Guiding lights of a golden era

USHERETTES at the cinema would guide you to your seat with light from their torch during the day's decades ago when Ipswich had several large cinemas.

David Kindred

USHERETTES at the cinema would guide you to your seat with light from their torch during the day's decades ago when Ipswich had several large cinemas.

During the break between films the same person would sell ice cream in a cardboard tub with a wooden spoon or a little carton of fruit juice.

A visit to the cinema multiplex today is a more 'do it yourself' arrangement where you find your way in through a maze of corridors and doors to find your seat already armed with refreshments purchased in the foyer. I know several who have not realised they are in the wrong 'screen' until the film starts!

The days of huge audiences packed into the likes of the Gaumont, Odeon or Ritz in Ipswich, were recalled in Kindred Spirits recently by Brian Dean. The work of the usherettes is recalled by Valerie Porter, of Shafto Road, Ipswich. Her mother had to work hard to keep her family together and during that time formed a friendship which will last beyond the grave.

Valerie said: “My mother started working in cinemas in Ipswich in 1938, beginning at the Hippodrome in St Nicholas Street. In the following years after having three children she also worked as an usherette in The Central Cinema, Princes Street, The Picture House, Tavern Street, the Gaumont, St Helens Street and the Odeon, Lloyds Avenue and at the Ritz where she became a cashier.

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“I was eight years old in 1952 when my father left my mother to bring up my brother, sister and myself all on her own. In those days she didn't receive any financial help, so after doing a cleaning job in the mornings, cinema work was a second job that used to start at about 12.30pm. She used to have a tea break of an hour in which she used to rush home to get us some tea and then return to work until about 9.30pm leaving us with my grandmother. We were very poor financially, but we were at least able to go to the cinema with the complimentary tickets she used to get each week!

“I can only remember her working at the Ritz with a wonderful group of people. Mr Albutt was the manager, Mrs Russell was assistant manager and there were ladies called Jackie, Ann, Pansy and a doorman, who I'm sure many remember, Freddie Sharpe.

“As an usherette, mum used to sell ice cream in the interval. She finally ended up as a cashier. She was known to the staff and many regular customers as 'Debby' and the staff at the Ritz became like an extended family, all understanding the circumstances. As we got older I can remember sitting in the foyer waiting for her to finish work and not realising until much later in life how very hard it must have been for her.

“There are many stories mum told us about the characters that used to attend the cinema regularly. I can see her now in her uniform, which they all wore then, holding her torch. At the 'Saturday Morning Cinema' children used to go for 6d admission and there used to be a birthday club. If it was your birthday you used to go on stage and receive a card. The noise of the children getting excited watching cowboys and Indians was deafening, but they were such happy times.

“She made some lovely friends over the years, one being very special whom she first met at the Hippodrome in 1938 and remained friends with until sadly mum died in 2005. The friendship had lasted 67 years, but didn't end there as her friend has booked a plot close to her at the Millennium Cemetery. This lady I stay in touch with as she was such a loyal friend to my mum. We have now named a seat at the Regent to the memory of mum and it reads: “an usherette whose light will shine forever”. It is number J19.