A Place with a Purpose
The general consensus of opinion is that I definitely had an unusual childhood. You see, my dad was a Picture Show Man — as they called them in Australia then — but unlike the movie of the same title, set in the 1930s, my experience was in the 1950s, a few years after my dad returned from his army service during WW2 in Japan and the Philippines.
Unlike other families who were uniting in the early evening, ours would walk up to Sydney’s Central train station including a little earlier on a Saturday, of course, because there was always an afternoon matinee as well. We’d board the train out to Como, on the Illawarra line and I fondly recall, in the outlying areas, how the stationmaster manually rotated wooden, rectangular blocks with the various destinations painted on them, to alert passengers of the next train’s route.
It was a more relaxed way of life and the stationmaster always had time for a smile and a hello when seeing his regulars. I can still hear the slow pahishing sound the rusty-red-coloured train made when it slithered in to settle down beside the platform, like some sighing, mythical beast hungry for more passengers. Once rested, the conductor would raise his red flag and if all was safe, he’d blow his whistle whereupon the beast would pahish again before slowly lumbering away down the tracks, through the tunnel, picking up more speed before carrying us safely to our destination.
On the days when the scheduled film programme changed, the metal film canisters for the next attraction were always waiting for us at Como Station. Another Picture Show elsewhere that had them prior to our screening would ensure they were sent on the train to be there for our arrival. I don’t recall the films ever not being there but I can only imagine there might have been a few heart-stopping moments if they’d missed the usual train for any reason. It always seemed to be part of a well-oiled machine. I think all the Picture Show men knew each other well and were aware that they all relied on each other for their bread and butter. It was a sacred chain of responsibility – a link of survival that nobody ever dared break.
Sometimes, we’d take a cab to the Picture Show but more often than not, if it wasn’t raining or there wasn’t a cab at the station, we used Shanks’s Pony. My father was a very fit man and encouraged walking but I always marvelled at how he could carry those silvery-metal canisters. They needed to be metal to be fireproof. Inside, were all the wonders of my childhood. It was not uncommon for a feature film to have two or more reels that were metal too. I could not lift one canister, even when I was older but without a murmur, he’d lift two of them and set off towards the building that would soon display the fantasies, mysteries. musicals and a whole lot more for the ever-eager public. My redheaded mum and I … trailing in his wake.
The veins in dad’s arms bulged but his strong hands held on defiantly and it was only on the rare occasion that he’d stop to take a breather – even though it would have been about a quarter of a mile or possibly more, the last part being uphill. My tall, strong daddy was my hero – he was the very important Picture Show Man
There were always two films showing, one before intermission and one afterwards, plus trailers of upcoming attractions and at matinees, funny cartoons like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry and more often than not a cowboys and Indians’ feature with actors like Gilbert Roland, one of my favourites. Apparently, this format of having double features started in the 1930s and was the standard fare for about 15 years. I seem to recall, it rarely differed in the 50s, only when there were epics like Dr Zhivago, Gone with the Wind or Ben Hur. The word INTERMISSION would pop up on the screen as part of the movie so that the audience could slake their thirst, pump up their sugar levels or just visit the rest room. It was all a ploy to ‘put bums on seats’ as the old theatre quote goes plus it saved on costs. Times were hard.
Of course, I was blissfully unaware of any of that in those days. I just enjoyed the movies and came to love my favourite actors, like the ever-sweet Doris Day, the handsome Mexican Ricardo Montalban, John Wayne, William Holden, Vivienne Leigh, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth and many others. Films like Fantasia, The Red Shoes, Annie get your Gun, National Velvet and The Wizard of Oz became part of my psyche. Today, I find it impossible to comprehend how anyone could possibly forget the wonderful 1956 production and music of The King and I with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. So many people could often be heard singing or at least humming, ‘I whistle a happy tune and hold my head up high’ for years afterwards.
Unless age restrictions were stipulated, I was allowed to watch them all. It was considered the Golden Age of Hollywood and all I ever saw on the silver screen then was a chaste kiss, nothing more. Neither kisses nor hugs ever turned into unbridled passion as they do today.
Very few people realised how much preparation went into our Picture Show, which wasn’t anything like the suburban cinemas now, all plush carpets and automated video projectors. Ours was inside a School of Arts community centre, with wooden floors. The films were advertised on huge posters outside the Show and around the area. These were plastered up by, yes, you guessed it, my dad. He’d unroll the poster, bring out his small bucket of glue and using a thick, wide brush slather the glue on till he was satisfied the wrinkles were eliminated.
My mum served in the small sweets’ shop at interval and when I was old enough, I helped her. Soft drinks were always in glass bottles and we would rinse the empties in a large metal drum filled with water and disinfectant before popping them into wooden crates to be collected and replaced.
Patrons were not always considerate though, often leaving their bottles, chocolate boxes, wrappers and potato crisps packets on the floor or under their seats at the end of the night. It all had to be collected, swept and mopped up afterwards. Yes, by my dad, with my mum and myself often helping. The same standard of cleanliness applied to the outdoor Ladies and Gents up the pathway at the back of the building. All that responsibility fell on my dad’s shoulders to ensure hygienic standards. This was often done before the following evening’s films or on a Saturday before the matinee and again for the evening show.
While I learnt to become adept at selling and making change, I probably also developed my sweet tooth in that little shop. My favourite being a small, chocolate-covered caramel, called Cobbers. The dental bills mounted but as the old joke goes, ‘I could stop eating chocolate but I’m not a quitter’. I remain a staunch chocaholic to this day and the good news is that science has realised it’s good for you. However, when I was about four it once had an alarming side effect for my parents.
I might finish helping in the sweet shop and go out the back to the projectionist’s booth to talk to my dad or dash inside to watch a cartoon or whatever was showing. That was my usual modus operandi – to slip behind the black curtains that blocked out the light from the hallway outside and take a seat somewhere among the audience. If the comfortable padded type were all occupied, I contented myself with the front rows of fold-up wooden ones. It didn’t matter because it was Show Time and it was always exciting. The lights would dim and I’d be transported into another story. On this particular day though, that’s not what happened at all.
I was only about four years old at the time but I still remember the emotions surrounding the incident afterwards and how it was related to me. My dad was able to leave the film running unattended sometimes. He always needed to be there to change reels seamlessly so that the film only continued with the briefest of pauses but there was some downtime for him during a film’s showing. On this particular day he came to the front of house, near the end of a matinee.
I don’t know where my petite, pretty mum was but I do recall at times, she did enjoy a cigarette puff or two outside. On this particular day, my dad came through as the kids streamed out at the end, laughing and giggling before waving goodbye.
“Where’s Judith?” My dad asked my mum.
“I thought she was with you?” She replied, wide-eyed.
“No … Best check inside.”
But there, all that greeted my parents were rows of empty seats. I know they ran up the aisle, looking agitatedly from left to right because being so young, I sometimes fell asleep across two seats. However, I wasn’t there.
They unlocked the sweets’ shop and quickly looking in and seeing I wasn’t there either, locked it again. They scoured the area around the building and finally decided to call the police sergeant. He told them he would send men down to the river immediately. Meanwhile, he came to see my parents, asking questions about my age, height, hair colour, what I had been wearing and so on. I can only imagine how my mum and dad felt. Perhaps, ‘frantic’ fits the bill.
I don’t know why, perhaps the sergeant’s pen ran out of ink as he was writing and my dad fetched another for him in the sweets’ shop. As he went behind the counter, he took a few steps forward and gave a happy whoop! There, way back underneath the darkest part of the counter, with a face covered in chocolate, lay little old me, fast asleep. Swooping me up in his arms, with tears in his eyes, he told the sergeant he’d found me. Bleary-eyed, I woke up slowly to my parents’ hugs, kisses and enormous relief – not to mention the happy sergeant’s laughter. It was a joyous moment but I was only aware that I had thoroughly enjoyed those chocolate caramels and being so content, had curled up and nodded off to sleep.
There were many fun moments as I grew older, like my dad, after the matinee, sometimes playing rodeos with the little kids. They’d be the steers and he’d be the cowboy. This was not an odd choice of game because my dad really had been a cowboy for a few years in his younger days, when he was driving cattle in Queensland. He would bring out the lariat and have them run around him before he’d throw it, tighten it a bit and gently draw them in. They’d want to do it repeatedly and would collapse in a fit of giggles every time the lariat encircled them, with others yelling out to him,
“Me, me, my turn, Jack! My turn!”
This, in itself, was curious to me. I would never have dreamt of calling anyone of dad’s age by his first name of John or even Jack. Dad was very ‘proper’ and expected good manners and his surname to be used by most people, especially kids. Nevertheless, for some reason, he didn’t mind the little ones addressing him that way. Often, it was difficult to make them go home, they were having such fun but dad would just tell them, “You have to go now. I have to sweep up the dead cowboys and Indians behind the screen before tonight’s show.” The kids would be wide-eyed and there was always one who would ask if he could watch. Their parents knew their kids were in safe hands though and didn’t mind if they came home a bit late on matinee days, for dad was a trustworthy man.
This fact was brought home to me very strongly once, after one matinee. I was about nine by then and one kiddie, of about six, was still sitting on the front steps sobbing his eyes out. Nevertheless, he realised he could confide in Jack. My dad sat down on the step with him and asked what was wrong. Finally, after much crying he revealed the shocking truth. By this stage, TV had become popular and the boy related how they had one and all his brothers and sisters sat on the carpet and watched it, while his mum and dad were on the couch. My dad couldn’t see the problem until he explained.
“Ya don’t understand, Jack. Me mum and dad are on the couch and they’re … they’re ‘doin’ it’.”
Both my dad and I reeled in shock. He consoled the boy and told him to stay right where he was and he’d fix it. He whispered to me to make sure the kid didn’t leave. He was going to fetch the sergeant. I can hear the sergeant’s deep voice to this day, once he’d questioned the boy and fully understood the situation.
“Don’t you worry, Mr Hawkins, I’ll get Child Services onto this immediately.” And with those words, he shepherded the boy to the police station and ensured the rest of his siblings were out of that house before nightfall. I realised, in my own childish way, that somehow, my dad was a pillar of the community, although those words were not in my vocabulary then. I just knew I was immensely proud of him. I had a good dad.
Visiting the projectionist’s booth was also interesting. These were the days of copper-coated, carbon arc rods to provide the white light for the celluloid film. The rods were changed regularly but needed aligning and adjusting correctly. If there was any kind of slip, the white light crumpled to brown on the screen. I loved watching my dad deftly changing the reels, flipping the little metal clamp, unhooking and threading the film into the projector to continue. On the odd occasion, the film’s volume would need to be adjusted. Dad would send me down to the black-curtained doorway and listen — then press a concealed buzzer to notify him: One buzz for UP to raise the sound or two buzzes for DOWN to lower it.
Dad had also once worked as a sign writer. He would take these thick glass slides out of their protective, cardboard boxes and with a practised hand, create an advertisement to be shown on the screen at interval. It might have been the local hardware store for instance. His printing was stylish and the funny faces he added to attract attention might have been the first form of modern emojis.
Some matinees, like anywhere else in the world, would attract the ‘rowdy element’ as my dad referred to them. These were usually teenage boys pushing their luck and they’d annoy the people around them in various ways. They seemed oblivious to the fact that dad could see them from the square wall gaps where the films were projected. He always knew who they were and he’d abruptly stop the film. This caused a hue and cry from the kids but he would stride down outside, through the black curtains, up to the front of the stage with a long, flexible stick, which he banged on the stage’s fluted pillars for attention. This was always followed by a deathly hush as everyone knew Jack was going to address the audience.
“Right – who’s causing all the ruckus and ruining everyone’s enjoyment of the film?” Nobody responded. “Well, unless the guilty parties admit to their rude behaviour, that’ll be the end of the matinee.”
At this, the little kids would send up a collective groan.
“I’ll ask again. Who’s responsible for spoiling the film for everyone else?” Still nothing. Often, at these times, a little kid would whirl around and excitedly shout to dad, while pointing to the rascals.
“It was them, Jack. It was them!” To which a whole chorus of kids would agree.
“Just sit down, please.” Dad would say. “I’d like the boys who were misbehaving to own up on their own. This is your last chance, too.” The silence was, as they say, deafening.
By this stage, the rowdy boys were slinking deeper into their seats, too scared to own up and be embarrassed further. It was then that my dad played his trump card.
“OK. Well, here’s the bad news. I know who you are …” At this point, he’d advance menacingly closer with this long stick and unless you own up, you’ll be sorry.” Still nothing.
Dad would then go straight to where these hooligans were and point at them directly.
“Right … you, you and you. Get out!” At this, the little kids would cheer and stomp their feet in glee. Then dad would continue.
“You are all banned from the Show for a month. I know all your parents too so I’ll be in touch with them, as well. If you’d owned up, your punishment would have only been one week.”
At these words, the creeps would uncurl from their foetal positions and hanging their heads, shuffle off down the aisle to more cheering from the little kids. Shortly thereafter, the show would resume. You didn’t mess with my dad.
I will never forget those days. They were exciting but also educational to watch the characters in their stories and how they dealt with life. I’d like to think that little kid from the bad home realised how family life should and could be from watching the films at The Picture Show. My very special place — a place with a purpose.
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