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The old Victoria Theatre, now undergoing restoration.

The phantom of the Victoria Theatre and other cinema tales

THE entertainment Max Donnan enjoyed during his long career in Newcastle cinemas wasn’t always on the big screen. Some of it came from the clientele, some came from the quirks and challenges of the various theatres and a little bit came from the ghost.

That was the ghost at the old Victoria Theatre in Perkin Street, which rejoiced in Max’s time in the full name “British Victoria Theatre”. The Vic has a treasured place in Max’s memory, but he admits the ghost rattled him more than a little on the two occasions he encountered it. He was preparing to raise the curtain one Saturday night in the 1950s. In those days, Saturday nights were a big deal, so they got special treatment. The big stage curtains were pulled up and coloured footlights were played on the screen to a special fanfare. “I was behind the scenes among the flyropes and I’d picked out the right one to raise the curtain. I knew my cue in the music but, just before it came, I felt this strong nudge against my shoulder, like somebody giving me a shove, and I let go of the rope. The curtain came down instead of going up,” Max said. That was the first time.

The next Saturday he was determined not to be diverted from his task, no matter what. But as he stood awaiting the cue, rope in hand, the big old grand piano on the stage nearby began to slowly move before his eyes. The show went on, of course, but Max still can’t get the image of the rolling piano out of his mind, decades later. “I heard later that a man had hanged himself in that part of the theatre, years before,” Max said.

Max Donnan. Photo by Greg Ray.

Working in the Newcastle cinemas was a busy and many-faceted job, in times past. One job at the Vic involved making sure the big army-surplus V8 generator that provided the cinema’s power didn’t conk out. Sometimes that meant refuelling mid-movie, with the noisy engine running. Other times it was just ensuring the hose that ran continuously through the radiator was doing its job. The generator was under the main stage, towards the back, and was accessed through a door in Theatre Lane, the back alley from which patrons with seats in the “gods” – the high third tier of seating – began their steep ascent.

The Vic didn’t just show movies. It hosted live events too. Like the American negro act the Harlem Blackbirds, the New Zealand female impersonators The Kiwis and saucy Folies Bergere. Some very big names visited the theatre, with many leaving their names written on the dressing room walls. Max recalls, with a shudder of horror, the day a painter invited him to watch a demonstration of a new-fangled device called a roller that was making brushes redundant. “Before I could stop him he’d cheerfully painted right over the top of Harry Lauder, Joan Sutherland and a few more. I felt sick.”

The most striking movie Max remembers was White Christmas, at The Strand in Hunter Street, in VistaVision. The wide screen format was overwhelming, at the time, and the movie ran for five-and-a-half weeks, packing the audiences in so tightly they were sitting in the aisles and on the steps. In those days “if you didn’t get 200 a session it was a poor show”, Max said.

Discarded underpants and bras

And audiences were different from today, in some ways at least. It was common, he said, to see women knitting in their seats as they watched the features. A favourite BYO snack among the ladies was fresh peas in the pod, and the cleaners used to complain all the time about having to pick up all the pods after a session. As the years rolled by the post-session pea pods disappeared, to be replaced on the floor in the 1960s by discarded underpants and bras.

On one eventful night, the manager at a suburban cinema warned Max to listen for a special signal in the projection box. One buzzer, Max knew, traditionally meant the sound was too low. Two meant too loud and three meant some other more serious technical problem. This night he was told that, if he heard four buzzes, he had to turn the house lights on immediately. Sure enough, well into the second feature, the four-buzz signal came. Max turned on the lights and a squad of police ran in, zeroing in on some people in the back rows. “Turns out it was some working girls who had taken to conducting business in the cinema,” Max said.

The advent of television brought quiet times for cinemas, especially in the suburbs. Max moved with the times, accepting an attractive job offer from NBN Television, where he worked until he retired.

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