Usherettes, ashtrays and a sliding roof - memories of a bygone Sunderland cinema era

The Havelock cinema.
The Havelock cinema.
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Want to know about Sunderland cinemas of the past? Alan Thompson is the man to ask.

He’s 85 and sent Wearside Echoes a goldmine of information about times gone by.

A cinematograph machine at Havelock Cinema.

A cinematograph machine at Havelock Cinema.

Today, we start a two-part look back at one man’s memories of the golden age of the big screen.

Highfield Hospital-born Alan spent his early life in Orchard Street in Pallion.

He recalled: “The first cinema of which I was aware of was the Plaza, which stood at the junction of Pallion and Hylton Roads.”

Sadly, the arrival of the Second World War meant audiences plummeted but Alan told us: “I was a regular attendee when life returned to normal.”

Smoking was permitted in all cinemas at that time, and brass ashtrays were screwed to the backs of all seats to serve patrons sitting behind. A girl wandered up and down the aisle with a tray and a torch, tending to those in need of cigarettes, chocolate or ice-cream.

Alan Thompson

Further eastwards, down Hylton Road, he said, there was the Millfield (Milly) Cinema. “Not so nice as the Plaza, but a good midweek venue if cash was short,” said Alan.

“Then, moving now into town, and past the Empire Theatre, which was a theatre proper, we come to the Palace Cinema, which was probably a former Victorian Music Hall.”

It boasted “at least two balconies and a gallery, the latter of which had minimum-comfort seating and a number of columns to obstruct the view”, said Alan.

It demonstrated, he said, “the fact that you get what you pay for”.

The Havelock's demolition in 1965.

The Havelock's demolition in 1965.

Next on Alan’s cinema journey was further down High Street and on the right.

“The Picture House was not outstanding except that it had a roof section which slid open and let out the accumulated smoke and other airborne debris.”

Who else remembers this? Share your memories by emailing chris.cordner@jpimedia.co.uk

Alan added: “It would be apt at this point to mention that smoking was permitted in all cinemas at that time, and brass ashtrays were screwed to the backs of all seats to serve patrons sitting behind.

“A girl wandered up and down the aisle with a tray and a torch, tending to those in need of cigarettes, chocolate or ice-cream.”

Alan’s journey continues eastwards to Fawcett Street. “On the far corner we find the Havelock Cinema,” he said.

“Now we are city style, with a commissionaire in the foyer; resplendent in a long powder-blue coat, with matching trousers and red stripes down the sides, plus a mass of gold braid fit for a general at least.

“It was his function to shout out, to the queues, outside what seats were currently available and at what price.

“The Havelock was home to the Gaumont British Junior Club, of which both I and my constant friend and companion, Betty, were card carrying members.

“We would have been about 13 at that time.”

Alan reminded us of a great part of the junior club which was the anthem, and proceedings would always open with a rendition of the song.

It went as follows:

“We come along on Saturday morning,

“Greeting everybody with a smile,

“We come along on Saturday morning,

“Knowing it’s well worthwhile.

“As members of the GB Club,

“We all intend to be,

“Good citizens when we grow up,

“And champions of the free.

“We come along on Saturday morning,

“Greeting everybody with a smile, smile, SMILE,

“Greeting everybody with a smile!

“This would be followed by a sing-along; following a white dot on the words displayed on the screen.”

Were any other Wearside Echoes followers members of the club and what are your memories of it?

Tell us all about it and the activities you enjoyed. Email chris.cordner@jpimedia.co.uk

After the anthem, said Alan, the club “entertained we kids with at least one ‘Short’; maybe The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Ma & Pa Kettle etc.

“Then a serial, then a main feature; one of which I remember being ‘The Little Princess’ with Shirley Temple.

“That film brought the whole audience to tears, boys and girls alike. Manliness has its limits at that age.”

Our thanks to Alan for his memories so far and watch out for more of the same tomorrow.

It will include more cinemas and memories of the potato man with his paper ‘pokes’ and twist of salt.