"The Big 4" and "My first date"

Astoria cinema, London Road, Brighton
Image of the Astoria from the 'My Brighton' exhibit

The Big 4
by John Merrington

“I remember the 40s, 50s and 60s when the Astoria was one of the ‘Big 4’. If you were going to the ‘pictures’ and it it involved one of these cinemas, it was a special occasion. The ‘Big 4’ Cinemas (my terminology) were:

The Odeon, West Street
The Astoria, London Road
The Gaiety, Lewes Road
The Savoy, Sea Front.

I remember there was a Saturday Morning Club where kids paid 9d, when the normal minimum entry was 1/6d. I didn’t use it, but did see the children waiting outside for the doors to open. Those days I was more inclined to hit the ‘Scratch’ on Sunday afternoon for 9d worth of Tom Mix or Hopalong Cassidy.

I probably used the Astoria only about a dozen times, but it was a wonderful cinema. My grandfather, who enjoyed taking me to the pictures, had a preference for the Odeon on West St. I remember seeing “Treasure Island” at the Astoria and “Red River” at the Odeon with him. For sure the Odeon, and probably the Astoria, had hand sets which plugged into the seats for those patrons with hearing problems…”

e-mail sent 27.6.2001

My first date with my former husband
by Olive Sant

“What memories these places bring back! The Odeon on West Street was my first date with my former husband . We sat in the back row and saw “The Sign of the Pagan” after having dinner at the Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant situated at the top end of West Street way back in 1954.

I remember being taken to the Savoy during the war about 1944 or 1945 to see” The Wizard of Oz” . I remember two things about this trip, one was the horror I felt when the Wicked Witch’s face filled the screen, and the other memory was of the barbed wire along the sea side of Marine Parade.

e-mail sent 30.6.2001

Comments about this page

  • I remember the Astoria in the early 50’s. My mum was a cleaner there. We used to go to Saturday morning pictures – hoards of kids went. We watched Flash Gordon, Lassie, Bowery Boys, Shirley Temple, Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Roy Rogers, and many many more.They use to have Guy competitions for firework night. I won a pictorial history book one year. Then there was the fancy dress competition at Christmas. I went as Father Christmas, and won a a traveling clock. We had our picture in the daily paper, l think it was the Herald. We usef to sing.”We are the A.B.C.Minors” and watch the organ come out of the ground. What a racket we made when the projection broke down. Oh, happy days.

    By Sheila Jones (14/03/2004)
  • The Chief Projectionist during the 1939/45 war was Mr. Fred Warner who came from the “Langham” Pinner in Middlesex. Projection equipment was Kalee 11 with variable speed control together with Kalee HL high intensity arc lamps. Sound system was Western Electric and the equipment was capable of running discs with silent films that were used prior to the advent of photographic sound track on the edge of the 35mm film. The sound serviceman was a Mr. Barry. Also in the projection room were two spotlights. There was a full stage together with a safety curtain that had to be lowered and raised at least once a day, usually prior to the evening performance, and the stage lighting switchboard was “MAJOR’. The resident organist was Billy Underhill and the organ was covered in coloured glass panels illuminated from behind, with lamps that changed colour automatically. The “Astoria” hosted the premier of “Gone With the Wind” and seat prices were increased during the run of the film. Whilst it was built as a cinema / theatre, I have no recollection of any stage shows there. During the war, to save film, the twice weekly newsreel was shared with the Savoy.

    By John Wall (29/03/2004)
  • I am very interested in this photo of the Astoria Brighton, as I believe this Gordon Fellowes mentioned is my mother’s first cousin. Does anyone have any more info on this?

    By Sally McMahon (24/11/2004)
  • I saw Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Astoria in 1968. It made an indelible impression on me and also my girlfriend at the time, Jo Penna. As I recall, the Astoria was where the “ABC Minors” used to hang out of a Saturday Morning. According to my family members, my grandfather (Charles Johnstone) was blown off his feet by a bomb that dropped to the east of the Astoria during World War II as he was walking by the place.

    By Phil Allsopp (05/07/2005)
  • Hi Phil! Your grandfather was correct about the bomb being dropped just by the Astoria. I have a photo of it! Exact location is to the right (north) of the church. I might try and get a photo of then and now; however, I think the poor old Astoria is clad in scaffolding at present. Not too good for a photo.

    By Peter Groves (15/11/2005)
  • In the year 2001 my father died. His name was Edward Jempson, better known as Ted. He was a projectionist at the Astoria. He was there in the 50s and part of the 60s. He started as a rewind boy at the Astoria when he left school and he loved the job so much he worked all the time that he could and that my mum would let him. Also, my mum, whose name was Dolly, worked at the Savoy on the sea front. She met dad there and got married. I did use to like going to the Astoria with dad and we spent many happy hours up in the box. When his beloved Astoria closed down and went over to bingo, Dad went mad as he saw this as the death of the cinema. He also worked at the Granada in Portland Road, Hove, the Savoy, the Classic in Brighton and the Curzon in Eastbourne.

    By Allan Jempson (14/12/2005)
  • I used to go to Saturday morning pictures in the 1970s. It was 25p to get in – now it’s nearly £5.

    By Bridget (08/02/2006)
  • How nice to find this website! The dear old Astoria played a pivotal part of my youth. At age 14 I was taken, on August 5th 1958, to one of the first showings of “South Pacific”.  I was blown away by the huge bright sharp picture and the lovely multi-track sound.  Such was the impression that when I left school two years later I worked at the Astoria as trainee projectionist.  Dear old Fred Warner was “Chief”, and Ted Jempson (mentioned above by his son) was senior 2nd and Derek Munday also 2nd. “Chick” Fowler was manager. During my two years there I recall we ran “Ben-Hur” for many months. Happy times, carbon arcs and ‘change-overs’ every 2,000ft, and curtains (tabs) over the screen! I mourn the loss of real showmanship. I’d love to be able to see some of those 70mm films again – properly.

    By Allan (02/10/2006)
  • Didn’t Ralph Reader hold some of his gang shows at the Astoria ?

    By Roy Davis (08/12/2006)
  • My father Derek Munday worked as a chief projectionist at the Astoria Brighton and showed the last film “A Star is Born”.  I have many happy memories of the Astoria. My mother Suzanne Munday nee Taylor also worked as a Cashier, where her and my Father met, they both have fond memories of the Astoria, and Chick Fowle.

    By Susan Beer (02/06/2007)
  • It is to be hoped that the Astoria will one day be restored to its former glory. It is capable, or was, of putting on a full stage show as well as being a cinema.

    By John Wall (08/09/2007)
  • FIRE IN THE PROJECTION ROOM: Circa 1945, during the showing of a second feature in the afternoon a fire started in the bottom spool box [take-up] destroying about 400 feet of highly flammable nitrate film [no safety film in those days]. No-one was sure how it started as there were fire traps on the Kalee 11 projector, on both the top and bottom spool boxes. Quick thinking by the projectionist at the time, who noticed smoke coming out of the bottom spool box, quickly opened it and with bare hands rushed the burning reel outside onto the roof. It took several hours to clean the projector, mainly the Western Electric sound exciter section and the performances continued running on one projector. The manager went on stage to apologise to the audience as there was a break every twenty minutes or so whilst the reels were changed.

    By John Wall (23/09/2007)
  • I was very interested in reading the memoirs of those who remember the Astoria cinema during the War and just after. BillyUnderhill was my father, and it is gratifying to know that he is still remembered. I can still recall those Saturday mornings where we all gathered for the ABC minors film show and on one occasion I was allowed to sit next to my dad while he was playing the organ. He also told me about the bomb that dropped near the cinema and how lucky he was to have escaped the blast. In spite of the terrible things that the war brought about, I, as a mere 6 year old going to the park or on the bus unattended was safer then than it is today. Good old days, you’re damn right.

    By John Underhill (08/04/2008)
  • How nice to hear from you John after all these years. I remember your father very well and he often came up to the projection room for a chat before his show. I must agree with you that it was very much safer out and about in those days. As you say, “Good old days”.

    By John Wall (12/04/2008)
  • Anyone know who currently owns this venue, as its yet another place in Brighton that is falling into ruining? Last I found was that Yes/No Productions had it, but there are stories that Mama Group have purchased it, to convert into a music venue.

    By Jay (05/06/2008)
  • Hi all from Texas, USA. I grew up in Brighton in the fifties and early sixties and remember the Astoria also as a great cinema. Also the Regent Odeon Cinema just north of the clock tower. I used to go dancing in the ballroom above the cinema with my girl friend, Joan, usually Fridays, Saturdays and even Sundays. What a great ballroom. Live band and a sprung floor! I was even a member of a “skiffle group” then, as a teenager, and even got us a couple of gigs playing at the Arthur Murray Dance school, which was above (or alongside) the Astoria on London road. Joan and I used to take dancing lessons at another dance school on the other side of the road on Wednesday evenings and eventually got our bronze medals together. I lost contact with Joan many years ago.

    By Anthony Eriksson (23/08/2008)
  • Tony, the dance school in Grand Parade on the other side of the road was the Allen Dean Dance Studio. I used to be a regular there too, but being a typical feller, skipped out to the bar next to the Art College as soon as lessons started. I would then return about half an hour later when they went back to the normal dancing rather than tuition.

    By Roy Grant (06/11/2008)
  • I was a monitor, then head monitor going on to trainee manager and assistant manger. Some of the highlights were The English Light Opera Company, Variety with Frankie Vaughan, Dickie Valentine, Alma Cogan and Arthur Askey. Another highlight was South Pacific in Todd AO which ran initially for 38 weeks.

    By Brian Kerridge (04/03/2009)
  • My Dad, Dennis, used to take me to the Astoria every week, as he was very friendly with the manager, Chick. I saw so many films there including “Gone with the Wind”, “Ice Station Zebra”, “The Eagle Has Landed” and many more. I have very fond memories of, what seemed to me, a huge cinema.

    By Debbie Boulter (nee Wixey) (08/04/2009)
  • Only five years later so I hope Sally McMahon might see this. The two people appearing on stage in the photo are Gordon Fellowes and Miss March. She was ‘Dillinger’s enemy no 1 and the first G woman’. He seems have been an author, born 1896, who wrote about crime.

    By David Fisher (08/02/2010)
  • Thanks David Fisher, he was my mom’s cousin and did write a couple of books on his days as an undercover insurance agent in the USA 1920s and 30s, where he met many of the gangs and even became a member of one – The Morans undercover. Had to leave the States after the numerous death threats and so back to England where he wrote and toured giving speeches at various showings of films on crime and gangs. My uncle – his cousin, saw him on stage at Marble Arch just before the G-Men with James Gagney. So fits with what you said about this lady being one.

    By Sally McMahon (14/02/2010)
  • On seconds thoughts I haven’t been able to find out anything on this Ms Marsh as G-woman, and now think she is no other than Marion Marsh (Violet Krauth) who starred in 1935 Crime & Punishment. At that time she was over here in Europe and George (that was his real name not Gordon), also had written a radio play. I think she was helping him act out on stage various G-men / gang related stories before the showing of the G-Men as he had done at Marble Arch where he also had brought over from the States one of Al Capone’s cars -the same one which took him for a ride.

    By Sally McMahon (15/02/2010)
  • It’s been a long time since I last left my comments on this site and it is nice to see so many people that must have known my late father. I see one name that rings a bell with me and he is Derek Munday. When dad left the trade for good we use to go see Derek, and him and dad spent many hours in the rest room talking about old times. I would like to know if Susan Beer who left her comments on (03/06/2007) is still looking at this site because I believe I have some photos that she might be interested in. If you still visit Susan, please leave your email and I will contact you. It’s hard to think that Dad has been gone now for nine years, but I still can remember his little ways, and I can still see him at work. I would like to hear from any body that remembers Dad or even Mum Dolly. I will from time to time keep looking on this site, in the hope that some one remembers.

    By Allan Jempson (14/09/2010)
  • It has been very interesting to read about Edward Jempson working in the Astoria as a projectionist. From my research into my family tree I believe that he is a relation. I would like to know more about him. And also if Allan Jempson reads this is there any way we could get in touch?

    By Alison Marshall (21/09/2010)
  • Re message left by Alison Marshall.  Well I don’t know what to say. I was lead to believe that Ken and I  were the last in line. It would be nice though if we did have have some long lost relation but let’s not jump the gun.  I’m on face book where you can contact me. If you spot this and if you would like to say how you think we are related please get in touch and lets hope that we can have a chat face to face.

    By Allan Jempson (23/09/2010)
  • My mum also was a cleaner and usherette at the Astoria cinema. We went to Saturday morning pictures, also my mum got two free tickets a week for anytime, so we all got to get to see the films at some time- I think the club for kids was called the acorn club, and I still have a badge somewhere, Sheila Jones was my cousin, bless her.

    By Joyce Blackman(formerly Bryant) (11/11/2010)
  • I worked at the Astoria in the ’70s Derek Munday was the chief and Robert Peglar and Tony were projectionists. I spent a lot of time in the projection box as I was dating Robert. I then went on to become projectionist at the Duke of York cinema. I have been trying to trace Robert so if anyone knows of his whereabouts or if you read this Bob please contact me. I am on Facebook

    By Teuntje Harris(Toni) (18/12/2010)
  • Around 1964/5 my former wife Linda (Lynn) Carter and I were good friends with a girl name Susan (Sooty) whose father was manager at the Astoria and lived in the flat above it. I remember parties in the flat but cannot remember Susan’s last name. She ended up as a Policewoman in Brighton and remained good friends with Linda until Linda’s early death from cancer.

    By Michael Small (21/12/2010)
  • I remember the Astoria in the 60s, as my girlfriend’s father, Bryan Heasman, was the projectionist and we went often. I remember particularly the film 2001: A space odyssey and the effect of the psychedelic sequence. Bryan went on to manage Bingo Halls and then the Fishersgate pub. Sadly I believe he died some years ago.

    By Peter Wrapson (25/04/2012)
  • Yes, I grew up in Brighton and loved going to the pictures and went to most of them, sometimes with my parents or with friends. Well remembered films that still make an impression on me in the Astoria are; 2001: a space Odyssey, Where Eagles Dare and Doctor Zhivago. I still remember my friends and I coming out of the Astoria after seeing 2001 for the first time and we were still going through the star gate as we walked back along the Stein and nearly got knocked down by a car coming out of a side turning as we strolled along in a daze. I was down near the Astoria a few weeks back, it looks very sad and forlorn now, I suppose they will knock it down and build flats on it or something. 

    By Paul Edwards (04/08/2012)
  • I too grew up in Brighton and remember the Astoria on Saturday mornings, singing “we’re minors of the ABC”.  Every Saturday all lined up, to see the films we love and shout along with glee, we always love to have our singsong, such a happy crowd are we, we’re all pals together, we’re minors of the ABC!” Great memories in late fifties and the early sixties.

    By Brenda Bailey (05/08/2012)
  • Hello to my old school mate Mike Small. The manager’s daughter’s name was Sue (Sooty) Fowle and she was my girlfriend around 63/64. I would park my Lambretta across the road from the Astoria and go up to the flat through a side door and then take her out to the pictures, which involved opening a door in the flat and walking straight into the back row of the cinema. The ‘Great Race’ was on for a season at the time. It was a nice cheap night out!

    By Richard Godden (05/09/2012)
  • I worked at the Astoria during the 1970s as a projectionist in what was the new projection box fitted with DP70 projectors. I am sorry to hear that it is now up for demolition, the same as the old ABC Hove.

    By R H Scott-Spencer (10/03/2013)
  • I have recently recalled that in some cinemas during the performance it was possible to have a tray of tea delivered to you in your seat even if you were in the middle of a row. It was passed to you by other people without any bother or remarks as it was accepted at time that this was nothing unusual. Just imagine trying that today!

    By Ken Ross (04/09/2014)
  • Does anyone remember the Astoria Cinema in Purley? Anyone who worked there in the 1930s and 1940s? Now it is just a block of apartments. Sad!

    By Michael Morgenstern (19/04/2016)
  • I lived in Cheltenham place behind the Astoria and got Alma Cogans’  autograph.I also remember Saturday morning pictures, my pop used to take me to the Grand Theatre  and The Hippodrome, in middle street, also my mum and grandmother used to go to  see the cartoons in North Street with my brother and I.   Lovely memories.

    By Diana (25/11/2017)
  • I am one of Billy Underhill’s granddaughters. John Underhill is my father’s brother.
    I have very fond memories of him. Especially indoor fireworks, and Chopin’s nocturn in E flat. I will never forget it. It always reminds me of him.
    Uncle John. If you read this. Please get in touch.

    By Amanda Richards (08/07/2021)

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