With a broad smile, Peter Wilcock is pictured standing on the famous Laurel & Hardy “Music Box” steps. When he visited California he was determined to locate these iconic steps in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles where his favourite stars, Laurel & Hardy filmed the scene.
From the age of four Peter, along with his lifelong friend Denis Davies, would be taken to the flicks at the Hippodrome in Connah’s Quay to watch movie stars- Laurel and Hardy. These early visits to the big screen formed the foundation of his interest in the cinema industry which remained with him all his life. Even when he moved on to a new job in the 1960s the enthusiasm for cinema never dimmed.
During 1978 a written piece in the Steel News magazine appeared about Peter, who was now employed as a motor room attendant in the hot strip mill at British Steel in Shotton, Deeside. The article highlighted how he had created a mini cinema in his rear garden, following many years working at cinemas on Deeside. What transpired was Peter’s dedication to the cinema exhibition business where he had showed countless films to thousands of movie goers.
At just fourteen years of age this remarkable man started work in the projection room as a rewind boy/third projectionist at the Alhambra cinema in Shotton with a weekly wage of fifteen shillings, although unofficially he had been working there at the age of thirteen. Under the supervision of chief projectionist Dave Bettaney, Peter began training in his dream job.
The Alhambra’s lease was transferred from “Pop” Jacobs in 1945 to Deeside Enterprise Cinemas who had several cinemas in their Deeside portfolio, so within five months Peter found himself transferring (in the same job title) to the Hippodrome cinema in Connah’s Quay, which was a short distance away. There he stayed for a further eighteen months working with projection colleagues Ken Cartwright and Cyril Jones. Promotion came swiftly as Peter’s next move in 1943 was as a 2nd projectionist at the Plaza Queensferry with his pay reaching two pounds & ten shillings a week. This modern cinema was managed by Garfield Edwards, who was also the accountant and a Director of Deeside Enterprise Cinemas, working alongside chief projectionist Derek Harrison. Peter remained at the Plaza, eventually becoming head of projection, with a pay increase to four pounds a week.
In January of 1946, aged 18, Peter left to commence two years National Service in the Army, joining the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the same regiment as his father, also Peter Wilcock, had served in during WW1. Later he joined the Military Police and used to joke that it became “The Royal Military Police” after he joined! He was on active service with the RMP in Rome, Naples, and Trieste (at that time disputed territory with Yugoslavia). During this time Peter was actively involved in the technical side of projection, completing a course on 16mm projection whilst stationed in Austria.
Returning home in the summer of 1948 a letter was waiting for him from Deeside Enterprise Cinemas offering him a position back with the Company. He took up the post of co-chief projectionist at the Plaza, Queensferry. The first film he showed on his return to the cinema was “Night Work”. It was on his return to the Plaza that he met his wife to be, Dolly Davies who was an usherette, they were married in 1954.
Little more than ten months passed by when Peter was appointed to the position of Chief Projectionist at the Alhambra Shotton. This was a major step up in the pecking order of technical achievement as the Alhambra was not only a large cinema, it also hosted stage attractions. This meant that Peter’s role would then be to oversee the lighting and sound on the various productions. It was a clear indication of the value of his experience and Peter’s tenacity that the company now increased his wage to five pounds a week, which made him the highest paid projectionist employed by the circuit.
Notable artists that appeared on stage at the Alhambra included Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson in the production of “Macbeth”.
Emlyn Williams’s “Charles Dickens” tour was presented on stage. Peter managed the staging and chatted with him after the performance. Several other shows were put on at the Alhambra’s stage at this period, including popular pantomimes.
In 1951 a major refurbishment took place at the Alhambra which required a complete closure for a month. New paint work, updating and re-upholstering the seats made certain that the Alhambra could compete with the best of cinema exhibition. Peter was actively involved with the electrical installation during this renovation.
In fact, not only did the Alhambra compete, but won the race in 1954 to show the first Cinemascope film in the Deeside and Chester area, much to Peter’s delight! Pictures appeared in the local press showing the massive Cinemascope screen that had been installed that now made it possible to project film in various ratios including Vista Vision.
During this period of time, cinemas depended on posters being painted by local artists. The company made full use of Peter’s artistic talents as he also produced posters and art work that were on regular display at their cinemas. These included large bannerettes that would be hung on the front of the Alhambra (as pictured). On occasions the posters included art work of the film stars. There are still many examples of his work to be seen; especially the fine detailed drawing of the refurbished auditorium of the Alhambra.
Like most cinemas and theatres during the sixties, the Alhambra suffered a sharp decline in admissions, Peter was aware of this and of the intentions of the company to close the cinema. He decided to head for a more secure future at the Shotton Steel works, leaving the Alhambra in June 1967 showing his final film “Carry On-Don’t Lose Your Head”. The cinema closed on Saturday 28th October 1967.
Peter Wilcock passed away on 11th February 2017. His lifelong dedication to film and cinema exhibition has provided Deeside and surrounding districts with fond memories of cinema’s heyday.
Roger Shone©chestercinemas.co.uk *with acknowledgements to- Dolly & Janet Wilcock.