Memories of 1950's cinema, and murder?
I'd stayed up late to watch an old film starring Tod Slaughter on Channel 4. They don't make films like that any more, I thought as the end credits came up - and it set me off thinking about the days when every neighbourhood had its own cinema, or picture house as we used to call them.
Our local picture house was the Empire. The Empire was a small independent theatre, not tied to any of the national cinema chains, and consequently the films they showed there weren't exactly the latest releases. However, you always got full measure for your money at the Empire. A typical evening's programme there consisted of a cartoon, a newsreel, a comedy short or travelogue, and two full-length feature films.
The manager of the Empire was a short, stocky, sallow-faced chap with a thin black moustache. He always wore a shiny, ill-fitting, evening dress suit, with a stiff white shirt and black bow tie. Dressed so, he bore such a close resemblance to a chimpanzee that to his regular patrons he was known affectionately as Monkey.
I'll never forget my first visit to the Empire. Monkey was standing on guard outside the manager's office as my grandmother ushered me into the foyer. As soon as he spotted us, Monkey strode across the foyer, and after swapping a few pleasantries with my grandmother he escorted me to the pay-booth where, in exchanged for the thruppenny bit I gave her, Gladys the cashier, (a blonde-haired young woman, who also took on the role of the ice-cream lady during the interval), issued me with a ticket to the Saturday afternoon children's matinee.
I attended the children's matinees throughout my infant years; and occasionally, when they considered the programme to be suitable for a child of my years, my parents took me to an evening performance.
When I was old enough to be allowed out on my own at night, my best mate, Bobby the Bogey, and me started going to the Empire on a regular basis. We went there every Monday and Thursday, as those were the days they changed the programme. They also changed the programme on Sunday evening, when they showed two 'X' certificate horror films - but you had to be over sixteen years of age to get in to see those, so Bobby and I had to make do with gawping at the lurid posters on the 'Forthcoming Attractions' hoarding on the forecourt, and leave the rest to our imagination.
The first time we got in to see the Sunday night horror films is another event I can clearly recall. Not only was it my fourteenth birthday, it was also the day that Bobby the Bogey wore his first pair of long trousers. Fired up by the auspiciousness of the occasion, the poster advertising “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “It came from Outer Space” drew Bobby and me towards the Empire like two cats stalking a giant rat.
'Let me go first,' I said to Bobby, as we peered over at the Empire from the doorway of Nutbrown's newsagents. 'Give me two minutes, then follow me in.'
I crossed the road and walked up the forecourt with my eyes fixed on the empty foyer beyond the glass doors. Although there had been no sign of Monkey, as soon as I set foot in the foyer he was standing there, blocking my way to the pay-booth - to this day I swear he materialised from nowhere.
'How old are you?' He asked.
'Sixteen,' I replied with my fingers crossed tightly behind my back.
'Right, go and get your ticket,' he said, thumbing over his shoulder at the pay-booth.
I bought a ticket from Gladys and stood, waiting for Bobby, in the shadows by the entrance to the front stalls
Monkey was waiting too.
'Good evening, sir,' he said, opening the glass door to admit Bobby into the foyer. 'And how old might you be, may I ask?'
'Fourteen,' Bobby replied, taken completely off guard by Monkey's exaggerated politeness - and my heart sank faster than one of Mrs Lovett's meat pies.
'You have to be sixteen to watch tonight's films,' Monkey said sternly. 'How old are you?'
Bobby stood there with his mouth wide open, but no words came out.
'You - can't - come - in - unless - you - are - six - teen,' Monkey said in a slow drawl, moving his head from side to side as he spoke. 'How - old - are - you?'
'Six - teen,' Bobby somehow managed to reply.
'Right, go and get your ticket,' Monkey said, letting out a deep sigh.
Little would we have guessed that just over a year later we would be paying our last visit to the Empire.
The Empire's sudden closure aroused a great deal of controversy throughout our neighbourhood. On the Saturday night it had been business as usual, “The Ship that Died of Shame” plus full supporting programme, but on the Sunday evening the doors stayed locked. Bobby and me were among the small crowd of regular patrons queuing on the forecourt. Behind the glass doors there was no sign of Monkey or Gladys the cashier, even though “Tarantula” and “The Beast with Five Fingers” were advertised as that evening's fare on the 'Forthcoming Attractions' hoarding.
When it finally became obvious that the place wasn't going to open the queue gradually dispersed, and eventually there was only Bobby the Bogey and me left. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and wandered off in the direction of Luigi's milk bar.
Throughout the following week our neighbourhood was rife with rumours regarding the Empire's sudden closure. Some folk claimed that Monkey had disappeared along with the week's takings, some said he had eloped with Gladys the cashier and others reckoned he had run off with Gladys and the week's takings. Mrs Lovett, who ran the chip shop over the road from the Empire, was telling her regular customers that her gentleman friend, who had something to do with the police force, had told her that the local Bobbies had had Monkey tagged as a 'regular little ladykiller' for a long while, and he'd gone on to say that he wouldn't have been surprised if Monkey had polished Gladys off. Mrs Lovett even claimed to have had a visitation, in the form of a dream in which she had seen Monkey bludgeon Gladys to death with her own torch and then dispose of her lifeless body in the Empire's boiler before making off into the night.
It was a long while before Bobby the Bogey and me went to the pictures again after the Empire closed. We could have started going to another picture house - there were plenty of them within a twenty-minute walk or a tuppenny bus ride - but it wouldn't have been the same, would it? And besides, Bobby and me had left school that summer, and once we'd started working for a living we began to develop other interests, if you know what I mean?
A month or so after the Empire closed, the building caught fire and was completely gutted. The fire set off another round of rumours - which, if nothing else, was good for business at Mrs Lovett's chip shop. This time Mrs Lovett was telling her regular customers that the co-owners of the Empire, (Louis Brunton, a local fruit and veg wholesaler, and Alderman Rigby, our neighbourhood's City Councillor), had had a fall-out, over some money that had gone missing just before the Empire closed. And she said her gentleman friend from the police force had told her the local Bobbies had been keeping a close eye on Louis Brunton since the night of the fire.
After the fire the building was found to be in such a dangerous condition that it had to be demolished. One day it was there, the next it was gone forever. A couple of years later the council built a block of high-rise flats on the site. They named the flats Empire Tower, and they made a great song and dance about Alderman Rigby officially opening the place. I didn't go to the opening ceremony - that sort of thing has never been my cup of tea - but, according to our local paper, a large crowd tuned out to witness the proceedings.
Many years later I spotted Monkey having a quiet drink with a woman in the Mitre at the back of the cathedral. He was wearing a camelhair overcoat and a pair of loud checked trousers. He'd shaven off his moustache and his hair was noticeably thinner, but it was Monkey all right. The woman with him looked a bit like Gladys, (she had blonde hair, and there was something about her presence that suggested that she was used to handling cash), but it wasn't her. I was on the verge of going over to ask him about the Empire's closure - but my reluctance to intrude upon the couple's intimate conversation held me back.
I never did solve the mystery of the Empire's sudden closure. If Bobby the Bogey had been with me the night I spotted Monkey in the Mitre, I bet he would have gone over and asked him - Bobby wasn't a one for standing on ceremony, nor adhering to social etiquette. But, on the other hand, I suppose you've got to accept that there are some questions that will crop up during the course of your life that are destined to remain unanswered, don't you think?