Thursday, January 13, 2005

Newcastle Paramount memories- Part 2

In Part 1, I elaborated on how I became well known at the Odeon until moving away from Newcastle aged 18.
In the subsequent two decades since my teenage days, I made a few minor efforts to find out more about the Paramount. I recall hearing that it had become four screens and was intrigued as to how it had been done.
I became a member of the Entertainment & Leisure Industry Study group after meeting Malcolm Campbell at an Organ Concert at the Slough Granada & ended up buying a lot of his stock. I found out about the CTA and joined that as well. I combed back-copies of articles to find out more about Newcastle (not that there was very much published).
I visited the Newcastle City archives and failed to find any reference to the building in the card indexes. I looked at the outside of the building and could see that the stage dock door had become exit doors. I went along to see a film and was relieved to find that the Balcony was more-or-less intact, the new screen four apparently being formed from the front stalls & stage and a new proscenium being built in front of (and higher than) the old one. I still remained intrigued, however. How much of what I remembered was still in-situ? How much had been destroyed?

A number of years later, I was visiting Newcastle and came across "Cinemas of Newcastle" by Frank Manders. Whilst not specifically devoted to the Paramount, there was a considerable write-up over several pages along with a lot of interior photos of how the building had looked in the past. This was my first insight into how elaborate the Paramounts had been. (I had mixed up Paramount with Gaumont in my youth, due to the presence of Gaumont rubber mats beside the Machines in the Box).

Later still, I met frank Manders at the first Mercia Conference in Loughborough, who helpfully gave me two very useful pieces of information. Firstly contact details for Neil Thompson, an Operator who worked in the building and was very keen on it. Secondly, the correct reference number to access the plans at the City Archive office. (Being a Librarian by trade, Frank had access to the stack and had managed to track down and correctly categorise the lodged plans).

Acting on this information, I wrote a letter introducing myself to the Operator. This was to lead to some interesting exchanges over the years and my knowledge in other related matters occasionally being useful to him.

I visited the Archive offices several times in order to examine and understand the lodged plans about the building. The main plans had been carefully traced and hand inked by the Verity & Beverley practice to a high standard, presented on parchment-like thick linen paper. Like all plans, the execution was not exactly the same as intended and it was enjoyable to speculate on the reasons for this.

The preliminary plans initially submitted provided for a more elaborate foyer and somewhat better stage/backstage, allowing for a scenery storage dock. However the agreed submitted plans reduced this somewhat in order to increase seating capacity, the galleried foyer (possibly with Cafe) being simplified, although still enormous by UK Cinema standards.

In a similar variation, the main plans show the interior to be somewhat like Manchester with a huge ceiling dome & ornate Tympanum above the Proscenium. An as-built plan for ceiling level (blueprinted on regular paper rather than the elaborate submitted plans) shows the simpler flat ceiling as used for the sister Cinemas in Aurora and Denver, resulting in a much less elaborate catwalk system down the centre line of the roof for access to the chandelier winch.

Having studied the plans at length, it was finally time to renew my acquaintance with the Building and I arranged to spend some time with Neil who suggested he come in on his day off rather than a working day. (Newcastle had been running single-manning for a number of years so the duty operator had to do a certain amount of trotting around getting the shows on in the three boxes).

The day eventually dawned and accompanied by my better half, the Paramount beckoned.

The first striking difference was the wet lobby- the external paybox was gone and the left half was now a sweet shop with external access as well as from the Cinema. The colour scheme was now Odeon nursery (powder blue with yellow woodwork) and the two doorways up to the circle lobby and through to screen two were still in place. (The staircase down to the "usherette avoidance" route was walled off to exit directly to the side lane, stealing a bit of shop space in the process.)

We met up with Neil and we spent some time trying to work out why we had never actually met. He had originally worked at the Queens and transferred over to the Odeon at about the time my visits were tailing off due to getting more involved at the University Theatre, City Hall and Theatre Royal. He had asked his Chief though, who vaguely remembered me (he had been number 3 at the time & was a quiet chap who didn't say much).

We briefly went into the downstairs Box to dump bags (it looked almost the same as in 1974) and took in the two mini screens before making the long trek up to the back of screen 1. On the upright of the very top step, Neil pointed out the remains of the original paramount carpet that was the only obvious bit left in the building. Although over 60 years old, it was still very vibrant and striking, instantly recognisable (even as a fragment) as matching the design of the interior photos.

Pausing briefly to take in the atmosphere of the former balcony (still lit with the cleaners lights), we continued the journey onwards and upwards.

The staircase up to the box looked almost exactly the same as the first time I saw it 30 years before, the only obvious difference being the use of long life energy efficient lamps in place of tungsten ones.

Entering the box was like a time warp- the Cinemation was still there, the walls were still grey, the floor red, the Machines Vic 8s. When they were first converted for Xenon, the original Peerless lamphouses had been removed from the mechanisms & stored in the roof void, being replaced by Kalee units. However, at some stage they had been refitted and definitely looked the part. Looking more closely, however, there were inevitable differences. The Westrex open construction amp racks had been cleared out and there was now a modern 19" rack for the Dolby equipment behind the Cinemation. The two Stelmars had been moved over into the corner and the slide lantern had gone.

The two huge meters were still in-situ, as were the DC controls & mimics for the rectifier feed, although they had been painted over. The operating switches for manual control of everything in the custom panels had been replaced by the usual hotch-potch of miscellaneous MK buttons and the ganged 0-20 volume controls had also gone. There was some modern equipment in-situ- a large screen Barco style projector & associated telecoms equipment was installed where #2 lime used to be, it seems that projected sports events were doing well.

Seeing the Barco reminded me of my first meeting with the Eidophor, the original hot mercury based TV projector that used to get hired in for special events. About the size of an American fridge, this Black & White device worked on the Epidiascope principle where it shone a lot of light onto the mercury bath (which changed reflective characteristics based on the TV picture through means I don't entirely remember) then an enormous lens collected the incident light & focussed it onto the screen. It couldn't have been very efficient and wasn't particularly bright but it did the job. I think my first encounter was the afternoon of the celebrated Cassius Clay/George Forman fight in 1974 and we had a colour telly at home by then anyway!

The rewind room where I used to drink the evaporated milk tea felt different- I eventually twigged that it was because the ceiling lantern had been removed and boarded over, making the room very gloomy.

The resistance room was a lot untidier than the days of Barney, being full of tools & bits & pieces piled around. There was a 1940s/50s Odeon stalk ashtray (the sort where you pressed and it spun the dimp away inside) that Neil was hoping to clean up. The resistances were still in-situ and I was surprised to see that the labelling on them was just paper- I would have expected them to have been engraved as part of the original installation but there was no evidence of rivets or residue.

The Rectifier room was also very gloomy, due to the removal of the greenhouse style lantern. Apparently they had received break-ins through the lanterns both backstage and on the box so they had all been removed a number of years previously & burglar alarms installed.

The Hewittic rectifiers were still in-situ, although the front access doors had been chained up and padlocked for "health & safety reasons". A trip round the back proved what a nonsense bit of officialdom that decision was as the racks have open rears. I'm not certain what the risk is of mercury encapsulated in a glass bottle securely mounted in a steel frame but I'm sure it is negligible if you don't mess about with it. That brought to mind a story about the Byker Odeon (Black's Regal) from the other Operator called Mick- when they had been redecorated, one of the painters had been kneeling on the mesh top of the rectifier & broke the bottle. Now quite knowing what to do with the mercury, they decanted it into a jamjar where it probably stayed until demolition!

All of the wiring behind the contactor panel had been removed along with the stocks of Cinemoid- the area was completely clear.

There was one old familiar friend in the rectifier room, the slide lantern that we used to project the scores of the F.A. Cup Final (in 1973, Sunderland vs Leeds, or maybe it was 1974, Liverpool vs Newcastle. I recall that Sunderland played Newcastle the following week and whoever wasn't in the final slaughtered the winners, if anyone was bothered enough to place it). The lantern looked very forlorn and had lost its most important bits.

We then trekked down to backstage via the exit corridor route. On the way, I pointed out to him the hole where Mick Seed had confessed to me that he lost the wires into the conduit when repairing a lampholder on a wall fitting- so he had just removed the whole thing and made good (in a token way- I don't think he even put a cover on the conduit box!). This amused Neil considerably, I had told him the story before but he hadn't made the connection between what he must have seen hundreds of times before.

Passing the front circle exit, I was pleased to see another legacy item still in place on the wall- the six-potentiometer mic mixer control for stage shows. An operator could work this whilst skulking in the doorway behind the drapes, mostly unseen.

Backstage had been redecorated but still had that utilitarian feel to it of painted brickwork and narrow corridors. We went firstly into the new box for screen 4, which had been fashioned out of two dressing rooms and the corridor beyond the back wall of the stage. This was my first glimpse of screen 4, pleasantly sized and with angled splay walls towards the stage. The machine had an oversized projection port but no observation port- the roofline of the suspended ceiling abutted the top of the opening so that the operator had to stoop to see the screen.

We then went upwards to take in the battery room and roof. I had ruined an admittedly horrible shirt by brushing against the cells previously (I might have been trying out the hygrometer) so I wasn't going to make the same mistake! 120 2v cells arranged all round the room, it provided the maintained lighting all over the building but could only run it for 20 minutes so wasn't much use during the winter of discontent! I persuaded Neil to go up onto the stage roof. I wasn't too bothered about the tank room but a look onto the grid would tell me a lot about what had happened to the stage. We had a lot of difficulty getting the door open, it had been bodged shut to keep pigeons out and was proving stubborn. I felt my anxiety levels rise, if I couldn't have seen in I would have been very frustrated and disappointed. Then, Voila! Neil managed to get it to open and we both peered in. A strange sight greeted us. In amongst all of the bird lime and feathers, we could see the header pulleys. Surprisingly, there were still steel wire ropes in abundance, although most of them were slack. It was obvious that the Safety Curtain was still there as the counterweight ropes were still under tension, as was the hauling rope. I took photographs of the grid and the hauling engine, fascinated that so much should still survive, abandoned and serving no purpose whatsoever. We peered down through the grid to the top of the false ceiling some 45' or so below. (It was a 60' grid). Neil commented that had had forgotten how high the grid was and how much unused space below. I was tempted to trek across to the loading gallery, however I was mindful of Mrs. Grey waiting patiently on the roof below.

Carrying on down to the boiler house level, we viewed the new boilers filling maybe 10% of the space the old ones did. There was still the smell of fuel oil from the tank area, although natural gas was used now. The vaccum plant was still the same and the intake room not much changed, although the switchgear to change sub-stations had gone.

The plenum chamber was identical to the last time I saw it, other than the addition of safety guards on the main fan drive belts. The Master Brenograph had been cleared out from under the escape stair at the far end of the room, although Neil had made an innovation- he had arranged to get a sunflood in the air intake duct to make the job of changing the filters easier. (The intake filters were new- originally there were just large vertical louvres, although the recycled air was filtered.)

There was one other unusual sight in the basement, passing through a paint store we found ourselves in the access area under the remains of the organ lift. Whilst the platform had gone and it could be seen that the orchestra rail had been partially smashed to allow for the new sloping floor of screen four, the remains of the little door for Organist access could still be seen.

We couldn't see the remains of the orchestra pit or the stage contactors as Neil didn't have the keys, however we were able to visit another time capsule, the prompt corner.

Opening a very narrow door on the stage left corridor, we found ourselves behind the switchboard. Neil cautioned me that it wasn't totally isolated, the wiring for the screen 4 tab warmers was still connected via the motorised dimmer in the corner. The board light still worked, as did the prompt corner light. Here we found ourselves in a small L shaped space left over after screen 4 was added. The safety curtain controls were still there (although not having noticed any evidence of the Iron having been chained to the grid I wisely didn't touch it) and the remnants of the counterweight frame were along the stage side wall, including all of the rope locks at low level. Counterweights were stacked up neatly behind the switchboard and there were various control switches on the wall for running a stage show. One thing that I remembered had disappeared- there used to be a speaker & microphone for a home made intercom system up to the box. The six mic input sockets were still there, using 2A mains plugs as connectors.

I did look to see if there were any dip traps visible, but they were all covered by the new wall and floor of Screen 4.

I was never entirely clear what dated from the opening and what was from the early 50s electrical refurbishment when the Major 10 scene Preset was replaced with the simpler Pride controls & motorised dimmers. However, I imagine that before then an Operator was needed in the prompt corner even when it fully went over to films (not a problem for Cine-Variety).

Stepping back into reality, we had a quick peek into screen 4, although we couldn't see too much because there was a show on. The structure of the proscenium arch could be clearly seen, however, slightly piercing the splay walls towards the back of the screen. This also explained the old dock door having been turned into an exit, originally there was a 1' drop onto the stage, although now the slope had been re-arranged to level with the exit doors. As I glanced at the faces of the people watching the flickering shadows, I wondered if any of any of them realised that they were surrounded by all of that vintage stage technology beyond the false floors, walls and ceiling.

Our journey was now drawing to a close. As we walked up the stalls exit corridor that became the screen 4 access route, Neil commented that the Fire Brigade had recommended partial-panelling the walls, although neither of us were entirely clear as to why. As screen 1 show was about to finish, we went up to the Royal lounge to admire the ceiling pendant light fittings above the double height foyer. Neil mentioned that he kept them lamped up with long life rough service tungsten light bulbs and had resisted relamping with energy efficient lamps for the simple reason that they look horrible! we then went to take in the ambience of the decorative lighting in the main hall as the house lights faded up. It may have been mucked about with over the years and somewhat mistreated by an unsympathetic management but even as a shadow of it's former self, the Paramount was still a great place to see a film.

I have revisited the building several times since then & kept in contact with Neil. He is now the Chief of the Gate complex and the former Paramount has been abandoned. The story of the listing recommended by English Heritage and subsequent de-listing by Baroness Blackstone was so dubious as to make it into the Nooks and Corners column of Private Eye.

I very nearly went to the closing night performance. However, I decided to keep my memories as happy ones. One thing I'd really like to see one more time is the beautiful garden mural on the safety curtain, although it is now likely to be only seen again during the late stages of demolition.

At the time of writing, the future of the grand old lady of Pilgrim Street is looking very shaky indeed. It is now owned by a property developer (who owns the entire block), it is being guarded by a security firm and there are large retail chains showing interest in turning it into a shopping experience. It seems that the City Council are unaware of how special the building is and how much of an asset it could be as a new venue for Newcastle. (Those who are aware are indifferent). It is not quite on a Par with the Coventry Theatre saga where for indifference read hostility!

The building was well worthy of Grade 2 listing and any attempt to retain the facade is probably pointless tokenism as the quality of the design was in the interior spaces, not the somewhat restrained monumental exterior.

My thanks to Neil Thompson for being so helpful over the years, as well as to Frank Manders, Mervyn Gould & Karen Grey for indulging my hobby-horse.

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