Art Deco style
The Astoria cinema, in Gloucester Place, was built in the Art Deco style in the 1930s. It was a beautiful place and it was huge. Going to the pictures there was a major event for many of us. Few of us had televisions and various forms of home video equipment had yet to be invented. We could also catch up with the news, via the short, Pathè News features, played in between showings of the films. These were black and white and narrated by a man with curiously up-market diction.
What was distinctive about the Astoria was that it had films that played for seasons rather that for a few showings. Outside indications of a particular film being shown for many, many weeks, were that huge hoardings covered the whole of the front of the cinema. The entire frontage was dressed up in this way. From this distance, I can’t remember many of the longer running films but a few included: The Robe, Gigi and Ben Hur.
A huge screen
The Astoria had a huge screen. Various types of cinematic technologies were used. One was Cinemascope, which used a huge, curved screen. The only problem with it was that it showed films in ‘letterbox’ mode; it involved a not particularly high part of the screen but one that was very wide. So wide, in fact, that you had to keep your head moving from one side to the other, in order to take in the whole screen. Close-ups of actors could cause some distortion of their faces. There were also films shown in ‘Todd AO’ format, although I never got to grasp what this was.
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Stay as long as you want
You could enter the cinema at any point in the film. You could watch the second half of a film, wait until the advertisements were shown and then watch the first half. It saved you having to wait until a particular time of showing. I think you were able to stay in the cinema as long as you wanted, thus seeing a film a few times. When you paid at the box office, you were given a seat number. If a film was running, you were shown to your seat by a lady holding a dim torch that was only ever focussed on the floor. It was embarrassing if you seat was in the middle of the row as people tended to quietly voice their annoyance as you squeezed past them. In between films, quiet music played in the background and the beautiful, satin, hugely long, Art Deco curtains were lit up by changing, pastel shades.
The national anthem
On either side of the screen there were emergency exits. When the lights went down, the signs for them were illuminated in bright red. You had to train yourself not to glance at these as they detracted from the film you were watching. It is odd to think that, back in the 1960s, people used to smoke in cinemas. As most people smoked, the place was constantly in something of a fog. If you looked up at the light of the film being projected, you could see a very dusty looking line of that light. At the end of each performance, the national anthem was played and most people stood up for this. Others, knowing that this was going to happen, slipped out of the cinema, quickly, to get a head start on the bulk of the audience. Or perhaps they weren’t too thrilled by the national anthem.