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Reaching the FINAL curtain in cinemas.

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When chatting to younger cinema goers, a bemused look comes across their faces when you mention, that once, and not so very long ago, cinema stages were dressed with curtains( correct cinema term for them is tabs which is an abbreviation of “tableaux curtains” ).” WHY?” is usually the response from the ones who had not seen them in today’s multiplex cinemas.  A good question really, what was the need to have these massive curtains swishing across the screen several times on every complete performance. To answer this question we need to start near to the beginning when as many people will know, the transfer of the moving image from the individual, penny slot “what the butler saw” type of machines of the arcades, to purpose built halls where hundreds of paying customers could all view at the same time the film projected onto a screen. More often than not, these screens were little more than a sheet pinned to the back wall, The exhibitors realized that here was a way of making serious money. A more sophisticated stage and screen design was introduced to encourage a the more discerning customer into their premises.


The screens were set back on a stage, with black borders, and black side cloths (legs) that surrounded the finely masked screen to give the image a more pleasing appearance, which in turn helped to create the illusion that you were watching a moving image instead of a series of still pictures. Curtains were there for a purpose of hiding the screen, just as in the live theatre, they were used to hide the various scene changes from the audience. Other reasons included that they were there to protect the screen from  missiles hurled by bored customers waiting for the film to start. In the days of smoking, they also gave a small amount of protection from the nicotine that was constantly floating in the smoke filled air.

As time moved on, curtains became part of the presentation, or showmanship of the projection staff. Chief projectionists usually laid down templates for when and where curtains were to be operated; this was at their discretion, and with little interference from head office. Each cinema jealously boasted that their style of presentation was the best in town. Presentation rivalry between the projectionists was rampant at most cinemas, so audiences could enjoy being entertained not by just watching the film they had paid to see, but with fabulous synchronized lighting displays within the auditorium & most importantly on the stage, which was centred on the timing of the opening and closing of the curtains.

The sheer magnificence of the Plaza Stockport tabs

The sheer magnificence of the Plaza Stockport tabs


Screen 1, Chester Odeon 1986

Screen 1, Chester Odeon 1986

Cinema patrons loved, and indeed  expected these trimmings, at a time when cinemas, most seating upwards of two thousand people, would be operating at full capacities every night, with hundreds upon hundreds patiently queuing outside.

Providing these curtains was an expensive item. In many cinemas there were several sets of curtains between the audience and the screen, the set nearest the audience being identified as the House Tabs.  As the decline in cinemas began during the 1950s, curtains were still a statutory requirement within the cinema exhibition business. Heading into the 1960s, and 70s exhibitors tended to pay less for curtains when they had to be replaced.  The ABC circuit were the exception as they refused to scrimp on the quality of cloth used.  ABC usually purchased heavy beige satin type material, and had cleaning contracts with the Scottish firm of McNabbs to keep the curtains well laundered and maintained. If there was any breakdowns on the curtain motors or limit control gear, it was still deemed essential to the technical operation and would be dealt with immediately.

Into the 1980’s, and the start of the multiplex era, curtains were still installed as standard. Their future seemed secure—THEN out of the blue came sponsorship. Hard pressed exhibitors became entangled with sponsorship deals on trailer packages, etc. This involved huge sums of money being paid over by the likes of phone companies. The film tags that they insisted to be on screen were usually short, and followed the last trailer, or commencing before the start of the main movie, what is still the prime spots in programme layout. Here came the demise of the cherished curtains, as the sponsors were able to dictated that they did not want their expensive credits distorted or lost by, what they stated was the needless opening and closing of curtains. More sponsor tags started to head onto the feature films themselves. The modern generation of exhibitors gave way quickly to the demands, and curtailed the curtain operation dramatically, up to a point that it was no longer viable to justify the expenditure of curtains in new cinemas. Quickly the major circuits fell in line, and the days of the curtains were over. Soon the orders were given that the curtains were to be switched off.

ABC stage-houselights up

Many are sad, usually the older customers who remember the cinema curtains, and the part they played in the whole enjoyment of going to the pictures. Only one or two enthusiasts cinemas retain curtains. The majority of today’s paying audiences prefer the way that the movies just simply hit the screen in the modern day cinema. The final curtain has come for cinema curtains, like it or not.

—What do you think??  ©