East End Memories


The Hackney Empire


The interval came immediately following the completion of the turn of the up and coming act. The curtains would close on the stage after the up and coming had taken several curtain calls. By now, I was eager for he or she to be gone, as the interval was a busy time and I had things to do along and much to be enjoyed.

Once the concluding music had been played, the various members of the band would make their way through the little door under the stage and go off presumably for a well-earned drink and a smoke. Meanwhile, the house lights would come up and there would be great stirrings among the members of the audience. Many would spring into action and be seen running to the various bars that were now open for business and strategically positioned throughout the theatre. The wise patrons would be walking to the bar since they had heeded the neatly written little advertisements placed everywhere throughout the theatre prior to the start of the show suggesting that they avoid the crush and had ordered their drinks in advance. Now these thoughtful and deserving souls would be moving at a leisurely pace towards the bar of their choice with the knowledge that they would not be joining the screaming horde of less fortunate patrons at the bar, who would be screaming for attention, but would find their drinks waiting for them, along with a card with the number neatly written on which corresponded to the one that they had been given earlier.

My father would be off and running to collect his drink once the interval came. My mother rarely drank alcohol and certainly did not do so while at the theatre. My father was a predictable man and we knew that he would take his time in doing this, as he would disappear, as my mother put it, for a smoke and also, and more importantly, to enjoy a second or even a third drink. At that time in his life, my father drank a great deal and, again, as my mother used to say never knew when to stop. I have to agree with her. He never knew when to stop, but more of this later.

Other members of the audience would search out some fresh air during the interval and make their way outside and stand on the steps of the theatre to enjoy some conversation with their partners and friends. Many went outside since they preferred to enjoy their cigarettes in a less confined space.

When I attended infant school, one teacher demonstrated amazing insensitivity to certain needs of her charges. When a child wanted to be excused from the room to go to the toilet, this teacher would make much of the request and refer to such a child as a leaky baby. At the stage of the interval, I noticed that some of the audience would leap from their seats and make beelines to the various toilets positioned about the theatre. I used to think to myself that obviously they had been leaky babies during their infancy and obviously had never grown out of it. However as I have aged, I regret my dismissal of the needs of these poor souls and now humbly beg their pardon.

I remember one time as a child verbally expressing my sympathy and concern for the plight of women and found it to be received with a less than pleasure. What I had noticed at the theatre was there never seemed to be a sufficient number of toilets available to ladies since there would always be a long queue waiting to get into the place. After all, I reasoned, men were in and out in a matter of minutes and obviously did not suffer from the same problem. Wasn’t this considered unfair? When I mentioned this to my mother, I was told to hush. Obviously, I was making my feelings known too loudly and my choice of conversation was not considered not to be suitable or polite at that time.

Ice Cream LadyWhile all this activity was going on, I had my own task to pursue. What I enjoyed best about the interval was my visit to the ice cream lady. The ice cream lady or ladies would come out from wherever they were kept during the show and carried trays of ice creams, sweets and orange drinks before them in a tray. They would position themselves throughout the auditorium and a queue would soon form before them. Since I was young and remarkably nimble in those days, I would be amongst the first to present myself to my favourite lady. I cannot remember much about how she looked but I do recall that she always gave me a delightful smile and always asked me how I was and we would chat for a minute or two. I think that she would ask me my opinion of the various acts that I had seen and I would amuse and entertain the members of the queue with my critique with ease. My discourse would generally be greeted with laughter and often I would receive some extra sweets from an appreciative audience member. My mother would not be too pleased at my performance since she felt that I was holding up those eager to purchase their ice creams and would suggest that I not repeat it during our next visit. Of course, I did not listen and was ready to be as precocious and as pretentious the next time we went to the Hackney.

While all these activities were going on, the safety curtain would start to come down and seal off the stage and backstage areas from the auditorium. It was the law that the safety curtain should be brought down during the interval. It is interesting to note that the curtain in those days was rung down while the safety curtain was brought down. Its purpose was to isolate the fire by impeding its spread and so limit any damage. Anyway, whichever verb used, the safety curtain would come down to ensure that it was in good working order and would be sure to function in the advent of a fire at the theatre. As a child, I never quite understood why this heavy wall-like structure was called a curtain. I was obviously not aware that words often had broader meanings than the obvious. The safety curtain at the Hackney and at many other theatres at that time doubled as a screen for the projection of a number of glass slides, which would advertise local businesses. I really used to enjoy the slide show and it would be a great source of amusement to me. As a result, I had to be back in my seat from my visit to the ice cream lady before the first slide appeared onto the curtain-cum-screen.

Safety Curtain (of the Alhambra, Bradford), showing an advertising projection panel

I always enjoyed this pre-commercial television form of advertising. The majority of them were homemade and absolutely dreadful in their amateur way. Even at my young age, I was able to see that these slides were totally and utterly without style and cruelly I would have a good laugh at their expense.

What was especially amusing about these slides was that they lacked any semblance of professionalism. Even at my young age I could see this. They were homemade and the work of pure amateurs and lacked any sense of composition. From amongst the myriad of slides presented over a ten-minute period, my favourite was the one that advertised a restaurant within walking distance of the theatre. The slide was especially cluttered. At the top of the slide, written in bad printing, a caption promised patrons a hearty meal at popular prices in a quiet atmosphere either before or after the show. Under the writing, there was a picture showing about ten people jammed into a booth. Each had a glass raised in the air and this and the inane smiles on their faces were meant to prove to us that they were having the time of their lives. As amusing as this scene was, what actually would cause me to totally and utterly collapse with painful laughter was the waiter standing in the foreground. The fellow stood there and was directing our attention to the jovial crowd in the booth. It wasn’t the idiotic grin on his face or the way he stood with his arm outstretched pointing the way to the jolly gang that caused my sides to ache. What would reduce me to a boneless jelly was his choice of dress. However, it wasn’t the white shirt with the large billowing sleeves, baggy trousers and large black boots that he wore, which brought on the myth. It wasn’t even the ridiculous and highly colourful spotted kerchief bedecking his head that was the cause. No, this was seen merely as something amusing and silly.

What was the real killer and what elevated this ludicrous picture to a permanent place in my memory was the presence of the large golden earring worn in his right ear. For some unknown reason, the presence of that earring made the scene seem even more ridiculous and surreal, if possible, and would cause me to collapse with laughter. What is even more crazy is that I gave this slide a great deal of thought at the time and try as I might, I could not understand what a gypsy was doing in the picture, especially since the slide was singing the praises of an Italian restaurant. I remember asking my teacher if gypsies were found in Italy and asking what Italian traditional dress looked like. I cannot remember what the poor woman’s answer was, but I suspect that she was of no help and probably thought it odd that a child would be asking such questions. Anyway, I never got any help with my questions from the teacher or from anyone else for a number of years, but I did eventually get the answers that I was looking for. Naturally I begged my parents to take me to that restaurant, but sadly they refused. I suspect that this was from fear that I would show them up, which I suspect would have been the case.

The other slides were no better in production and design. One such slide was especially amusing since it advertised the latest fashions direct from Paris. What amused me most about this slide was that the model was an old aged pensioner who wore support hose. Madame was seen examining some ugly creation in an admiring manner, which my mother said was far too young for her, while a sales girl (and please remember that this took place long before sales girls became sales assistants and then eventually elevated to the level of associates) looked on while pointing knowingly to the fine stitching to be found at the hem.

There were many such slides. Some advertised shoes, other advised hats or furniture but each was badly produced and far too funny to be taken seriously. One small picture of a furniture shop contained so many objects jammed into a small area for a young couple to choose from that the viewer seated in the theatre would have no idea what was actually available to the serious buyer.

Finally, another gem was for a restaurant where simpler food would be presented for the hungry patron along with a suggestion that they visit the establishment after the show to sample the wares. Here, a frying pan full of sizzling sausages would flash on the curtain. What caused me to laugh was not so much the slide, but rather my mother’s reaction to it. Each time that she saw this slide, she would have the same response. It would annoy her very much.

My mother, in those days, was mildly overweight and did not eat in the healthiest of manners. This would certainly change in the late 1960s when she would discover margarine, wheat bread and low fat products and would ban all other types of foods from the house. As a result of this nouveau healthier lifestyle my mother lost weight and lived well into her late eighties and in a healthy state. However, in those days, she would declare that this slide made her hungry and she would say that her hunger pangs interfered with her enjoyment of the rest of the show. I never noticed this myself, as she seemed to laugh and enter into the sing-a-longs with great gusto during the second half. Mind you, we were, I was happy to say, certain to go for eats after the show, but generally not at the gruesome restaurants advertised during the interval.

Eventually the slide show would come to a close and the safety curtain would rise slowly above the presidium. Those patrons that had spent time in the bars and elsewhere would now regain their seats and there would develop an excited buzz about the auditorium. Meanwhile the members of the band would clamber out through the doorway under the stage and find their places in the pit. There would be a repeat tuning up session once more, but it would be mercifully shorter than that prior to the first half. The audience would now settle down and turn once more to their programmes. Suddenly the bandleader would appear and he and the members of the band would be given a rousing round of applause. Following their bow, the leader would tap the rostrum once more with his baton, raise his arms and as he brought his arms down, the band would strike up a short overture announcing the start of the second half of the show.

Continue to Part four - The Second Half

Back to Part two - The First Half

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins