Films at the picture theatre by Noel Duncan

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The days when you saw “films” at the “picture theatre”!

My exposure to what is now called the “world of cinema” began at a very early age in the mid 1940’s and continued almost unchanged until the late 1950’s , early 1960’s which by then, particularly in the suburbs, the industry had been decimated by the introduction of television in 1956.

My introduction came about via my father Reg Duncan. In WW2 in early 1940’s due to manpower shortages, due to the extensive call up of the male population for military service, those who hadn’t for one of many reasons been drafted into the armed services, were forced to take a second job in addition to their normal employment.

My father, who had been ruled unfit for military service due to a spinal problem, elected to fill a position of trainee projectionist at a picture theatre – The Windsor Theatre beside the Cooks River at Canterbury, where he worked a number of nights per week. My parents had a photo of me at about three years of age asleep on blankets on the floor of the projection room.

One night a week my mother would take my elder sister and I to the pictures catching the 487 bus from near the St George Hotel to Canterbury. The thrill here was to climb the steps to the upper deck of the then popular Leyland double decker bus. My most vivid memory is of us arriving at the theatre one evening to find the showing cancelled – the Cooks River had broken its banks and the theatre auditorium was flooded!

Later as the manpower shortage declined my father decided to continue to do part time work as a projectionist to supplement the then basic wage earned as a meter reader for the Australian Gas Light Company. The next picture show he worked at was the Sydenham Theatre on Unwins Bridge Road, which even recently still stood, but now a Bonds Wear factory outlet. Here he worked one night a week plus Saturday children’s matinee and Saturday evening.

Now my movie attendance schedule increased to most Saturday matinees plus the one night a week with my mother, sister and younger brother. I can still recall the feeling of superiority I felt as I walked past the line of 30 /40 plus kids lined up waiting for the ticket box to open for the matinee, entered the theatre with my father, selecting my preferred seat even before the doors opened.

In those days the matinee consisted of a specially selected movie [westerns were always popular] which was shown after interval. The first half of the programme consisted of cartoons, weekly serials and other short films such as travelogues etc.

For the main programme there were two movies shown Saturday / Monday / Tuesday - one of them the “blockbuster” of the week the other a lesser B grade. The two movies then changed for the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday night screenings - in addition to the two movies there was a newsreel, cartoon and possibly a short travelogue No such thing as Sunday screenings in those days! Most weeks to catch the blockbuster we went on a Tuesday night.

Besides the numerous movies seen, many of which I have a good laugh at on pay TV, one other thing “sticks in my mind”. This was the period of power shortages and on more than one occasion the screen would go black, the very dim emergency lights would activate, and a communal groan went up. Sometimes the interruptions were short lived and after a minor delay the film would recommence.

But the outages at other times were extended. In these cases after about 20 – 25 minutes the theatre manager would appear on stage to announce that the screening was cancelled for the evening. I don’t think my dad complained – he got to go home early. Continuing problems in this regard led to many theatres installing their own generators which could take over in the event of a power failure, allowing the movie to carry on.

After many years working at Sydenham my dad started working for the Regent Theatre group who had theatres at Punchbowl, Bankstown and a much smaller one at Yagoona. In the main he worked at Punchbowl and Bankstown and rarely at Yagoona. The reason for the latter was that for all of this time he made his way to his casual job via public transport, catching the train home to Lakemba and walking home from the station, another 20 / 25 minute commute. In those days the majority of trains terminated at Bankstown so going the one extra stop to and from Yagoona could add 20 minutes plus to the travel time.

Meanwhile I still managed to go to the Saturday Matinee most weeks with the family tradition of Tuesday being movie night continuing through my high school years. It was at Punchbowl that on occasions I was allowed to “operate” the showing of the pre-show and interval advertising. This was via designs printed onto a square glass slide which were feed into a projector to be shown on the screen. The sound for the slide was on a recording disc and the secret was to co-ordinate the slide feeding with the recording otherwise an add for baby food was shown whilst the sound sang the praises of the local shoe store, a recipe for a break out of laughter and catcalls from the audience.

Also for a while in an effort to combat the declining patronage due to television, on a Saturday night and sometimes week nights as well, immediately after interval, live variety type acts were staged, though this was reasonably short lived.

Another thing movie goers of today may find strange is that through the 40’s and 50’s and perhaps even the early 60’s every programme commenced with the national anthem [God Save the King / Queen] being played whilst a portrait of the reining monarch [George VI or Elizabeth II] was shown on screen with the audience standing for the duration of this.

With continued dwindling audiences many theatres reduced their screening schedules and hence reduced the need for casual projectionists and my father’s career in that regard came to an end. However throughout this period he had maintained his employment with the AGL for a total of 50 years, retiring at 65, having had only the one full time job in his life.

Oh for the “golden era’ of local movie houses when there was a total of 15 theatres with all filled at or near to capacity every Saturday evening: Hurlstone Park 1; Canterbury 2; Campsie 2; Belmore 2; Lakemba 2; Punchbowl 2; Bankstown 3; and Yagoona 1.


Written and submitted by Noel Duncan