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Kilbirnie Heritage
Material from the collection of artist Elizabeth Joy Steele
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Cinema and Early Memories

by Hugh Skillen

I was introduced to the cinema at an early age, about 1920 - I was five. My maternal grandfather Robert Shaw had an orchestra which played the musical accompaniment to the silent films at the new cinema, The Picture House, better known as Jimmy Dickie’s Cinema at Holmhead, Kilbirnie, 22 miles from Glasgow. The sheet music arrived the preceding week and there were rehearsals in my grandfather’s house, next door to us in the other half of Chamberlain Cottage. When the players were assembled - they were my grandfather Robert, violin, his younger son Mungo at the piano, Dr Henry Broome, our family physician, clarinet and a fourth whom I cannot remember - I would sneak in next door to listen to the wonderful music. Most cinemas at that time had only a pianist who played the incidental music. This was a marvellous era, it was like opera, pure sound of music illustrating the silent images, unlike today when the speech is often drowned by an incessant and unnecessary noise, by a cacophony of sound.

Robert Shaw was a master tailor. Apprenticed very young he was already a performer on the violin in Cooke’s Little Men. His father John Shaw made the violins he used, made from rosewood and a pen-knife. I have vague memories of the smell of the particular resin or varnish on them as they hung out drying. At the age of ten years he was leader of the Kilbirnie Youth Orchestra. He was later selected to play in the Scottish Violin Championships at Blairgowrie.

Young Mungo, named after his maternal grandfather Mungo Kennedy, was a child prodigy. He had played in public for the first time aged four propped up on a chair with cushions. Dr Broome who had brought me into the world in 1915 had a harelip, and I always wondered if that was an advantage or a disadvantage in playing a wind instrument. He was also the first man I heard swearing. He was removing a thermometer from my mouth when I was very small and it broke, and he said "Damnation!" He had often to come out in the middle of the night to tend me, when I had croup and he brought a steaming kettle to relieve the symptoms. He lived in Glengarnock “across the burn”, that is on the other side of the River Garnock. He and his young assistant Dr Begg were the works doctors for Colville’s Ltd, the local steelworks and the main employers for the males in Kilbirnie and Glengarnock. They received one penny a week from the pay-packets of the workers and provided medical care for the whole family, including the medicines which they made up themselves. This also covered the ambulance service to hospitals in Glasgow. In an emergency Dr Broome was also the dentist. I remember a big tough steelworker going to him with a raging toothache. Dr Broome examined it and said “It’s got to come out but I have no anaesthetic”. To strengthen the man’s resolve, he called out to his elder daughter: “Come and see this big man greeting!”

Twice a week I went to the cinema and said to the tall young lady girls who carried the tray of ices and sweets, as I had been instructed by Uncle Mungo, “I’m Uncle Mungo’s wee boy!” Quite solemnly she would lead me down to the front row of seats, where by taking a few steps forward I could look down into the pit and see the orchestra tuning up. One of the best films I remember seeing was The Exploits of Elaine. There were films with Mary Pickford, and there was Elmo the Mighty, and later the first Tarzan films. The incidental music was mood music, very sentimental, for death scenes or love scenes. The spoken word was writ large on the screen, between quotation marks. “MY LOVE FOR YOU IS ETERNAL” and half a dozen or more adults behind me would read out the words aloud, every time they came up on the screen. When the villain was standing behind the door about to attack the unsuspecting hero, they would shout out “Look out! He’s behind the door!” and so on.

A feature of these days was the serial film, in ten or twelve parts, calculated to make the audience return the following week for the exciting sequel. This was faked to the extent that you left the cinema with the hero or heroine in a situation from which there was no escape, only death, often a horrible death. The following week events had not progressed to that desperate stage and there was a let-out, to everyone’s relict.

On Saturdays there were matinées for the children and their parents could get rid of them for three hours for a half-penny or a penny. But there were tragedies burned into my memory. Fire was the great danger which usually originated in the projection room. I suppose the projectionist often put on a long reel and went out for a smoke. At a matinee on a Saturday in Paisley, our nearest big town, over 200 children perished in a stampede, crushed as they all tried to get out of the cinema on fire. One can only wonder today at the courage of the firemen who had to disentangle all those tiny corpses. One early evening I was in the Picture House with my brother Robbie, when we saw the image of flames on the screen and looking round we saw the flames coming out of the projection window. As we rushed for the side door which opened automatically I think with the pressure of bodies, someone fell. It was the classic cause of multiple deaths. Bobbie tripped. I pulled him up and we ran together all the way home.

This was the age of the horse. The annual horse fair in Kilbirnie was the largest in the West of Scotland and in 1919 I was walked by my great-grandfather John Shaw down to the Auld Kirk opposite which 700 horses on average were sold on the Third Wednesday of every May. There were two cinemas in Kilbirnie before The Picture House opened. On the Lochwinnoch Road on the opposite side from Bridgend School, near the long-vanished Caledonian Railway station was Tammys Cinema and the projectionist was my cousin Jack Baird. At Holmhead opposite had been a cinema known locally as the Fleapit which became a billiards Ssaloon opened by a Mr Spurrin, an Englishman. This was quite large and had at least six full-size billiard tables. Mr Spurrin invited celebrities to give demonstrations of their prowess, the forerunner of the World, European and National Snooker Championships of today.

Tammy’s Cinema - he was the manager - was owned by a Mr Colt, who already owned cinemas in Peebles and Dunbar. My cousin Neil reminds me also that two brothers called Manders, who lived in Lochwinnoch in two caravans, had a cinema there. They were able to show the same main film in Lochwinnoch and Kilbirnie on the same evening by transporting the canned reel on a bicycle - 3 miles - while the news reel and the comic film were in progress. This probably halved the cost of hire of the film! It was their practice to walk up and down in front of the cinemas calling out “Metro Goldwyn Mayer" and the names of the films and stars then showing, in order to attract an audience.

We could not believe it when Robert Fyfe told us one Monday morning that he had been to a cinema in Glasgow and seen a talking picture. How can it be? How can the celluloid image on the screen speak? We were dumbfounded. Within a month or so we were able to witness this for ourselves in Kilbirnie with a spectacular colour film about Broadway, The Broadway Melody or something like that.

This spelt the end of Robert Shaw's Orchestra for providing accompanying music to the silent films but marked the beginning of his Dance Band which played every Saturday night filling the Walker Memorial Hall. Mungo had been in New Jersey for a year 1921-22 with my father, who had been bitten by the jazz bug sweeping America. On the way over and back on the SS Cameronia he played the piano in solo items and accompanied John Skillen, baritone, in Scottish and Irish songs, according to the printed programme of the nightly concerts on board ship.

The Picture House had a foyer of synthetic marble, Terrazzo, laid by Italians. To the left of the entrance was a sweetshop cum newsagents owned by the Millers. The younger brother Bertie, who was my age, graduated in medicine and we played cricket together with Ian Campbell who became Professor of Humanities at Cardiff and Aberdeen Universities.

There were also very large posters advertising COMING NEXT WEEK films. It is a sign of those some would say prudish times, that the word ADULTERY was not mentionable. There was a giant poster showing a femme fatale for the film THE SCARLET LETTER (from a well-known classic by Hawthorne and the letter A in SCARLET was printed scarlet, signifying ADULTERY. I averted my eyes passing this poster in case some ladies in Alexandra Terrace who knew me were watching.

This was the big time for the cinema, when Harold Lloyd was showing in Safety Last all the schools shut for the day so that all the school children could see this hilarious film. New cinemas were springing up everywhere. On the main square in Kilbirnie they built the RADIO Cinema with a tower on top. In Largs in front of the Viking Cinema there was a replica in wood of a prow of a Viking Ship, reminiscent of course of the Battle of Largs where the Vikings were on one occasion defeated.

In Glasgow there were many fine cinemas and millionaires, some of them eccentric. Green's Playhouse was one of the largest in Britain. The owner was a Catholic and Catholic priests were welcomed free of charge. University students like myself were allowed in half-price. This was the era of the Great Wurlitzer organs. Children, and not only children, waited with bated breath to see the organ rising from the underworld as the organist played triumphant music with the spotlight in colours on him. This was the period of Sandy McPherson on the organ at Blackpool broadcast on radio which lasted until the outbreak of WW2.

My own interest in the cinema was undoubtedly sparked off by the new inventions in the early part of the 20th century. My uncle Mungo, the pianist, made one of the first crystal sets in Kilbirnie. I was amazed by this tiny contraption with which, with some tickling with the cat's whisker on a crystal, I could produce music and speech from a far away station 2LO in Daventry or London. It was simple - a coil of wire round a hollow cardboard core in which electricity was generated by connecting it to a tiny quartz crystal. A condenser made from germanium diodes enabled the correct wavelength or frequency to be established. Clear as a bell, but wearing earphones, we could hear the announcer introducing musical items. These components could be miniaturised so as to be contained in a match-box and a war-time comrade of Mungo's, Mr. Gardiner, who became a bagman, carrying two heavy suitcases full of dresses and underwear from Kilmarnock around Ayrshires villages, proudly displayed one of these matchbox sets to me. Forty years later my own sons, like many thousands of their contemporaries, were still making crystal sets.

About this time, the ubiquitous Brownie No. 2 Box Camera made home photography possible and quite cheap. I bought a developing frame, the chemicals for developing and hypo for fixing the negatives, which could be exposed to gas-light or sunlight, using the appropriate printing paper. With no need for a dark room it was fun to watch the images appearing or the printing paper at the bottom of the tray holding the developer, judging the right moment so as not to over-develop and plunging it into the fixative to hold that image for ever. The large professional portrait photographs, very life-like it must be said, of parents in their late teens, and grand-parents still looked down from the walls of the sitting room or bedroom, but it now became a rare event going to the professional photographer for a sittinq except for formal groups like the Parish Council, in which my great-grandfather Robert Shaw stood in the back row, and weddings. As a baby I am sitting on my mothers knee with grandfather Robert Shaw and great-grandfather John Shaw in ‘The Four Generations. I would like to add one with myself as great grandfather.

Major Hugh Skillen was Head of Modern Languages at Harrow County, and taught at Harrow County from 1946 to 1975. He died on January 4th, 2004.
Source: The Old Gaytonian, 1997.