At 1.00 am on the 6th May 1941 a German bomb made a direct hit on the Apollo Picture House, reducing it to rubble.
On hearing the news, I, just turned seven, cried all that day.
Not the Apollo, where my visions of life, truth, or fantasy, were just coming alive. It just couldn’t be. Not the Apollo, where ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, had thrilled and delighted me, and I’d sung “Hi. Ho. Hi. Ho,” all the way home on the bus. That, at age six, had been my first experience of “going to the pictures.” Every Tuesday, my mother took me despite air raids. That might sound trivial now, but “going to the pictures” during the war at 6p a time was a massive treat.
Perhaps a little vocabulary check is relevant at this point. In those far off days, notice, it was “the pictures”. “I’m going to the pictures.” That’s the way it was. We didn’t “go to the cinema,” or “to the movies”. “The movies” crept in much later, an American concept which many of us have never adapted to. And it was always “a good picture”, not “a good film.” Among these early names though, I recall we accepted “film star” readily, and “film” was adopted much earlier because of that. So, the Apollo was a “picture house”, just like eight other “picture houses” within walking distance of my home.
One aggravating feature that has long gone was when Hollywood (ah, the magic in that word for a budding addict) brought out a new picture, it would be at least one year before it appeared in London, and then another year before we in the suburbs had a chance to see it. It was even longer for the small “picture houses”.
For the few months, from ’Snow White’ up to that awful May night, my brain took in faces, names, thrills, chills, joys, and bravery, that would live with me for the rest of my life. The Apollo was the birthplace of my addiction to “going to the pictures”. And although those mentioned here may have gone on to bigger and better things, they were strictly early Apollo memories.
There was the swashbuckling excitement of Errol Flynn in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ when he boldly strode into the dining hall with a dead deer over his shoulder to dump it on the table in front of the king. All in the new technicolour—a rarity at the time
Armed with a garden cane I performed, for weeks, the brilliant sword-fencing scene Robin Hood had before dispensing with the wicked Sir Guy of Guisborne (Basil Rathbone). He was so action-packed, Errol Flynn, but then he had to go and get killed in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, but, oh so bravely.
There came another brave death when Spencer Tracy died heroically in “Captains Courageous’. Then he became a tough priest who kicked Mickey Rooney’s impudent feet off his desk, in ‘Boys’ Town’. I would eventually come to recognise him as the best actor ever.
Then, the magic of the pictures transformed the hated Sir Guy of Guisborne into Sherlock Holmes, the detective, in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Basil Rathbone’s first outing as Holmes. A picture which, in part, had me clutching my mother’s arm in terror.
That almost happened again in ‘The Cat and the Canary’, but the chills there were lightened by the levity of Bob Hope.
At that time there were few female faces that stuck. I’m sure Shirley Temple was in there somewhere, maybe singing ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’. But the film that went on to live forever was out and about in Apollo time, and that was ‘The Wizard of Oz’, starring the eventually tragic Judy Garland.
Humphrey Bogart turned up as the nasty gangster, Baby Face Martin in ‘Dead End’, which is exactly where his character ends up. Yet, as an actor, he was to become almost immortal. Two other pictures giving access to actors who could also be said to gain that status were ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Stagecoach.’
‘Gunga Din’ was a most exciting story of the North West Frontier starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. But I recall it because, on the bus home afterwards, my mother had asked me, “Do you think your Daddy looks a bit like Cary Grant?”
At seven, I did not possess the tact to handle such a question, but I reckon I made a good shot at it by replying, “Daddy’s not as tall.” That seemed to please her.
Westerns often dominated kid’s chat on the street, and Hopalong Cassidy was the only one who counted. Then the Apollo showed ‘Stagecoach’, and up popped a character, tough and brave enough to face anything, the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne. From that time in early 1941, John Wayne became the only cowboy worth talking about. Oh, there were others, many others, some notable, but John Wayne was always number one.
So many faces on screen in those few months up to May 1941, but for now, only one more has special significance. The last film I saw, five days before the bomb fell, was ‘Beau Geste’, all desert, Foreign Legion, Arabs, and a fort full of dead faces. Gary Cooper was the title character. On the bus home, l insisted that Gary Cooper’s character had not been killed, because I didn’t want it to end that way. I have seen it many times on TV since then and I am finally convinced. He does get killed.
This has been Apollo life. Many other cinemas lay waiting for me and I could tell of the many joys of “the pictures” keeping wartime at bay, with a host of new heroes. But the night that bomb fell only one villain soured my childish heart. Adolph Hitler!