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Films to 'Fame'

By: Steve Brookes MBE

Coventry University





'Its really fantastic.' was the reaction of a recent special visitor to the University's home of Media and Performing Art, the Ellen Terry building.



Standing on the spot where 60 years ago, at the age of 14 he started work as a junior projectionist, a job which lasted the war years of 1941 to 1945, Ralph Wesson recalled the building's original name, The Gaumont Cinema, (eventually to become The Odeon.).

'I feared that the place would become a bingo hall or just offices.' He said after being shown around the near complete building.

'I left local school and with a war going on and not having the best of health, education was not important, but getting a job was' said Ralph. 'So I started work at Dunn's tailors, but after two weeks I left. I was not suited.' He added with a grin.

Ralph saw an advert in the Coventry Telegraph requiring staff at the Gaumont cinema which had been repaired after damage sustained in the 1940 air raid on Coventry city centre.

'I applied and was offered the position of Rewind Boy in the projectionists room which meant that I had to take spools of shown film and wind them back to the beginning and file them ready for the next show. Each reel weighed around three pounds, lasted twenty minutes, and with each feature film lasting around two hours as well as additional newsreels and a B feature opening film we used to handle up to 12 to 14 reels each show.'

Asked if it all went smoothly, he said 'Normally yes. But mistakes could happen, and the wrong reel was sometimes shown. But the audience soon let us know.' In its heyday, as a single screen cinema, the Odeon seated 2500 people in stalls and circle seats, with prices between 1/- or 1/3d which in present money was about 5pence.

Ralph remembers that each new programme started on a Sunday and ran for one week, with regularly full houses. 'The queues used to stretch round the corner into Much Park street, toward the Greyhound pub.' But it wasn't always like that. One notable exception he recalled was the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, which caused such long faces in the people leaving that waiting queues turned and went home.

'We played to a handful of people all week. But now the film is a classic. Thatís the way it went.'

When shown his old projection room at the top of the building, just under the large dome, Ralph was able to find the marks of the sliding shutters used to mask off the projector which was being reloaded. He also remembered the games he and his fellow projectionists used to play with the light dimmer switches, causing false starts and getting the audience to slow handclap while waiting for the programme to start.

Lights naturally were a problem during war time black-out regulations, and he remembered having to go back stage in the dark staircases during murder or mystery films 'just at the moment the music was at its most dramatic. I hated that.'

Another game he used to play was in the organ loft. The Gaumont had like many cinema's of the period a large console organ which used to rise out of the floor during intervals. Ralph and his friends used to take the small organ pipes and try to blow through them. He never realised that they were the reason the organ was usually out of tune.

During his tour, Ralph revealed that the second floor office of Director of Culture Communication and Media, Dr Karen Ross was once the bedroom of the Gaumont managers son, and that the other offices were the living accommodation for the whole family.

Steve Brookes MBE

Copyright © - Steve Brookes 2002 - All rights reserved


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