How Edna the big screen stripper was undone by a packet of bird seedDecember 28, 2018
How Edna the big screen stripper was undone by a packet of bird seed, writes DENIS NORDEN in his wickedly witty memoirs
For 70 years, Denis Norden, who died this year, was a British comedy institution. But, as yesterday’s extract from his magical memoirs revealed, his own life was as riotously funny as his infamous TV bloopers and out-takes. Today, in our final extract, he reveals hilarious moments from a little-known period of his life — when he was a cinema manager in the heyday of the majestic ‘Dream Palaces’ where millions flocked to watch the silver screen . . . or misbehave in the back row!
The larger cinemas in the Hyams chain featured top-line variety acts alongside the films and one undimmed memory is of Edna Squire Brown, a dignified lady who did a genteel striptease, employing trained white doves. They would flutter above her, only alighting on her whenever and wherever concealment was required
Cinemas during the Forties often saw more scenes of a sexual nature enacted in the audience than on the screen, and usherettes at the chain of London picture houses where I was in training as a manager were instructed to exercise particular discretion when shining torches along the back row, known to GIs as Hormone Alley.
Scenes played in shadows or darkness were particularly conducive to such action and I have often wondered whether this might account for the prevalence of ‘film noir’ during this period.
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Whatever the truth of that, a body of back row folk-wisdom had certainly developed among the more venturesome males of the period, some of its tips more helpful than others.
Of the only two I remember, one was the initiatory manoeuvre that could be described as ‘slide of hand’, while the other strongly recommended beginning the proceedings by kissing the nape of her neck.
Not only was it believed to promote arousal, it also allowed you to watch the picture at the same time.
According to Denis Norden, pictured, cinemas during the Forties often saw more scenes of a sexual nature enacted in the audience than on the screen
My entree into this world had come in 1939. I was brought up in Hackney, East London, where my parents had saved to send me to private school only for me to declare at 17 that I was leaving full-time education to become a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter. The only person I could think of who might possibly have some access to that world was the father of a girl I had recently taken out.
His name was Sid Hyams and together with his two brothers he owned and operated picture palaces of Renaissance-style grandeur in some of the poorest and dreariest parts of London.
He agreed to see me and suggested I come along to his office at the Gaumont State, Kilburn (‘Europe’s Newest, Largest and Most Luxurious Cinema’).
I think he must have had a word with my parents in the interim, because he nodded the manuscripts I showed him into an in-tray and made a counter-proposal.
Before launching into a career as a writer for the cinema, might it not be prudent to spend some time learning the predilections of audiences by working for a while as a cinema manager?
With that end in mind, he was prepared to put me through a training programme that would leave me conversant with every aspect of the cinema.
Starting with a course in looking after the boilers, I would progress to electrician, stagehand, projectionist, member of the front-of-house team, to Assistant Manager and, finally, General Manager.
I accepted his offer and it seemed I had made the right decision when it was announced that the Royal Command Performance, due to take place in November that year, was to be produced for the first time by Hyams’s organisation.
Their plans for it were typically ambitious. It would be staged at the Gaumont State and, with the intention of bringing Hollywood to Kilburn, American vaudeville star Eddie Cantor would be flown over to compère a bill that would include Shirley Temple, a song-and-dance duet by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and comedy from Laurel and Hardy.
Cinema presentations of the day invariably featured what was known as the ‘organ interlude’, prompted by the need to keep audiences entertained while the safety curtain was lowered and raised in accordance with fire regulations
For the finale, we would see Deanna Durbin, alone on a darkened stage and lit only by a pin-spot, singing Ave Maria, while 400 choirboys, each bearing a lighted candle, would descend from the upper circle to the stage on specially built ramps attached to the side walls of the vast auditorium.
That was the scene I was looking forward to most. But then came September 3.
So my apprenticeship began at the Gaumont State in wartime, and my blue boiler suit brought my mother close to tears every time she saw me leave the house in it. (‘Is this what all the sacrifices have been for?’)
There I was sometimes told to raise the temperature inside the cinema to promote the sales of ice cream and soft drinks. It would generally happen when the feature film was set in the tropics or the desert and it always resulted, I was told, in a rise in sales.
Superintending those sales proved one of my more difficult duties when, in 1940, I moved to the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle, as Assistant Manager. In addition to my less than perfect grasp of the monetary side, I had the daily responsibility of nominating the usherettes charged with carrying the ice cream trays.
When fully loaded with tubs and wafer-bars, the trays were a considerable weight, so it was a job the girls hated. To alleviate this, we had instituted an alphabetical rota system to ensure the work was shared out fairly.
The snag was that they could be excused this duty if it happened to be their ‘time of the month’. Accordingly, at the daily general assembly in the main foyer before the doors opened, when all the front-of-house staff would be inspected for clean uniforms and fingernails, I would consult my rota-list and read out: ‘Miss Robinson, your turn for the front stalls ice cream tray.’
Not infrequently, Miss Robinson would answer: ‘Not today, sir. Time of the month.’
I would consult my list again. ‘But, Miss Robinson, you said that two weeks ago.’
Like as not, she would fix me with that bold Elephant & Castle stare and answer: ‘So?’
Barely 18 years old and wearing my father’s dinner-suit, I was aware — as were they all — that I did not know enough about the mechanics of the matter to pursue it.
Many mothers used their local cinema as a crèche, a warm and safe place to deposit their young whenever there was a need to offload them for a few hours
‘All right, Miss Robinson. Excused ice cream tray.’
A prodigious amount of eating went on during the early evening programmes in suburban cinemas then. Mothers with baskets of food would pick up their children from school and feed them their tea while they were all watching the movie.
The consequent chomping, munching, slurping and muttered instructions were a measure of the way in which going to the pictures in those days was regarded as a family experience. Indeed, many mothers used their local cinema as a crèche, a warm and safe place to deposit their young whenever there was a need to offload them for a few hours.
I still treasure the memory of a small boy tugging at the sleeve of one of our tall Trocadero doormen to ask: ‘Please, Mister. Mum says what time is the big picture over three times?’
The larger cinemas in the Hyams chain featured top-line variety acts alongside the films and one undimmed memory is of Edna Squire Brown, a dignified lady who did a genteel striptease, employing trained white doves. They would flutter above her, only alighting on her whenever and wherever concealment was required.
Although it didn’t happen on my watch, I was warned about certain occupants of the sixpenny seats who used to turn up for her Saturday night performances carrying packets of birdseed.
One week, the Trocadero’s on-stage attraction was a full-scale circus. The first problem was finding suitable accommodation for all the performers and animals in wartime South-East London. Our never-fazed stage manager Jim Pitman accomplished this successfully until it came to the question of housing the three ‘forest-bred lions’. After being turned down by every warehouse and factory in the neighbourhood, Jim was driven to keeping their cages in the back-stage area, flush up against the rear wall.
When a boilerman experienced the heart-stopping sensation of a large, furry paw silently reaching out to him while he was going from one side of this darkened area of the stage to another, I had notices hastily printed warning staff and visitors to exercise caution when crossing the stage.
What made this makeshift arrangement really memorable, however, was that we were showing an MGM movie that week.
Every time the film’s opening came on screen and MGM’s Leo emitted his trademark roars, from somewhere behind him came a trio of answering roars. It impressed audiences no end, while Jim and I enjoyed some time-wasting sessions trying to guess what the visitors were saying to Leo.
‘Rear Row Rita’ once contacted our Lost Property with a view to recovering a missing pair of pale pink panties, we never once received an inquiry in respect of missing shoes
One mystery I never managed to solve was the inordinate number of ladies’ shoes that found their way into a cinema’s Lost Property cupboard at the end of each day.
My apprenticeship as an usher had shown me how many female patrons would gratefully slip off their footwear as soon as they’d settled in their seats, and that the steep rake of the auditorium could see their shoes slide forward underneath the row in front and sometimes further. But how could they neglect to retrieve them when the lights went up?
To deepen the mystery further, in all the hours I spent bidding a managerial farewell to patrons as they made their way out of the cinema, I never came across one who emerged shoeless.
What’s more, although a regular Saturday night patron known to the Gaumont, Watford, staff as ‘Rear Row Rita’ once contacted our Lost Property with a view to recovering a missing pair of pale pink panties, we never once received an inquiry in respect of missing shoes.
They would pile up in the cupboard and every now and again we sent a representative batch of them to the Salvation Army.
Cinema presentations of the day invariably featured what was known as the ‘organ interlude’, prompted by the need to keep audiences entertained while the safety curtain was lowered and raised in accordance with fire regulations.
It was sometimes a laboriously slow process so, as the curtain descended, up from the circular pit in front of it, to the strains of the organist’s signature tune, would rise the Mighty Wurlitzer.
The organ itself could verge on the spectacular. Shaped like an enormous, intricately fluted jelly mould, its panels were illuminated from within, in constantly changing pastel colours that nicely set off its occupant’s white dinner jacket.
However, an incident that revealed the Wurlitzer could occasionally be something less than Mighty happened one afternoon when I was acting as relief manager at the Troxy, Limehouse. At the end of the interlude, the organ’s lift mechanism failed and the organist had to remain perched up in the air during the film, while all staff searched for the winch handle that would wind him down manually.
After I had been at the Gaumont, Watford, for a while, the trade magazine Kine Weekly printed a few paragraphs about me, headed: ‘Britain’s Youngest Cinema Manager.’ That was mainly because most of the other managers were now in the forces and, sure enough, late in 1942, I received my own call-up papers.
I attained the dizzying rank of Leading Aircraftman and as I moved around Britain with the RAF, I learned a popular trick for saving money on the obligatory telephone call home to let your family know you were safe.
This was to make it a personal call to your own name. That way they knew it was you putting in a call and in reply to the operator’s ‘I have a personal call for Mr D. Norden’, they would simply deny you were there and the call would cost nothing.
It worked several times for me, though I gave it up after my mother answered the call and said to the operator: ‘No, I’m sorry he’s not here but please tell him he should wear his overcoat in this weather.’
- Adapted from Clips From A Life by Denis Norden, published by HarperPerennial at £10.99 © Denis Norden 2008. To order a copy, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
The saucy song for the lonely
Out of all the song parodies I later aired on the BBC panel game My Music, the one which caused most ructions dated from this time and was sent to me by an ex-member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
It was a version of Are You Lonesome Tonight?, which actually predated Elvis by quite a few decades and had apparently been such a great wartime favourite of this former WAAF and her friends that they still sang it at reunions.
It was less popular with feminist listeners to My Music who sent in such a torrent of disapproving letters upon its broadcast that I hesitated about including it here. Not for long, though.
Are you lonesome tonight?
Is your bra far too tight?
Are your corsets all falling apart?
Does the size of your chest
Wear big holes in your vest,
Does your spare tyre reach up to your heart?
Are your stockings all wrinkled,
Your shoes wearing thin?
Are your knickers held up
With a big safety-pin?
Are your dentures so worn
They drop down when you yawn?
Then no wonder you’re lonesome tonight.
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