Remembering the High Town Odeon
PUBLISHED: 00:16 24 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:57 20 February 2013
2012 marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Odeon cinema in Hereford. Mike Charity recalls his time of movie magic from the days of the 1940s to the 1960s
The Odeon Cinema in Herefords High Town was not only at the centre of the city, it was at the centre of our lives. For Herefordians, the Odeon was art deco heaven with its film shows, its unique interior design and its location, bang in the middle of the town and right next to the bus stop. The buildings large canopy frontage offered protection from the elements, so it was possible to alight from a bus and make for cover without getting wet. Even if you werent going to the cinema, outside the Odeon was always the meeting place to make for; where young ladies met their beaus, husbands met wives and teenagers met their chums, come rain or shine.
Before the advent of the DVD and the video, before television, before bingo, there was the pictures, the Saturday Morning Cinema Club where I became a young pupil of the Odeons weekend school. Clutching our few pence and jam sandwiches to sustain us through travails of Flash Gordon and the perils of Tarzan of the Apes, we sat in awe of the silver screen as Johnny Weissmuller in his loin cloth fought off huge tail-thrashing crocodiles, and Flash killed space aliens with his ray gun. I started visiting the Odeon Cinema when I was about seven years of age, attending most Saturday morning sessions, sometimes with my mum or the next door neighbour, Mrs Alden and her two children. As I became older I continued going, with my parents, grown-up cousins or the neighbour, when I was allowed in, according to the ratings, to the adult films.
Eventually in my early teens I was a regular patron (even if I did not always pay) right through until I left Hereford at the end of 1962. So, you will see, it was my school, college and university all in one. The only other alternative was a good book or the radio in those far off days, so the pictures were a real adventure.
Although it was long past the days of silent movies, soundtracks were of little importance to us, for nothing could be heard above the yells for the good guys and booing for the baddies. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto, alongside Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, were the main ingredients in the mornings mixture of fear and fun. The icing on the cake were those brilliant masters of mirth and mime, Laurel and Hardy, offering a diet of giggles that made us choke on our sandwiches. Then back to daylight, with another weeks wait before we could enter the magic lantern darkness of our screen heroes and foes.
Although the Odeon had many managers, one remains outstanding in my memory, Mr Conway. Immaculate in a 1920s-style dress suit, sporting tails and bow tie, he personally greeted his patrons with a smile and offered a gentle good night as they left. His dress and manner reflected the splendid art deco decoration of the building, as did his wife, with her coiffeured hair, alluring red lipstick and black, seamed, nylon stockings. The couple always looked as though they had had just left a film set.
As we grew into young lads, not quite young men, we met on the Odeon steps and plotted the means to improve our filmic knowledge. The plan was simple and effective. We pooled enough pocket money to buy a ticket and our chosen pal entered the auditorium a legitimate filmgoer. After a few minutes he would leave his seat and make for the cloakroom. Once in the outer passage, he would lift the bars and leave the building emergency doors slightly ajar before nonchalantly returning to the stalls. Those of us waiting outside would then each make our own casual move into the auditorium, praying we were not noticed by the usherettes and that Mr Conway was still front of house. Unlike the famous screen burglar, The Saint, it didnt always work. If an alert usherette spotted an unnatural increase in seating occupancy, she would request our tickets, thrown em away was no excuse and out wed go. But more often than not, we basked unchallenged in the company of a gun-toting Humphrey Bogart or one of Stewart Grangers great white hunter performances.
Myself and the little group of colleagues in cinema crime I mixed with, Ron Jarvis, Colin Morris, Robert Edwards, and Raymond James, were I suppose, naughty,but it was not a misspent youth, we all gained from those early cinema visits.
Our formative years were now being shaped by hour upon hour of study; the scholastic subjects comprised of Dorothy Lamour, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and the ever-glamorous Betty Grable. For us the lure of the Odeons cinematic classrooms never wore off.
As the film fun years rolled by we morphed from scruffy lads into, we thought, elegant young bloods sporting drainpipe trousers, drape jackets and starched-stiff Chinese-laundered shirts. We no longer loitered outside the Odeon with intent, we worked now and could afford the price of a ticket. Now we were young gods gathering in our sartorial splendour to meet up and move on, to such chosen venues as the Redhill Dance Hall, Ascaris Coffee Bar or Eign Streets Continental Cafe. If we were feeling rich we splashed out on grilled steak, chips and mushrooms at the Spread Eagle, a venue rapidly becoming the in place in Herefords social calendar. But one constant was the meeting place, The Odeon. If you dated a young lady it was outside the Odeon that you hoped to meet and inside you hoped to go, into the warm, dark, intimate interior. I write hoped, for often as not you were left standing alone in your after shave and finery, while trying to look for all the world as casual as Cary Grant.
As we matured in mind and body we began to appreciate the cleverness of the celluloid art form. It soon dawned on us that much we had previously admired had been the Hollywood film flam of guns, glitz and glamour. When movies directed by Elia Kazan crossed the Atlantic of the calibre of On The Waterfront and East of Eden, we were stunned by the method performances and powerful screen charisma of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and James Dean. Al Jolson in the one of the first talking movies, The Jazz Singer, said, you aint heard nothing yet. He was right. Soon we were bedazzled by the likes of The African Queen and The Asphalt Jungle. Classics such as these were not to be devalued with back seat kisses and cuddles.
It helped stretch our imaginations, horizons and hopes, way beyond the restrictive offices and factory gates of Painter Bros., Henry Wiggin and the Widemarsh Street yard of the Midland Electricity Board, where we did our various daily stints.
On returning now to Hereford, I only have to glimpse the former Odeon site for decades of child and youth life to come reeling back in dramatic flashbacks.
For whenever the allure of Odeon sucked us into its cavern of deep red-seated projector darkness, we were led to another world, a world where one could almost smell fetid jungle or spit-burning desert sand. There was something about that closeting unlit interior which held us in a grasp of attention and awe that no home television set, no matter the screen size, will ever be able to achieve .On reflection, as one does when the years are flying by, I realise I owe much to the realm of cinema and The Odeon in particular and not just the unpaid-for seats!