Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Working in Westcliff

I worked in Westcliff from 1972 to 1975.

Westcliff is a suburb of Southend, and I lived there with my parents from 1942, when I was born, until 1964.

There were two cinemas, both run by Essoldo, almost opposite each other in London Road. The Metropole changed its name while I was a teenager to Essoldo, and the Mascot unfortunately burned down in the 1960s. There was earlier another cinema, the Kings Hall, but although I know the site I never actually knew it while it was in operation.

In 1972, I was working for Star Bingo at Gravesend when I saw an advertisement in the trade press saying that Classic Cinemas wished to appoint a new manager for the Classic Westcliff.

Now, I was aware that Classic had recently taken over the Essoldo chain, and that Essoldo had not long previously spent a lot of money to modernise their cinema at Westcliff, so I knew that it was now a nice cinema to visit - I had already done so.

So I applied to Classic, and was welcomed with open arms. I had spent some time working for them in the West End, but anyway I was by this time reasonably well known in the business.

It was of course much easier for me to get to Westcliff from Rochford, where I lived, than it was to get to Tilbury and then across the River Thames by ferry to Gravesend.

I had to change a few things when I first arrived. For example, Essoldo had built a serving hatch at the back of the auditorium through which ice cream was sold. Now that's all very well, but they had then concluded that that would be the entire ice cream sales operation. In fact, there is no substitute for the salesgirl with a tray actually being visible at the front of the auditorium and then moving around to where people are sitting. Once I changed that, our ice cream sales, and therefore profits, rocketed.

Very early on, I showed the Disney cartoon feature "One Hundred and One Dalmatians". I let it be known that I would like people to bring their dalmatians to meet me at the cinema on a given date at lunchtime, and that anybody doing so would receive two free tickets to see the film. The timing was such that photographs could be taken in time to appear in the local newspapers before the film opened.

I didn't have much idea how successful the appeal would be. I thought perhaps one or two might turn up. In fact, I lost count at 36. I've never seen so many waggy spotty tails at one time. Of course, being on a busy road at a busy time, it was certainly noticed, with people leaning out of car windows and waving from buses. Years later, people were still reminding me of the dalmatians.

In Essex, most towns of any consequence have an annual Carnival. I wanted to capitalise on this - it seemed ridiculous not to be involved. But if I were going to take part in a number of processions I needed to have a theme. Nice as it would be to do so, I could not not afford either the money or the time involved to create a new float for a different film each time.

So I hit on the idea of having my own Carnival Queen, to be called the Classic Queen, who would represent the cinema on Carnival processions, but who would also be available to assist me in opening fetes and such things.

Local girls were invited to fill in an application form and send it in with a photo, and I subsequently interviewed each one. As the time went by, most of the applicants had their photos in the local press.

Jean Greene donated a crown for the purpose - well, it was a tiara, really. She had originally made it to be worn on stage by the world-famous ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. Jean and her husband, the actor and opera singer Leon Greene, who lived at Leigh, were good friends to me.

Eventually, the Classic Queen Contest took place on the cinema's stage. I was not simply looking for a pretty girl to be the winner, although obviously she needed to be physically attractive. Far more important was a friendly and intelligent personality.

There were three judges, all of whom were local personalities. Two were men and the other was a woman - somebody such as a reigning Carnival Queen, model or actress, who would have a good grasp of what the winner would need to be capable of.

Each judge awarded points for different aspects as I interviewed the girls on stage. But there were different points available for different aspects - it was weighted so that personality, for example, carried more points than face, figure etc.

I repeated this each year, and later at other cinemas. They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, and the Classic Queen idea was imitated at various other places around the country.

The Classic Queen and I took part in Carnival processions at Southend (and the Southend Torchlight Procession), Rochford, Canvey Island, Maldon and Burnham-on-Crouch, giving us a great deal of exposure and publicity.

I was the first cinema manager to write his own weekly column in a local newspaper. It was called "Crosby's Column", and appeared each week in the "Southend Advertiser", to which I contibuted other occasional articles. The column was not simply, as you might expect, about the cinema. It was about local matters which I felt were important or interesting.

After a while, I started having Late Night Shows every Friday night. These were often of films other than those of a mainstream nature, but I had built up a reputation such that many people felt that if I showed the film it must be good. In particular, I showed lots of rock films, including obscure movies about Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Strawbs and many others.

After a while, I added the occasional All Night Show on a Saturday night. These were usually on themes, such as an Elvis night, for example.

Charlie Gillett, the rock historian who wrote the seminal work "The Sound of the City", used to feature my programmes a lot on his radio programme. He said it was great to have another rock fanatic like himself in a position to show these films locally.

In the middle of my tenure at the Classic, the company gave in to my badgering and decided to twin the cinema. This meant having one auditorium upstairs and another downstairs. I had never understood why Essoldo had not done this when they carried out their modernisation, as it meant that the old Circle was completely unused.

The operation took several months, but we kept open all the time, apart from one day when we closed in order to bring the projectors from the projection box down to their new home at the back of the ground floor auditorium. We need to move them downstairs because they could show 70mm films. Very few cinemas had this facility, and I was determined not to lose it.

The circumstances under which we opened were bizarre. We showed the musical "Godspell" in the No 1 cinema downstairs, and the rock festival movie "Let the Good Times Roll" in No 2 upstairs. Unfortunately, we had to open in a blaze of non-publicity. The country was in the throes of the three day week, and we were not allowed to use any lighting other that what was strictly necessary. So all the bright lights on the front of the building could not be switched on.

John Allan, a good friend who wrote about rock music in a local paper, had suggested that Mickey Jupp, the enormously talented singer-songwriter-pianist, would be prepared to publicise the opening by singing and playing like Jerry Lee Lewis on the back of a low-loader, but under the circumstances I felt it would not be appropriate.

Mickey had been to several of what were regarded as legendary parties that I put on for friends at the cinema, attended by actors, Carnival Queens, cinema managers, footballers, musicians, photographers, singers, writers etc.

Once the Classic had been twinned, I became one of the earliest cinema managers to gain the experience of running two operations in tandem. I had to work out all the systems, as there were obviously extra points to worry about, that did not apply to a single unit operation. Equally obviously, there were a lot more business opportunities.

I had an arrangement with Southend United Football Club. I had a complimentary season ticket, and in return the players could come and see films whenever they wished. Many a young boy was heard to say to his Dad "Hey, you'll never guess who I saw at the Classic!"

I used to watch matches in the company of players who were not taking part in that particular match. Footballers who were friends at that time included David Cunningham, Chris Guthrie, Tommy Horsfall, Kevin Johnson, Terry Johnson, Steve Lamb, Alistair Love and Peter Taylor.

While at Westcliff I was one of the founder members of the South End Conservation Area Scoiety (now known as the Southend Society). Sir John Betjeman was delighted when we asked if he would be Patron, and of course he accepted.

I was also Public Relations Officer for the Rochford Hundred Amenities Society, and donated a cup (the Colin Crosby Cup) to be given each year for conservation work.

At a company conference in Spain, I was awarded the accolade of Showman of the Year, for which I won the Rhodes Trophy. Eric Rhodes was a former Managing Director of the company, seen by many as a bit of a slavedriver. Personally, I thought he was great, because he actually had a hands-on attitude to his business, and worked very hard with very long hours.

Now, I had thought that I stood no chance, as I had been working against the disruption caused by the conversion to twin cinemas. So when Reg Dowdeswell, the Managing Director, announced "it could only be Colin Crosby" I was sitting anonymously at the back. Consequently I had a long walk to the stage, with everybody clapping.

Looking up to the beaming Reg, respendent in his white suit, and to my cup, I didn't notice that there was one more step than I thought, and fell up the steps, nearly knocking my employer over.

After we had posed for photographs, I turned round to go back to my seat, and fell down the steps. People remembered me winning the cup for a long time afterwards.

Around this time, the independent Regal Cinema at Rayleigh closed, leaving its manager, Ron Stewart, redundant. I was delighted to welcome him to the Classic as my assistant.

It was while I was managing the cinemas at Westcliff that I started giving talks, initially about my career. I addressed youth groups at Southend and Hadleigh (Essex), and an ecumenical group of clergymen at Cliff Town.

I also judged the Queen of Queens Contest at Rochford, actually in a field below the historic church at Ashingdon.

I was interviewed for the first time on Hospital Radio, at Basildon, and kept being invited back. They started referring to me as "our resident guest".

Lady McAdden, wife of one of Southend's Members of Parliament, started an organisation called BUST. It was to fight breast cancer, which at the time was rarely mentioned, being considered a bit embarrassing.

A sponsored walk was arranged to raise money for BUST, covering 16 miles from Basildon to Southend. I took part, and was delighted to find that there were a good many teenagers taking part as well. Most of these dropped out after a few miles, but I thought it was great that they had started at all.

These things are not races, of course, but I was quite proud to finish 12th out of several hundred, particularly as most of the others were half my age. I also lost time by having to stop a few times to be interviewed on the road for Basildon Hospital Radio.

Of the eleven who beat me, one was Brian Taylor, who had only recently retired as captain of Essex County Cricket Club, and another was Graham Paddon, who was still playing football for Norwich City. I felt that these two somehow didn't count!

I was greeted at the finish line by the Mayor, who said "Well done, Colin, but I'm dying for a fag." So the two of sneaked around the corner for a surreptitious smoke.

Well, all good things come to an end, and I decided in 1975 that I wanted to leave the area. There were lots of nice things said about me in the press. John Allan referred to me as "conservationist, rock fanatic and Showman of the Year".

I moved on to the Odeon Cinema at Cosham, a suburb of Portsmouth. Ron Stewart took over from me as General Manager, and continued to keep the Classic in the public eye. Some years later, my daughter Theresa became the General Manager.

Today, sadly the Classic is just a memory, and there is a Halford's on the site.

If anybody reading this has any connections with Westcliff, or the Southend area in general (Born? Lived? Worked? Ancestors? Relatives?), I will be delighted to hear from them.