Usherettes and tea-trays

The Odeon in West Street opened in 1937. There is some argument as to the first film shown there but I think it was either “Sixty Glorious Years” starring Anna Neagle as Queen Victoria or “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. During the week’s run of the latter there was a competition for a ‘look-alike’ of Tom Sawyer and the prize was a brand new bicycle.

The manager
The Manager was Mr. Oscar Deusche a naturalised German who was interned at the start of the war. Other subsequent managers I remember were a Mr. Self and then a Mr. Sackier. Both appeared resplendant in ‘black tie’ in the evening from about 6.30 p.m. onwards greeting and talking to patrons. It was considered an honour if the Manager greeted you with a “Good Evening”.

A strict hierarchy
An interesting point of the times was that they rarely spoke to members of the staff, instructions being passed on through the Chief of Staff, Mr. Buttress, who came from the Palladium around the corner on the Sea Front. Mr. Buttress was a striking figure in his green uniform with tails. He was a strict disciplinarian, his word was law and woe betide the usherettes who may be caught talking in whispers in the auditorium when a film was showing. He was however a very fair man and the sort of person to whom one could take one’s problems. His son Leslie and Bill Chard who was a chain smoker of “Churchmans Tenners”, together with two more doormen and two pageboys made up the front of house staff.

Staff parade every day
There were about twelve usherettes and my Mother was the head usherette. A parade was held with all staff in the entrance foyer every day before the opening of the cinema and everyone was inspected for tidiness, make-up etc. No one giggled or spoke at these parades that were taken very seriously.

A page girl
An interesting innovation during the war was the employment of a Page Girl, a very pretty blonde with blue eyes and very striking in her green uniform with a pill-box hat. Very much later she married Leslie Buttress. There were also the four Moore sisters: Rusty and Joan were usherettes, Vida was in the cash box, and the youngest, Pat who later married an R.A.F. pilot, was one of the ice cream sales girls who wandered around the auditorium during the shorts and second features, but NEVER during the main feature. The Moore sisters used to live at the Railway Hotel just outside Brighton Station.

A real night out
There were many promotions for various films and the most striking that comes to mind was Cecil B. de Mills “North West Mounted Police” where all the usherettes were dressed up as Red Indian squaws complete with make-up, and the doormen were dressed up as Canadian Mounted Police officers. One should also remember that those days of the cinema were weekly events where patrons would dress up to “go to the pictures” and there was a magic that does not exist today.

Small tea lounge
There was also a small tea lounge in the circle foyer where one could partake of a pot of tea, a toasted teacake, cakes etc. This could, if required, be taken to a person in the audience and there was always great amusement and a ripple of laughter when there was a crash as someone upset the tea tray.

Projection equipment
The projection equipment was by British Thompson Houston that was pretty standard in all Odeon cinemas. The Chief Projectionist was Mr. Chipperfield who came from the Regent and one of the junior projectionists, Luke Moneypenny later went into Management and finally ended up as the General Manager of the Odeon in Jersey, Channel Islands where he remained until his retirement a few years ago.

Handsets for hearing impaired customers
It is interesting to note that patrons afflicted with deafness were catered for in that several aisle seats in the rear stalls had plug points where a handset with a volume control could be plugged in. These were available free of charge at the cash desk. This is something that today’s cinemas need and is one of the reasons I do not go to the cinema any more. The Odeon was built as a cinema and had no stage to speak of but I do remember during a “Wings for Victory” week a first rate show was put on on the miniscule stage. One of the stars was Max Miller.

Comments about this page

  • A fascinating memory of cinema in the 1930s and wartime, full of entertaining detail. One small quibble: Oscar Deutsch was the founder and owner of the entire Odeon chain, which by May 1937 consisted of around 250 cinemas. (He liked to claim that ‘Odeon’ stood for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.) So even with a hands-on approach it is unlikely that he was the manager. He was actually born in Birmingham to Hungarian and Polish parents and there is no record of him being interned (nor any reason). He did much to make cinema-going a middle-class activity, which may explain the high standards of service expected of staff. J Arthur Rank finally took over the chain when Deutsch died in 1941. The Odeon West Street closed in December 1973 when the Kingswest opened and was demolished in 1990. Or could there be two people of that name? (Unlikely.)

    By David Fisher (11/06/2004)
  • Yes, you are quite correct David. My apologies. His alleged internment may well have been a wartime rumour of the times.

    By John Wall (27/06/2004)
  • I’m currently researching cinemas during the Second World War and in particular the lives of the usherettes who worked there, for a project. I was just wondering if you knew of any cinemas that were actually destroyed during the Blitz (or otherwise)?

    By Donna (09/08/2004)
  • Would Donna please contact me via my e/mail:

    By John Wall (13/08/2004)
  • Look up Odeon Kemp Town Brighton and you will find what you want to know there. I am writing my working life as a freelance and relief projectionist. Many of the cinemas were effected by air raids but few sustain little damage.

    By R H Scott-Spencer (05/02/2005)
  • I started off my (short) career as a projectionist in the old Criterion cinema in Gosport in 1943. (It’s now a Bingo hall I believe.) I was only 14 at the time and was thrown in at the deep end doing changeovers in only my second day. The feature was a little known Disney effort titled ‘Victory through air power’. On my first day, the Chief sent me down to the manager’s office to ask him for some sprocket holes the Chief said we needed! I often wonder what would have happened had one of the projectors suffered a bad breakdown. They were German Ernemann machines – and this was 1943. Entrance to the projection room was gained by climbing a vertical ladder to a narrow balcony and film boxes were raised and lowered by rope. A long cry from cinema practice today.

    By George Calland-Scoble (28/04/2005)
  • The Odeon in West Street, along with the Regent and Savoy in Brighton and the Granada in Hove, were unusual in the 1950s and 60s in starting their weekly programmes on a Thursday. In those days most other cinemas, including those in Brighton and in the London suburbs, would start a week’s run on Sunday or Monday. The reason for the Thursday start at first-run cinemas in large seaside towns had to do with the pattern of holidays in those days, where Saturday-to-Saturday stays were very common. Programming major cinemas in this way meant that holiday-makers down for a week had two choices of new films at each of them.

    By Jeremy Perkins (18/08/2005)
  • In 1963 my father and I were on holiday having travelled to Brighton from Frodsham in Cheshire. We went to the Odeon to see The War Lover starring Steve McQueen and Shirley Ann Field. Forty two years later I interviewed her for a review I was writing on one of her stage plays. The Odeon would have had British Thomson Houston (BTH) projection equipment. Some Odeons later went over to Kalee 21s.

    By David A Ellis (16/05/2008)
  • I too remember the Odeon on the sea front in Brighton. My friend Maureen Baines asked me if I would like to go on a blind date with a boy from Portsmouth and she went out with his friend. We had to meet by the railings outside at 7 oclock, which we did, we saw the film Wind Through the Everglades with Howard Duff. We met in the October and married the following February and we still are 50 years on, the railings are still there too! When we go back to my home town we ride along the seafront for old times sake. Happy memories.

    By Pamela (04/07/2008)
  • In 1937 the Odeon, West Street, opened with “Sixty Glorious Years” starring Anna Neagle and Anton Walbrook. It was a grand occasion and Oscar Deutch, who was a friend of my father’s, invited my parents to the opening. My youngest brother, who had a witty way with words, said, “Sixty Odious Years” at the Glorium.
    We used to go over the street to the new milk bar to eat Knickerbocker Glories. Forte’s took it over later and the ice cream deteriorated – we children called it Brylcreem.

    By June (28/04/2009)
  • Actually, the first film was ‘Victoria the Great’, to which ‘Sixty Glorius Years’ was a sequel made the following year.

    By David Fisher (01/07/2009)
  • Iremember going there on a Saturday morning; I was a member of the GB club,we used to sing the song “we come along on Saturday mornings.” We also used to have competions, one of them was to see how many items we could get in a matchbox. One of the weekly films was Captain Video; I really enjoyed those days.

    By Lennie Twyman (30/07/2009)
  • I just about remember the Lido in Denmark Villas - strangely it started life as an ice rink and was then converted into a cinema. Then in the early 1960s it was converted back to an ice rink.

    By Peter Groves (05/09/2011)
  • With regard to the “Usherettes and Tea Trays” I remembered the other day that I had forgotten that loyal band of ladies who made up the cleaning staff. They were there before anyone else first thing in the morning and had left before the other staff arrived. Somewhat belatedly I take my hat off to them. Ladies you have not been forgotten.

    By John Wall VK2 (13/03/2012)
  • My local cinema was the Odeon, Kemp Town but I remember “Bunking-in” the Odeon West Street through the toilet window round the side street and then crawling on our hands and knees up the aisle until we spotted spare seats. The Odeon Kemp Town was easier to ” bunk-in”, you just went in the entrance foyer and up the steps to the toilets and when no one was looking just disappear around the side and into the auditorium. Happy days but a bit naughty. We used to wait outside if the film required an adult to be with you and ask people to take us in – very dodgy and not recommended these days but we were innocent of the dangers, which you never heard of in those days.

    By Dave Hamblin (14/03/2012)
  • Does anyone have a photograph of the old Odeon cinema in Denmark Villas?

    By Jackie Collins Buck, Honolulu (31/05/2012)
  • Jackie, if you follow this link you’ll find a (hazy) photo of the Lido, renamed Odeon, in Denmark Villas:

    By Janet Beal (02/06/2012)
  • My friends and I used to go to the Odean Kemp Town on Sunday night for the ‘B’ films. We used to find out what the film was about and I used to dress up for the part and at some time of the film, I ran acroos the stage! People used to laugh and cheer! One day though, I got cocky, The film was Beau Geste, and the girls made me a cap with a hanky sown on the back like a legionnaire. I walked across the stage, stood in the middle of the screen and saluted – another great cheer! When I got to go down the steps they were waiting for me! Barred for a month, with my picture taken and put up in the pay kiosk.

    By Harry Atkins (12/07/2012)
  • I don’t think Mick Peirson could have gone to the Kemptown Odeon in the 40s/50s as it was bombed in 1940. I know because I was there.

    By Terry Shorter (16/02/2013)
  • Hi Terry Shorter. I’ve read your comment about the Kemp Town Odeon. It may well have been bombed in 1940 but I can assure you that we were regulars at Saturday morning pictures there in the early 50s. I began my Saturday mornings there in 1952 when I was 10 years old. Regards

    By Tom Paul (17/02/2013)
  • I went to the Odeon Kemp Town until we moved to Bevendean in 1953 when I was 10. Think it was 6d downstairs and 9d up.

    By Dennis Parrett (19/02/2013)
  • With my brother and various mates, I also went to Saturday morningpictures at the Odeon Kemp Town during the late 1940s and 1950s. The compere/Manager used to get us to sing ‘Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit, Run, Run, Run. The Manager had large sticking out ears and very short Brylcreamed hair which accentuated his ears. It used to cost us 6d upstairs and 3d downstairs. Afterwards we all trooped along to get bread & dripping from Bert’s Dining Rooms at the end of St. George’s Road, instead of using the money for the bus fare home.

    By Graham Sharp (26/12/2014)
  • Hello, I currently work for Odeon and am looking for the uniforms of Odeon team members in the 1950s. Do you happen to have any photographs of them? It would be a great help!  Kind regards

    By Karen Mccann (19/03/2015)
  • I worked as projectionist at Odeon, West Street from 1938-1953. Except for RAF service 1941-1945. In 1940 two incendries came through the roof and landed on the catwalk and backstage. I put out the one on the catwalk with a stirrup pump with help. No panic, show carried on.
    In 1946 BTH Super 8 projectors were installed (I have pics). I was also on the Odeon roof as a afternoon spotter in 1940 when the Odeon Kemp Town was bombed. I have lots of new info’ if anyone cares to contact. I am into my 94th year and live in Canada. While at West Street I was known as Bob.

    By Jack (Bob) Odom (29/05/2015)
  • I have just noticed a comment from a Terry Shorter (16/2/2013) stating that he doesn’t think that I could have gone to the Odeon Kemptown as it was bombed in 1940. So what if it was bombed, it was repaired. The 40s lasted another ten years after 1940 and I went with my mum in the late 40s and the 50s. I was born in 1943 so by the late 40s I had seen many films at the Odeon. Or did Terry Shorter think it was obliterated altogether in 1940. I was also there, many times, and Saturday morning pictures as well in the 50s.

    By Mick Peirson (30/05/2015)
  • With reference to the Odeon “Wings for Victory”, I was a member of the stage crew. Besides “Max Miller” – the program included “The Crazy Gang”, “Flanagan and Allen”,  A juggler named ‘”Eddie Grey” and “Vera Lynn.”
    Please go to my page ‘Working as a Projectionist’.

    By Jack (Bob) Odom (14/06/2015)
  • Would anybody remember a doorman in the  Brighton/Hove cinemas, his name was Jack Morley and I believe could have been registered blind, or very short sighted? Kindest regards

    By Rachel Illsley (17/12/2017)

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