Leiston Film Theatre: Wayne Burns’s new book looks at its first 100 years
- Credit: Archant
With Suffolk’s oldest purpose-built cinema 100 years young in 2014, now is the perfect time to tell its story. STEVEN RUSSELL meets the chronicler of its history – who as a boy turned his parents’ shed into a theatre and still loves putting on a show
Wayne Burns doesn’t dodge the tricky issues. Asked if he ever imagined chalking up 21 years and counting at Leiston Film Theatre, he suggests it’s almost a miracle he ever returned for a second day. “My words to myself at the end of my first day were ‘What the hell have I done?!’ The place was in a dire state of repair and neglect. The decoration was dated. It was filthy. It really was what I would have classed a flea-pit. It’s easy for people to come in now and see how wonderful it is, but if only we could rewind time and show them what it was like 21 years ago, and realise the journey we’ve been on…”
And what a journey: packed with highs and lows, laughs and sighs, and plenty of hard graft. The results can be seen of a huge amount of work over the years by staff, Leiston Film Theatre Support Club (it’s raised £140,000 in 21 years), other well-wishers and of course the town council – which saved the picture-house by buying it in 1976 and investing to keep it going.
It’s well worth the 18p a week or so it currently costs each council tax payer, reckons manager Wayne, who’s glad he stayed and is looking forward to the 100 events planned to celebrate the centenary.
There’s also a big dream for 2014: to build a multi-purpose studio at the back of the 301-seat theatre that can be used for smaller events and make life better for dance groups, the pantomime cast (the show’s a highlight of the year) and other users.
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But that’s for the future. Now, we’re looking back at the first 100 years – captured in Wayne’s fascinating book Spilling the Popcorn. It’s a true labour of love.
THE first purpose-built cinemas in Britain dated from 1911 – just three years before Suffolk’s first palace of delights opened. By 1914, cinema admissions were pushing the 20-million mark and this had caught the eye of Frank Egerton Walker. He was a senior staff member at Richard Garrett and Sons Ltd, the successful Leiston engineering firm, and his idea to bring cinema to the town excited investors. Land was bought in Aldeburgh Road for £430, Wayne reports, and Leiston Picture House was built in less than six months for £3,057 and eight shillings. Electricity was generated by a gas engine driving a belt dynamo.
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The grand opening came on Tuesday, October 27, 1914, with workmen toiling almost until the last minute. It looked the part, reckons Wayne. “This really was a picture palace – not quite as grand as those in the major cities, but certainly a marvellous spectacle for this industrial Suffolk town.”
The first film shown was a Keystone production called Wanted a House, with accompaniment by pianist Leslie Tolhurst. Other short films included The Battle of the Week and Memories that Haunt.
In the front of the stage was an “orchestra pit” – actually only four feet by nine – where the pianist played during films or live performances.
It’s thought the theatre had 700 seats: “luxurious” ones at the back of the auditorium, standard seats in the middle and cheap ones at the front that were like benches and known as the “tuppenny crush” because patrons had to bunch up.
The first manager didn’t stay long. He was succeeded in 1915 by William S Hammick, a “well dressed and groomed man, who did not tolerate unruly behaviour or noise during the films and wouldn’t hesitate in throwing naughty children out of the cinema,” reports Wayne.
“It’s also been brought to my attention that this manager had a softer side too and sometimes, when the directors’ backs were turned, he would allow a few children, who couldn’t afford to go to the cinema, to sneak into the cheap seats during the quieter shows.”
Drawing on intriguing details from official minutes, the book charts the financial ups and downs over the years. In 1924, for instance, staff remained loyal despite wages being cut to slash costs. The cinema itself was even offered as security against a loan. A few years later, though, things were on the up and shareholders were enjoying decent dividends.
Throughout, the theatre seems to have recognised the need to move with the times. By 1930, it was clear silent films were on the way out. A system from the Gaumont Company Ltd was arranged. It cost £900 for a 10-year licence, plus £290 for two new projectors. Business was healthy and by the end of 1932 the mortgage was cleared, allowing for some improvements – including three rows of top-price seats upholstered in red mohair velvet.
The spring of 1935 brought new stage curtains, with a winding mechanism that led back to the projection room.
The Picture House appears to have stayed open during the Second World War, “packed out night after night, with customers queuing along the High Street and around into Cross Street to catch the latest newsreels, cartoons and main feature. The programme would run for three hours and soldiers would be permitted to perch on sandbags in the aisles when all the seats had been sold”.
Wayne writes: “The groundbreaking impact of Technicolor feature films also helped to boost cinema attendances at the beginning of the 1940s, with the big-screen classics The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind bringing huge crowds into the Picture House.” The thirst for escapism during post-war austerity saw the theatre enjoy its highest-ever admission figures. The period also saw the switch from dynamo power to mains electricity!
New sound equipment, two new projectors and other equipment – installed in 1949 at a cost of £1,370, and the very best the directors could afford – was still in use in 1988!
Frank Walker died in 1956. Wayne suggests he had for 42 years been “the driving force behind the operation… an astute visionary”.
In 1965, after seven years in the projection room, Peter Free became manager. The theatre was in his blood. Father Albert (Toby) had joined in 1916 as an apprentice projectionist. He married a cashier called May – and they had Peter.
During the latter part of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s admissions fell significantly, “with attendances dwindling to literally a handful of customers on occasions”. In 1974, with the directors blaming TV for their predicament, Leiston Town and Suffolk Coastal District councils were sounded out about buying the cinema, the two adjoining shop units and the manager’s house.
The former would emerge as the saviour, buying Leiston Picture House for £12,500 in April, 1976. “It took great conviction to take such a bold step… There is little doubt that, without such commitment, Leiston would have almost certainly lost its cinema.”
The cinema was in a poor state of repair, though sound. Improvements followed, including the enlargement of the stage, a new screen and sound system – “which, as the records state, had to be completed in time for the arrival of the 1978 re-release of The Sound of Music!”
There was even time to think about a new name. A list of possibilities compiled by the town clerk included Moulin and Metropole. “Somehow, The Leiston Palladium, or The Savoy, Leiston, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a Picture House, or as it was ultimately decided considerably later in 1983, Film Theatre.”
The late 1970s brought the latest films to town – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, Grease – and… er… regular Sunday-night soft porn films.
The venue also hosted live events. New dressing rooms were added in the early 1980s, paid for with a bank loan, and there was a new boiler and stage lights. “Takings had increased since the council bought the Picture House in 1976, when ticket sales grossed a pitiful £5,716 – in fact, they had increased by £7,600 in the first year alone. Now, eight years later, this figure had increased to around £20,000, so there were definitely more people visiting. However, the operation was still running at a loss…” Wayne reckons much was down to appearance. “I believe that, despite the considerable efforts that the Town Council were making, the renamed Film Theatre had a ‘flea-pit’ stigma attached to it and it looked tired, shabby and needed re-branding – giving the cinema a new name was one thing, but what it really needed was a new identity and, thankfully, a helping hand, to the tune of £50,000 was on its way.”
By 1988 (when ticket prices were £1.60 and 80p) building work was well under way on the nearby Sizewell B nuclear plant. A letter arrived from the Central Electricity Generating Board, offering £50,000 to spend on the theatre. It paid for improvements such as a new 35mm projector and a Dolby sound system. It might have been a “community sweetener”, Wayne accepts, but who would turn it down? The years that followed brought many ups and downs, but new town councillor Joan Girling helped with optimism and drive in the early 1990s, says Wayne. Which is where he comes in. An assistant manager was sought. A certain 22-year-old – a projectionist from Aldeburgh – was shortlisted.
Wayne was born in Aldeburgh in 1970, the son of a milkman, and a waitress and cleaner. Each year he was taken to shows on Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier – where stars such as The Krankies and Cannon and Ball appeared – and he caught the theatre and variety bug.
He remembers being 11 or 12 when his dad took him to an open day at Aldeburgh Cinema – where he was then bitten by the celluloid bug.
To cut a long story short, cinema managing director Laetitia Gifford would nurture the potential of this young enthusiast, as would projectionist Neville Parry – “someone who installed a love for the job into you, while training you in the craft of being a true showman”.
For Christmas, 1983, Wayne got a silent super 8 projector and three short films – Batman and Robin, a Tweety Pie and Sylvester cartoon, and a Cary Grant western. He’d record his own soundtracks.
Later that year he transformed the garden shed at home in Franklin Road into a cinema, producing publicity leaflets and showing films for local youngsters!
After leaving school, and Lowestoft College, Wayne became a Dairy Crest milkman before getting his chance in the Aldeburgh projection room as a sideline. He’d also squeeze in an afternoon Punch and Judy enterprise on Aldeburgh beach! Soon came a parting of the ways with Dairy Crest and he was offered a position as projectionist and caretaker at Aldeburgh. Cue three enjoyable years, before that advert appeared, seeking an “assistant to the manager” at Leiston.
Wayne started on Monday, May 25, 1992, encountering conditions we can perhaps call Dickensian. “I wouldn’t say that Leiston Film Theatre was entirely derelict, but even the fleas had left the pit!”
Fortunately, the town council was ready to initiate improvements – and the range of confectionery and drinks was widened, too. Wayne even won a personal crusade to introduce his beloved popcorn!
He started to book the films and produce a monthly programme. And he began to realise the value of the media in spreading the word – concocting “a number of exaggerated ‘tales’ to entice the column centimetres!” Heavy promotion work around Christmas, 1993, brought many full houses for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. When he realised Leiston had taken more money than The Plaza in Regent Street it made a good news angle.
Mind you, a spokesman for the Plaza explained that other West End cinemas had shown the film before them, which might have affected audience figures. “Precisely, but who cared. Spotting this fact and manipulating it to our advantage had made the news and provided several more packed screenings before we finished playing the film.”
Later in the year came a successful challenge to have the Robin Williams comedy Mrs Doubtfire reduced from a “12” classification to a PG – “not for the sake of appropriate content, but for the sake of publicity and the cash tills!”
Wayne recalls: “We gained so much publicity that people were travelling from all over the county to watch the film in Leiston…”
In 1994, Peter Free retired after 30 years as manager “and then came in to cover for me on the following evening!” Wayne officially became manager on April 1.
A bold decision in 1994 to take The Lion King from its release date (committing to a four-week run) paid off by breaking box office records and running out of popcorn. In the summer of 1995 came the first of a few (popular) “ladies’ nights”. They helped the theatre make its first profit since the council bought it.
The auditorium was very tired and dated, but a major renovation in 2001 brought new carpets, attractive wallcoverings and better seating.
The chance that November to screen Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from its UK release date had customers queueing along Leiston High Street for two weeks solid, “breaking all our existing box office records in the process and, over the following 10 years, the Film Theatre was the only independent cinema locally to screen all seven films from their relevant release dates”. Over the years there were sell-out performances with Sooty, and shows featuring artistes such as Chas ‘n’ Dave. You’ll have to read the book for the detailed stories about what went smoothly and what didn’t… (“I found Patrick Moore to be quite rude”.)
In 2003 the Film Theatre Support Club undertook its biggest challenge: replacing ancient lighting equipment and providing automated tracking – “we were still winding the curtains by hand from the projection room!” With sound terrible, a new Dolby Digital Surround EX system was installed in 2007.
More improvements: taking over the adjoining hairdressing salon to create a foyer – the Peter Free Foyer – which opened in 2009. It was a team effort, with labour and materials provided by supporters, staff and sponsors. The project didn’t cost the town a penny. Wayne got one of his long-held wishes in 2010: to have the name of the town in the signage on the front.
There’s never time to rest. The digital revolution was sweeping through the industry and it was clear Leiston had to follow. Digital projection equipment would cost a whopping £75,000. The town council had a fund for projector replacement that could give £25,000, the support club was able to donate £11,000, and it also offered to service the repayments on a loan taken out by the council. “I cannot express how grateful I was to the Support Club committee for such an amazing statement,” admits Wayne.
Leiston Film Theatre went digital and 3D in September, 2010.
Wayne and long-time theatre supporter Stephen Ginger have since spent many hours “repairing this, painting that and doing whatever else requires attention to keep the old place looking its best and to save money”. The theatre cut expenditure by not replacing projection staff when they left, and Wayne and assistant manager Hannah crunched the figures. Since 1976, the place had only ever made a small profit in 1994. “The deficit had peaked in 2007/2008 at £48,000 and in 2009/2010 the venue had lost almost £33,000.” By 2011, though, they’d made a small profit. “The enlargement of the foyer, our complete restructuring of the business operation and the installation of the digital projection and 3D equipment had all contributed to this financial success.”
The same happened in 2011/2012 – “well, £300 loss to be precise, but only due to my ordering new fire doors! Nevertheless, we were obviously doing something right…” Wayne adds: “We have never, nor can we ever, take this success for granted. Every April, we begin a 12-month struggle to keep the Film Theatre going and to make ends meet. It’s never easy and we are fortunate to have such loyal customers and generous supporters – without them, we’d probably have been closed years ago.”
WAYNE says he’ll go when he considers his job finally done – though, with the dream of the multi-purpose Frank Walker Studio (as it’s due to be christened, in honour of the man who started it all), it’s not likely to be soon.
He knows some folk begrudge that 18p a week (“although technically it hasn’t cost the town anything for the past three years”), but says it’s a great deal. The cinema draws visitors who also use shops and restaurants, and even have a swim at the leisure centre, “putting goodness knows how much additional revenue into the local economy”.
He still adores putting on a show and coming to work every day – “it’s like a marriage of sorts”.
Crucial is good old customer care: giving all visitors a warm greeting and thanking them on the way out.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” Wayne tells the EADT. “When people come in, they have to be entertained. They love the banter.” Marketing is also crucial.
“There was one day when I was in the foyer and a four- or five-year-old went by with mum. The child said: ‘We go there to laugh, don’t we?’ That says it all. People come here to be entertained.”
Spilling the Popcorn can be ordered from Leiston Film Theatre at £11.99 (£14.99 inc P&P) – 01728 830549 and www.leistonfilmtheatre.co.uk