CINEMA IS RETURNING TO CHESTER
The new Chester multiplex cinema
Chester City Council have announced that they have chosen the cinema company to operate the new multiplex which will be opposite the new Storyhouse development, and is in the first phase of the development starting next year.
Cinema managers come and go in the course of a cinema’s lifetime. Certainly that was the case at Chester Odeon, which boasted an array of managers whose tenure tended to be short. Mabel Douglas was the exception, and perhaps the most recognised and remembered by customers and staff, with over three decades at the Odeon alone, she became its longest serving manager.
Mabel started work at the Gaumont cinema in Brook Street. Progressing into management and quickly becoming the Duty Manager to Kenneth Edmondson. Under the umbrella of the CMA, the Gaumont was one of four Chester cinemas owned and controlled by The Rank Organisation. In the 1950s and 60s, cinemas were losing ground to competition, and had many other challenging problems. When the Gaumont closed in 1961, along with Mr. Edmondson, Mabel moved across to the Odeon. The standard set by The Rank Organisation for the employment of management was to be of a certain calibre, and Mabel Douglas was a manager well within this requirement. A high standard of education to enter management was then essential, as this was way before computers, or calculators. Managers were to be of “a certain type”. Professionalism, smartness, speech, courtesy, and deep respect for customers and staff was the company’s remit. They in turn were treated with both loyalty and respect from their colleagues.
Mabel was appointed to various cinemas, including the magnificent Gaumont Manchester, Preston’s Odeon cinema and Top Rank Ballroom. Eventually she gained considerable middle management experience when she worked at Rank’s North West Regional Office, and from time to time at their Head Office.
In 1972, Mabel returned home to Chester Odeon by the invitation of David Elliot, with whom she had worked with at Regional Office. He knew fully that she was the quality duty manager with the self-motivation that was essential to manage Chester Odeon, which at that time was one of the highest grossing cinemas of that size Rank operated in the North West.
Far removed from a name dropper by nature, she knew, and was known by everyone in the vast organisation from Rank’s chairman, right down the chain of command. Apart from heads of staff, cinema management consisted of a general manger, supported by one or two assistant managers. The Rank Organisation maintained exacting standards, and kept strict and stringent control on all their many operations. Mabel with her exacting standards of dotting “I’s”, and crossing”t’s” was renown.
In her role she was polite and friendly; she would not tolerate fools lightly, but was well known for her generous and kind nature. Not many knew the Christian name of “the boss”, so Mabel was always addressed as Miss Douglas. An expected line was drawn on socializing with staff by the company. When Mabel was in the entrance foyer, you knew beyond doubt that she was the manager. Typical of that era, she would be immaculate in appearance and smartly dressed, usually in black, and easy to admit a glamorous lady. Usually from six o’clock until the final film went on, she would be seen in the main entrance foyer welcoming patrons, supervising the business, and dealing with the enormous queues with impeccable efficiency .
She personally recruited the staff, and took full responsibility for her choice. Needless to say, she had a discerning eye for the quality applicant. She was careful to strike the correct balance with ages, etc.
She retired in the late 1990s, her health was declining, not that anyone other than those close to her knew. Unfortunately, her retirement was not a long one as she died suddenly in the Easter of 1999. A huge loss to her family and friends,the cinema business, and to her many cinema exhibition friends, who once had the pleasure of working with her.
Film director Nicholas Roeg was born in 1928 and was interested in films from a very young age. His career started in a cutting room in London’s Wardour Street. He moved on to the camera department at MGM in Elstree, becoming a loader, then a focus puller, followed by camera operator, operating on a number of features including The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and The Sundowners (1960). His first film as a cinematographer was Jazzboat. He also did some of the photography for Lawrence of Arabia, working with the great cinematographer Freddie Young. In 1968 Roeg turned to directing and co-directed the film Performance, starring Mick Jagger. Other notable films he directed include Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, Track 29, The Man who fell to Earth and Insignificance. One critic said that Roeg’s films shatter reality into a thousand pieces and are unpredictable, fascinating, cryptic and liable to leave you wondering what the hell happened.
How old were you when you decided to work in the film business?
I was around eighteen or twenty. The movies always appeared magical to me. I liked going to the cinema. It seemed so marvelously unusual; it had a reality to it. I would often go to the cinema with my sister when I was around twelve. I think I have kept that feeling ever since. What is reality? It’s such an extraordinary thing, the retention of the image. We take so much for granted, but it affects every single attitude we have towards life, towards any sort of continuity of existence, the past and the future.
You directed Don’t Look Now – what was it like working with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie?
They were great. They brought a certain truth to it. It wasn’t a long shoot; it was quite confined. We did four or five days in England and then five or six weeks in Venice. It is very difficult in Venice because to move large equipment you have to go by canal.
Would you tell me a bit about working with the late cinematographer Alex Thomson?
Alex was a terrific filmmaker. I remember we were shooting in Elstree on the streets and Alex got into old pram to shoot some sequences. It was hilarious. He had the heart and soul of a cinematographer. We first met at a union meeting and became great friends. Alex was innovative and rule breaking in all kind of ways before steadicam.
When you were a cinematographer did you do any effects in the camera?
Yes, I did some on the original Casino Royale (1966). I always tried to do it in the camera because if it went to a laboratory to have effects added, they didn’t always work out how you intended them. With today’s technology your intention can be created perfectly. Grading has become a completely different enterprise too. They can now do it immediately, enabling the cinematographer to see the result straight away. There are now no waiting days for it to come back and then find it is not right.
Do you have any favourites?
No, they were all part of your life. Years ago hey took much longer to make. That was a time when you could ponder film. The studios were like a film university. Gradually things speeded up because of advancing technology.
Do you think films today are as good as he old movies?
Yes, everything goes in phases. Things become original, then obvious, then normal and everyday. New filmmakers are bringing new thoughts and attitudes, and the old attitudes take time in going away. I think we are going through a swift process. The financing of movies is changing. Everything is changing: the ability, the availability and the laboratory work.
Are there any cinematographers today that you admire?
I think there are a lot. There is a long answer to that because there are so many I would hate to exclude. When I say so many, even when there are four or five, that is a lot, but there are more than that because of the amount of material being shot. There seems to be more films reviewed every week than ever before. The look of film today is wonderful.
Which film took the longest as a cinematographer?
The longest was Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) because it went through the seasons. It was a very interesting film and I enjoyed working with the director John Schlesinger very much.
David A Ellischestercinemas.co.uk
Once again, David Ellis has captured an important feature of one of Chester’s Super Cinemas. The ABC Regal.
He took this featured shot of the original ornate plaster-work of the ceiling.
On the ABC~ Multi screen alterations page, you will read about the poor handling of the conversion of this cinema. Typical is the manner in which the new intake air supply grill is set into the ceiling just below the design. This image reminds us of a masterpiece of the 1930’s design, and the total disregard for it in later years
On Saturday 6th September 20014 I paid my first visit to the Plaza Community cinema in Crosby. It was a special night celebrating seventy-five years of the building’s existence. The Plaza, which originally seated 1450, was opened on 2nd September 1939 by the mayor of Crosby Herbert Williams JP. The opening films were Plaza news, Farmyard Symphony and the feature South Riding, starring Ralph Richardson. Musical interludes were provided by a Compton organ with a melotone unit and a glockenspiel.
Due to rules following the outbreak of war the Plaza was only open for a day, then closing for a short period. The name Plaza remained until it was taken over by Odeon. They ran it from 1943-1967. Classic came on the scene running it until 1979. Under their management it was converted into a three-screen hall, which took place in 1976. Next it belonged to Cannon. They operated it until Apollo took over from 1988-1996.
The theatre then closed until enthusiastic volunteers took over the building and gave it back its original name. They opened with Jurassic Park-The Lost World on 18th July 1997.
Over the years projection equipment has changed several times. It opened with Kalee 12 machines, followed by Kalee 21s, installed by Odeon. The two mini cinemas were equipped with Westar. For a short time Philips FP 7s were installed in number one. Today the set-up is digital only in the two minis, employing 2K Barco projectors installed by Max Bell Theatre Services. The equipment for number one consists of a 4K Barco projector and a Century 35mm machine with a tower system install by Jed Atherton. The chief operator is Joe Strain, who has been there from when it became the Plaza again.
Fortunately the conversion into three screens didn’t involve any destruction. Screen one uses the balcony and stalls area. The seats from 1939 are still used in the balcony. The stalls area has modern seating with the name Plaza written on them. The two minis are built in the stalls area, one on each side. These could easily be removed, turning the cinema back to total originality.
Some of the volunteers are very young and I wouldn’t expect them to be so enthusiastic about a 1930s art deco cinema, but they are. The film to celebrate the cinema’s seventy-five years was the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. Special guest was Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE, who is patron of the cinema. He got involved after helping to secure the showing of their first film. I chatted with Sir Sydney and asked if he had any favourite films. He said two of his favourites are Lawrence of Arabia and Cinema Paradiso. He told me that after his son had seen Paradiso, he said “Dad, that is you.”
Before the show there was a reception at a venue called Fern Lodge, which is next door to the cinema. There was a nice buffet laid on and there was a cake with the name of the cinema on it stating its 75th anniversary.
The film show commenced at 6pm with a short on one hundred years of cinema. This was followed by a Pathe Gazette from 1939, showing that war was on the horizon.
After these two offerings Sir Sydney gave a short speech on how he became involved with the cinema. This was followed by Martin Fol, the General manager, giving thanks and gifts to several volunteers for their sterling service.
Manager Jan Dunn also gave thanks. I asked her how she got involved. She said “I got interested because it was the last cinema in the area and I wanted to have a local cinema to go to. I have been here for nineteen years and I am very proud of what we have achieved.”
Following the speeches it was straight into the feature, which was shown in two parts. In the interval ice cream was served from trays, just like the old days. At the end everyone stood for the National Anthem. I sat on the second row and what surprised me was that it wasn’t uncomfortable sitting near the front watching digital, as it was with film. There are not many 1930s cinemas around now. I am sure this one will carry on for many years with the volunteers, who obviously love cinema, and bubble over with enthusiasm. I am told there is a long list of people waiting to volunteer. An enjoyable night was had by all.
David A Ellischestercinemas.co.uk