the length of stay in the employment of Blacks”.
“The usherettes were again dressed in trousers and jacket and a tam. There was also a page boy who was observed spraying perfume around the foyer.
“I always remember the smell of the perfumes (lilac/rose) in the main foyer and when you got into the circle foyer it changed to say carnation, but always a different smell.”
The General Manager was Frank Reay who Bill got to know quite well. He’d been a Sergeant Major in the Armed Forces and was general manager at the cinema.
His assistant was Miss Katie Burrell, who started when the Regal opened in 1932 and stayed around 40 years until retirement, said Bill.
“Frank Reay was responsible for the cleanest and well run cinema in Sunderland and I say that with respect to all former top managers.
“I used to see him every Monday in the stalls foyer dressed in his tails and white wing collar. The assistant had to be in evening suit with black bow tie.
“What amazed me was that on entering, an usherette always showed you to a seat and there was always plenty of staff around. The show would start with the “Pearl & Dean” adverts, followed then by the “Paramount news”, and then the trailers for next week.
“Following that, the screen curtains would close, and those beautiful colours varied of course come up on the footlights.”
The curtains opened and the screens would always first display what was coming on in the next week at the Regal.
Screening times would appear and next, the audience would get to find out what was showing at other venues - the “Blacks Theatre Royal” Bedford Street, and the “Blacks Rink Ballroom” (Arnold Eagle & Orchestra etc).
“He was the resident Musical Director from opening in 1932, said Bill.
Sunday was a real treat.
“Around 4pm until the show started around 4.30pm you could enjoy the “Compton Organ,” said Bill.
“Normally around the 1950s it was “Alan Dorward”, (but organ experts will of course have other names who played).”
We’ll have more from Bill tomorrow.
But we would also love to hear from other people with memories of the days of the cinema staff in resplendent uniforms and the aroma of perfume wafting through the aisles.