Movie Going Memories

In an effort to learn more about the history of cinema in St Andrews – and in particular about audiences and moviegoing within the town – Cinema St Andrews has produced a questionnaire, which is available both online and through the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum. We thought we would highlight here some of the recollections that we have collected so far, which illuminate aspects of St Andrews’ rich cinematic heritage.

Many of the responses recall first experiences at the cinema, primal scenes that have left an indelible mark on the moviegoer. For Anne Morris, for instance, this was a first trip with her Grandmother as a seven year old to see Pinocchio at the New Picture House. ‘Unfortunately, it was a disaster’, she recalled, ‘and I had to be led sobbing from the cinema. The sight of Pinocchio’s nose growing every time he told a lie was to me very cruel and unbearable.’ She noticed a positive outcome to this – ‘I found it very difficult to tell a fib thereafter’ – but also acknowledged that it was quite a while before she returned to the cinema.

Another respondent remembered a school treat to see Rear Window at the NPH, which left her terrified and too frightened to return to the cinema. ‘My parents were very fussy after that’, she concluded. The impact of the cinema on children’s minds is a recurring theme throughout the responses. Intriguingly, and no doubt much to his delight, Alfred Hitchcock often appeared responsible for these extreme formative responses from the local cinemagoers.

The responses tease out the minutiae of the cinemagoing experience, details that are otherwise lost; responses – smells, sounds, sights – that remain etched in the mind of the cinemagoer. The ‘smokers haven’, ‘choking cigarette smoke’, ash trays ‘attached to the back of every seat in every row’, the ‘fug’ which swirled around the cinema and ‘almost made the film appear through gauze on some occasions.’ The snacks (‘sweet papers littered the floors’), the national anthem (‘anyone that left before the anthem was deemed to be a social pariah’), ‘the lovers seats’, the children’s shows (‘wild children sat at the front’) and the queues around the block. Particular historical moments form the backdrop to these memories. For example, Cynthia Tero recalls walking home from The Cinema House in the dark as ‘the wartime blackout was in force.’

Other responses recall shifts in film history and technology, some of which have made a recent reappearance in St Andrews. For example, Valerie Douglas remembers ‘the cardboard spectacles with coloured cellophane lenses’ handed out to watch 3D films in the 1950s.

There are particular screenings that appear memorable to local residents, many of them somewhat unexpected. Pete Wilcox, a projectionist at the NPH, remembers a one off special showing of Disney’s Fantasia in the early 80s that had people queuing up ‘around the block’. The start was delayed by half an hour ‘in order to pack in his many bodies as possible’, while people were ‘actually paying to get in to stand in the aisles’. While noting that this was evidently an age before ‘health and safety’, Pete Wilcox concludes that he has never seen an audience response like this before or since.

Finally, the questionnaires reveal the changes within the town and often serve as a paean to a lost world. In particular, there are fond reminiscences of The Cinema House, but also poignant reminders of the irreversible changes that even film, that recorder of space and time, cannot prevent. Valerie Douglas writes with great affection of The Cinema House, of Jack Humphries, Alec Gourlay and Mrs Brand, the Usherette. Yet her last visit to the Cinema House was a sad one. ‘The projection was poor, I had a seat uncomfortably near the front, the seat next to mind collapsed, it was’, she concluded, ‘a very sad end to a once glamorous building.’

If you have memories of your own about film in St Andrews, we would love to hear from you.

Tom Rice