Thursday, January 13, 2005

Newcastle Paramount memories- Part 1

(This article appeared in the Mercia Bioscope issue number 87, May 2003 and was written after several years of nagging by Mervyn, an old acquaintance who is a retired electrician, stage manager, university tutor and gasman. Interiors of some of the spaces described can be found in the Mercia Cinema Society gallery

Much has been written about how the Paramount Corporation came to build a chain of huge American style "Movie Theaters" in Britain before WW2. As a schoolboy growing up in Newcastle during the 60s I knew nothing of this, however I did know that the Pilgrim Street Odeon was something special, eclipsing most of its City peers for scale and style. This article is a very personal recollection of the building during my formative years and the fascination I developed for the technology within.

As a teenager with an interest in stage lighting, Cinema was always an enjoyable experience but flickering shadows on the silver screen were never a match for the excitement of a live performance. Similarly, the deco style interiors were pleasant but uninspiring compared to the wedding cake style ornate plasterwork of Edwardian theatres, particularly the Theatre Royal in Grey Street. On this basis, I had always been a little dismissive of the Cinema. This was all to change when I came to realise that 20th century style could be just as interesting as 19th Century heritage, just as important to cherish and retain.

My earliest specific recollections of going to the Odeon were back in the late 60s, the interval punctuated by the unexpected vertical arrival of an orchestra pit ice cream stall strikingly lit by a fiercely bright white spotlight beam from above our heads. I recall turning round, gazing up at the numerous openings and wondering what was in there.
A few years later, I embarked on construction of a model theatre and used this as an excuse to talk my way in at most of the Stage Doors in the town. I used to ask for scraps & offcuts of colour filter material (known as "Gel", from the origins of using coloured Gelatine) to colour up my cardboard battens & footlights complete with torch bulbs.

Asking at the Odeon eventually yielded results and I remember the occasion vividly, one cold Saturday morning in November. I was led through the dark foyers to the stalls and parked by the stage left pass door whilst my guide disappeared through the mysterious doorway towards the backstage areas. From my vantagepoint, I noticed that the only light on in the auditorium was a single naked lamp on a stand in the centre of the stage in front of the closed screen tabs. An ageing, rotund, bald gentleman was busying himself with the cable for the light, casting sinister shadows on the drapes and walls as he moved. This was my first introduction to Barney McGlen, the Chief Projectionist and an archetypal Chief of the old school. After a couple of minutes he emerged back in the stalls, having been advised of my presence. He gruffly acknowledged me & what I wanted, then led the way up to his domain, the Box area. Getting there was quite a trek and he was panting a little by the time we had completed the stairs to the back of the Circle and the final flight that led into the projection suite, 120 steps in total. We passed through the box with me gawking at the machinery within and through further rooms until we arrived in the rectifier room. Here, behind all of the control gear & mysterious equipment was where the Gel lived, Strand "Cinemoid" rolled up and separated by tissue paper. This was a lot more casual than I was used to, the "proper" theatres had large plan type cabinets with the dozens of different colours carefully catalogued, whilst the Odeon seemed to be able to survive on a handful of colours. Barney noticed my interest in all of the equipment and made me a generous offer- if I came back in two weeks time at 10am, he would happily show me round & explain how everything worked. He then bustled me out of the Box, on the basis that he had far too much to do to entertain me that morning!

Two weeks later (which is a long time for a schoolboy), I duly presented myself at the Theatre and an usherette rang up to the box on the house phone. This time, I noticed that all of the foyer lighting was on, compared to the murky gloom previously. I wound my way up to the back Circle and was surprised to hear a soundtrack as I reached the top. Pausing briefly, I could see there was a film showing, which didn't bode well for my guided tour! When I reached the Box I took in the ambience of a working projection room- spools turning on the first machine, subdued lighting, bright light leaks around the lamphouse and near the gate, whirrs & clicks from the mechanism, tinny soundtrack from the monitor speaker above. Barney advised me that this unexpected special show had been pencilled in the previous week. He would be on shift again the Saturday after next, which was Christmas Eve no less, so unlikely to get a special show at this late stage. In the meantime, I was welcome to stay and watch the film, which hadn't been on too long

The film was Cliff Richard's "The Young Ones", part of which is set in the Finsbury Park Empire. Even at my age, I knew that you didn't turn on Battens using Cue light controls, however it remains a firm favourite of mine to re-watch when the mood takes me.

Another two weeks later, made my way back to the Odeon. No one was around in the lobby, so I wandered up to the Box entrance, which was locked, not unsurprisingly as I was a little early. I took in the ambience of the hall, lit by a number of naked 500-watt general service lamps hanging from the ceiling (& not normally noticable). The cleaners' lights made everything look bright but rather bland. I could see cleaners busying themselves with hoses down in the stalls, which they plugged in to connectors on the wall. Shortly afterwards, a couple of people I hadn't seen before arrived, doing a double take at me sitting in the back row of the Circle. I explained why I was there, which they happily took in their stride. This was my first introduction to Bill Furness, the Number One, along with one of two trainees. With the passage of time I cannot re-create that visit too accurately, however I can hopefully convey the sentiments of my impressions that morning.

We briefly popped into the Box to abandon coats & bags, and then it was next stop the Boiler House as they were expecting an oil delivery. The Odeon had a steam system, originally Coke fired then converted to fuel oil at a later date. The Boiler House was massive, with two huge Boilers that would quite happily have graced an ocean liner. Oil was sprayed through an injector and then ignited by a continuously re-firing electric spark. It was nominally automatic, although in practice it was necessary to clean the nozzles & electrodes occasionally or it would not ignite & shut down. There was also a third smaller boiler for domestic use- i.e. hot water for the sink taps around the building. Behind the boilers was an exit door that led to a service corridor in the Cafe area- a handy route to avoid the usherettes when re-visiting the Operators on subsequent occasions. After the oil had been delivered, we returned to the Basement to see the other service areas.

Next to the Boiler House was a small room that contained the Centralised Vacuum Plant- this provided suction to connectors all over the building so that cleaners didn't have to carry heavy Hoovers round with them. Like all Vacuums, this was very noisy in use!

A third room was the main electrical intake to the Building. Here were the various meters, switch/fuses and cables serving all of the electrical systems. It was even possible for the Electricity Company to switch the Building load between two different sub-stations if necessary. Huge armoured cables left the massive distribution board to serve various parts of the building.

The fourth room was the largest and extended entirely under the stage & the yard beyond. This was the enormous Plenum Chamber where fresh air was drawn in from the outside, filtered, mixed with recycled air, washed, heated, chilled, fragranced and then ducted to grilles around the ceiling, lobbies and under-balcony area. A large motor powered an enormous fan via belts and an even larger motor served a large compressor for the refrigeration system. Air wasn't washed, fragranced or chilled any more but the plant remained impressive. The plant changed the building air every 30 minutes on lower speeds, being capable of every ten minutes on full, controlled by a large handle that wiped a contact across a number of studs behind a protective glass.

Also under the stage at crossover passage level were the former Band Room (now the Handymen's CubbyHole), the Organ Lift (converted to the Ice Cream stand) and the large motorised Orchestra Pit which could rise to level with the Stage.

Going up to Stage Level we visited the Prompt Corner- here was the large stage switchboard in an alcove which controlled all of the Battens, footlights, Wing Floods & Front of House spotlights. Here I discovered my first terminology clash between Theatre & Cinema- the floats were called Foots & the Balcony spots were called Pageants.

The stage was surprisingly shallow without much wing space but it was equipped with a full counterweight system (although the screen took up six sets) and lots of Dip traps into which large towers containing the Wing floods were plugged. The connectors were an eye-opener- wooden plugs with ebony handles and copper strips for connectors, potentially very dangerous in these enlightened times and a bit dodgy even then. Three large loudspeakers were on trolleys behind the huge screen- huge Bass "Bins" with horn style speakers above. The counterweight sets were worked from stage level, the theatre norm (in older buildings) being for flymen to work the sets from a gallery above.

Bill explained that the screen could be packed off into the fly tower single handedly but it took at least two of them pulling very hard to get it down again. He also explained about the Safety Curtain- they had to lower it during every stage show but often wondered whether the motor would lift it out again, having to resort to manual hauling being a very painful slow process up on the grid. They also often had run-ins with touring stage crews who wanted to set up PA where the Iron Curtain would crush it.

We then went up to the Box, pausing briefly at the circle front where he pointed out the stage mixer control, six large knobs on a wall mounted Westrex control panel for setting up microphone levels. This route also enlightened me to another method of usherette avoidance- the 1st floor dressing room corridor had a passdoor onto the front circle exit route which also could be used to get up to the upper circle foyer via an uncarpeted stairwell. It did, however, pass the fridge room, where the usherettes put their feet up between intervals.

Finally in the box, he showed me the major systems.

On the extreme left was the twin turntable Non-sync, for playing interval records (non-vocal "top of the poppers" stuff was popular, I particularly remember "Time is Tight" being track 1 of a favourite interval record).

Next to the non-sync was one of two Stelmars using low intensity 30 Amp carbons & elaborate optical systems open to view. (They were both different, one was a genuine Steel & Martin Stelmar from Frank Brockliss with motorised carbons, the other an F J Pride design with hand fed carbons).

In the centre of the box were the two enormous Victoria 8 35mm Projectors with Super Zenith arc lamphouses (running at 120 Amp current). Next to the portholes were the sound controls including the mechanically linked volume knob next to both machines (on a scale of 0-20) as well as switch panels for working curtains, masking lights etc.

Next to Number 2 Machine was the wooden Cinemation Console. This was the Building Management system for controlling lights & services, as well as automating the show, triggered by impulses from foil on the film. Under a protective glass cover were two large timeclocks (the second for Sunday hours) and two large drums using split-pins for selecting the show sequence.

Beyond the second Stelmar was the Slide lantern, used for special event slides, and "Is there a Doctor in the House?" type messages.

On the back wall of the Box was the rewind bench, where the 6000' (60 minute) spools were rewound as well as checked, made up and broken down. To the left of the bench were the open construction Amplifier Racks from western Electric. If I remember correctly there were 5 valve amplifiers, each running 30 Watts RMS which didn't sound much to me but was ample using efficient horn systems. There was one channel for the optical sound, three channels for magnetic sound (left, right and effects speakers in the roof) & one channel for stage show use to two speakers in the proscenium arch.

The Operator's rest room provided the welcome diversion of a Kettle, the technical library & some comfy chairs. I became very fond of that room & developed a taste for tea made with condensed milk- they didn't have a fridge & it kept longer out of a tin!

Beyond the rest room along a corridor was the resistance room, which was also the workshop. This was next to the rectifier room, with the four huge mercury vapour rectifiers that glowed an eerie blue-purple colour when in use. A small door led out onto a flat roof that provided access into the roof void and up onto the projection suite roof.

Over the next few years, I became the Projection room equivalent of a Stage Door Johnny, making frequent visits to meet the team, talk about the equipment and try to get the balance right between being helpful & a nuisance. I was shown how to clean and carbon up the lamphouses, work the Stelmars, lace up the machines, splice using cement, understand the Cinemation, appreciate variety style lighting, prepare & show slides and develop an appreciation for the showmanship state of mind. No money was ever offered or expected but I certainly quenched my thirst for knowledge and the Operators had a chance to liven up an otherwise dull shift by chatting with a lad who showed an interest in their work. By the time I had the opportunity to work shows there, I was then working as a casual at three other venues and the Odeon was falling out of favour, the 74/75 drop-wall tripling proving an acoustic disaster for live shows. I did get a payment in kind once- I had worked a Saturday morning show (some friends of mine had a Band and had persuaded the Odeon to let them play on the Orchestra Pit). The grateful Deputy Manager gave me a complimentary ticket for Dionne Warwicke who was performing two shows that evening. This was my only time I saw the Safety Curtain lowered and I was impressed to see that it still had the painted garden scene that matched the original interior decoration scheme from the 1931 opening.

Thinking back to a time three decades ago, I am surprised at lots of trivial memories that are still fresh, like Barnie McGlen wearing his trademark Editor's eyeshade & rolled up sleeve retainers telling me that film never touched the floor.

I can recall Bill Furness taking his false teeth out to eat his sandwiches, Mick Seed (the young rebel number 3) playing Pink Floyd Albums on the non-sync and Barnie getting me to hold down a rectifier relay using an insulated rod because one of them wasn't striking up properly.

I even remember finding a £1 note in the under-floor air ducts when exploring, as well as realising that the large heap of scrap in the corner of the Plenum was actually the remains of the Master Brenograph effects projector, removed to make room for the Cinemation Console.

I can remember Bill asking me if I could remember where odd plans could be found around the building, as they were needed for the tripling work planned during 1974. I recall standing in the partially constructed new Box & visiting after it was completed. I can remember walking on-stage post-tripling during a fit-up and being shocked at how much the drop-wall dominated the view through the proscenium.

I moved away from Newcastle in 1976 and didn't give too much thought to the building for a number of years. However I was able to repeat my technical visit in 1994, the subject of part 2 of this article.

1 comment:

Roger Furness said...

Sadly 'Bill Furness' passed away 2nd Oct 2005.

Like the 'Paramount/ODEON Newcastle' Gone but not forgotten.
Happy Birthday Dad (8/10/28 - 2/10/05).