The Sunderland cinema where things went bump in the night

Spooky behind-the-scenes events had staff at one Sunderland cinema on their toes.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 11 June, 2019, 15:30
A scene from Sunderland's cinema past, courtesy of Bill Mather.

The Blacks Theatre Royal in Bedford Street really wasn’t the place to be on your own on a dark night.

And that’s especially the case if you were a woman and you were in the women’s staff room. If you were, chances were you would get to see a ‘vision’ of someone disappearing into the wall

Inside a Sunderland picture house.

All this is according to one man who should know. Bill Mather spent 53 years in the industry and remembered the uncanny events in the women’s staff room which was downstairs off the foyer.

Women would not stay downstairs themselves and all of them had experienced disturbing sightings of someone dashing across the floor area ‘through the wall into the under-floor area where the seats were stored.’

It later emerged that the same under-floor area was once a part of a boarding house where there had been a death.

It wasn’t the only story of spirits at the cinema either. One man had the unenviable task – twice a year – of having to stay in the room all night to discharge the emergency batteries to comply with the law by showing the batteries were working properly.

The entry foyer to Black's Regal cinema, shared by Bill Mather.

But the man who had the all-night job found that he wasn’t alone. He heard a swishing sound and opened a nearby rest room door where he ‘felt cobwebs and coldness’, said Bill.

As he probed further, every one of the stage ropes started to swish around. Soon, it felt like a gale-force wind was blowing.

The worker ran back upstairs and stayed in a room where he stuck a chair under the door handle, and stopped in a corner of the room until the swishing stopped.

He later told Bill he’d never talked about it to anyone else in case they thought he was made.

Ironcially, that same rest room had been a part of the boarding house which had terrified female staff earlier.

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".

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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.

"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.

"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 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 and this was hilarious as he was about the size of Charles Laughton, the actor."

We will have more of Bill’s memories in the weeks to come.