Chester-le-Street Heritage Group
A visit to the cinema in the late 1950s.
Chester-le-Street in the 1950s had four cinemas, The Queens, Essoldo (Empire), The Savoy and The Palace.
The Queens, in the Market place. As far as we can remember this was the largest cinema. and was very ornate. Anne can remember walking home with friends, re-enacting what they had seen on the screen, especially Singing in the Rain. The Queens became a Bingo Hall and burnt down in the 1990s.
The Empire – or Essoldo cinema. It was very ornate, with red velvet seats and stage curtains. The Amateur Operatic Society used to have their shows on there, and both the Grammar and Secondary Modern Schools held their speech days there. No trip to the Empire was complete without a visit to Harry Frances’ shop for sweets’ (Anne liked cinder toffee). The Empire was between Osborne Road and the Front Street and the Empire Ballroom was attached. Heron’s Frozen Foods is now where the Kings Head public house was and the site of the cinema and ballroom is now a car park. Anne remembers seeing the King and I there and when Jailhouse Rock with Elvis was shown, you couldn’t hear the soundtrack for screaming by the audience of girls.
The Savoy was a smaller venue, and at each side of the hall there were ramps up by the side of the screen that led to the toilets. And as you walked up to the ramp, the crowd sang “we know where you’re going”, and on your way back you were met with the chorus, ‘we know where you’ve been’. It was situated on the Front Street, near where the Cestrian Club is. It was quite dark and dismal, and you went down into the cinema off the street.
The Palace, in Low Chare, also a small venue, had a reputation for being a ’flea pit’. Quite literally, because you could be bitten. They used to show a lot of cartoons on Saturday mornings for the kids. The Palace was opposite the Bethel Chapel, and is now a car sales plot.
How things have changed since we went to ‘the pictures’. We were born in 1944 and didn’t get TV until the 1950s, so going to the cinema was a regular occurrence. All patrons at picture houses would be smartly dressed, not Sunday best, but men would wear suits, or sports jackets and trousers, and always with a shirt and tie. Many ladies wore hats, and smart coats. Extra large hats blocked the view of the people behind, so sometimes it was necessary to move from the seat that the usherette had shown you to, possibly several times. Of course smoking was allowed, and sweets and fruit were consumed. There were usually two films, an A and B plus Pathe News reels and a cartoon. It didn’t matter what time you arrived, because you could stay until the part you’d missed came around again. After the film we often went to the Silver Grid, which was along from the Co-op department store (where Longs newsagents and the betting shop are) for chips. When Anne’s husband Jim was little, one evening during the cartoons, the projectionist went off to have a quick smoke, and the cartoon went off and a Swedish naturist film came on. Alerted by the stunned silence that ensued, the fault was swiftly rectified.