The Waterford Cinemas 1920s by Geoff Cronin
When I was a boy there were three cinemas in Waterford, ‘The Cinema’ in Broad Street, The Theatre Royal, popularly known as the Town Hall as the latter was in the same building on the Mall, and The Coliseum on Adelphi Quay. If I remember correctly films were shown at night and there was a matinee on Saturday in each of these venues. No films were shown on Sundays and during the seven weeks of Lent when all cinemas and dance halls closed down completely.
When I became interested, at about four years old, the price of admission to a matinee was four old pence in the stalls and two pence in the gallery, also known as ‘the gods’ or ‘flea hill’ depending on the venue. My first films were all silent and the procedure was that the dialogue would appear in print on the screen at intervals as the action developed and everybody read the print – aloud! Well, that is everybody who could read, which didn’t include me! I was at the stage when I could just about read my school book but not real writing. So I developed a strategy which was as follows:-
I was given sixpence when going to the cinema – fourpence for admission and tuppence for sweets – and I figured that if I brought a pal who could read quickly and if we went in ‘the gods’ for tuppence each, I could balance the books and still buy sweets.
This worked out fine and continued until I could read the text on my own, at which time I reverted to a seat in the stalls and didn’t have the problem of fleas and my erstwhile pal had to fend for himself.
The first talkie picture shown in ‘The Cinema’ Waterford was ‘The Singing Fool’, starring Al Jolson. The year was about 1928. As kids we didn’t think much of the film, though not having to read the dialogue was a change. The verdict was that there was no fights, no guns and no horses or Indians so the film didn’t make the grade as far as the kids were concerned. Our favourites were Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and cartoons like Popeye the Sailor and the cowboys like Tom Mix, Tim McCoy and Buck Jones. Most of the Saturday matinees featured a serial which lasted the whole summer holidays and a great favourite was ‘Tarzan’.
Outside all the cinemas were hawkers’ stands which sold apples, pears, plums etc. and all kinds of sweets and chocolate and the speciality outside the Coliseum was the stand which sold cooked periwinkles. These were sold by the pint or half pint measure at a penny a pint and as a bonus you got a free pin with a pint – the pin was necessary for prising the winkle out of its shell.
Saturday at the ‘Col’ was great fun. You could be sure of a cowboy film and cartoons but occasionally we got a romantic comedy and the drill was to stamp and whistle and boo whenever there was kissing or anything stupid like that. Such behaviour drew the attention of the porter cum usher cum trouble shooter. He was a large man with a shiny bald head and would flash his torch and bellow “Shut up”. He was, however greeted with a veritable hail of winkle shells aimed at his bald head causing him to beat a hasty retreat. By that time the love scene would have passed and a semblance of order restored.
Such was the devotion to the weekly episode of the serial that my young brother and I cycled eight miles to town from Woodstown every Saturday for the eight weeks of the summer holidays so as not to miss an episode and of course it was another eight miles to get home.
Before I leave the subject of the ‘Coliseum’, I should tell you that it was built originally as a roller skating rink in my mother’s time and in fact I think I have a photograph of her with a hockey stick in her hand. The feature of ‘the rink’ as it was known then was that it had a maple floor which was so valued that when it was converted into a cinema, a floor of deal was put down on top of the maple. The idea was that if roller skating became popular again the original floor would be there to the good and the place could become ‘the rink’ again.
The revival of roller skating did come, but not until the 1940s when a man called Jack Costen Built ‘the Olympia’ in Parnell Street and the craze really took off and you could go skating seven nights a week. This my sister Clare and I did and we both played roller hockey there. But like all crazes it faded out rapidly and that rink later achieved fame as the Olympia ballroom.
To return to the cinema scene ‘the pictures’ became a central part of life in Waterford. The old cinema in Broad Street was replaced by the ‘Savoy’ which had a café upstairs and it was really the place to be seen. Following the American headline, coffee became popular as opposed to tea and coffee and cakes became the order of the day or rather the evening – after the film.
To the poor of the city the cinemas were a real godsend. They were cheap, warm and comfortable and represented a complete escape from daily drudgery; a window into a world of fantasy, much of which would become reality in years to come. To put this in context, I recall hearing of a couple who got married – their home was a tenement- and their honeymoon consisted of a night at the pictures in the newly built ‘Regal Cinema’ followed by a fish supper in the local chippie.
Speaking of chips and such the reputation for the best chips in Waterford was held by a man known as ‘Thunderin’ Johnny (Corcoran). Johnny had a mobile chip fryer which he had to cart up from Peter Street where he lived, to a lamp standard in the middle of Broad Street, just outside the cinema. There he anchored the unit to the lamppost while his brother arrived with a handcart containing a barrel of peeled potatoes and a red and yellow tent plus a supply of coal and sticks. The tent was set up to enclose the entire outfit and soon one could see smoke coming from the little chimney and a bright fire could be seen over the six inch plank which served as a counter.
By seven o’clock, Johnny, red faced and sweating profusely would be going full steam ahead, cooking, serving, stoking the fire, chatting to customers and taking in the pennies and tuppences. It was not unusual for bags of chips to be taken into ‘the gods’.
By the time the film was over Johnny would be packed out to the door – if he had a door! He was an institution in the early days and his fish and chips were like no others.
As time passed and the war years came, people became that bit better off, several cafes opened up in Broad Street, Technicolor came to the cinemas; cake replaced bread at the table and fashions changed. In the midst of all this change and evolution the day came when ‘Thunderin Johnny’ was just… gone and was never replaced.
We were all growing up I suppose and with the development of audio and television round the corner, the halcyon days of cinema were fading. The last cinema to be built in Waterford was the Regina in Patrick Street. Built by the Breen family in the ’50s it is the only one surviving today. Gone are the Savoy, The Coliseum, The Royal and The Regal, but what wonderful memories they left!
©Geoff Cronin 2008
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read The Colour of Life and the previous chapters of The Black Bitch in this directory: