Because I dedicated my biography of screen hardman Ray Wintsone to my childhood mentor, Nellie Mercer, of the Essoldo Cinema in Tunbridge Wells, I often get asked about it and why and how she instilled in me a true love and affection for film and cinema. I first met Nellie when I was about 13 and had popped into the Essoldo on my way home from school one afternoon to try and get a lobby card from the film that was coming to the theatre the following week - Elvis's Girls! Girls! Girls! The poster and lobby cards were already on display in the foyer, and it was when I was about to slip one of the lobby cards out of its frame that a disgruntled voice from behind me asked me what I was doing! That voice was Nellie!
Although she appeared somewhat grumpy at first, when I told her I was an Elvis fan and had come to look at the posters and lobby cards, her fierceness quickly disappeared. She was standing on the left hand side of the foyer by the door to the room where she kept most of her cleaning equipment along with dozens of quad posters, lobby cards and other film promotional materials. It was like stepping into an Aladdin's cave of cinema treasures. Nellie, probably in her sixties at that time, looked liked you would expect a cleaning lady to look, with a typical patterned overall and a head scarf that was common for the period. At the time I had no idea that we would become good friends, and would remain so for the next four years until I moved with my family south to Glynde. In the years that I dropped into see Nellie at the cinema after school, usually 3 times a week, she would give me an array posters, press campaign books, hanging cards (that advertised the week's film) and dozens of lobby cards, all of which were usually meant to be returned to the exhibitors offices after the film had finished its run, and whereas some did go back, a lot of them ended up in my private collection. Almost every week she gave me a handful of lobby cards and quad posters to take home. She also gave me her weekly complimentary staff ticket so I could go and see the movie that was showing that week as long as she considered it was a film suitable for me to see.
On other occasions, we went to the restaurant above the cinema, which in the days before we moved to Tunbridge Wells, when the cinema was a Ritz, was the Florida Restaurant - where David Bowie's parents were said to have met each other - and where Nellie invariably treated me to a milkshake during her coffee break. In my day, it was simply known as the Essoldo Restaurant, and was open from 10am to 8pm for morning coffee, luncheon, tea or supper every day except Sunday. It was decorated with framed giant sized publicity pictures of movie stars, including one of Elvis, which Nellie said she would one day get for me, and although she never did, she gave me loads of other goodies that I never dreamed of having. She was such a generous, sweet lady, who simply wanted me to have and enjoy the thing I loved most, which at that time, was anything to do with movies, cinema and Elvis! Our conversations were mostly about films and cinemas, and how things, even then, had changed over the last decade. I discovered and learnt so much about the history of cinema, movies and movie stars - old and new. Nellie always told me how each film, every week, was doing at the box-office and how cinemagoers were reacting to them. It really was my education, more so than anything I was meant to be learning at school. It was an incredible way to spend three after-school afternoons each week, and an incredible way to grow up, albeit briefly for four years or so, during my teen years.
There was such a different atmosphere about going to the movies in the 60s. My most memorable recollections are when Elvis's Kid Galahad and the third James Bond film Goldfinger were showing. We had to queue for both films before the doors opened, and the line stretched halfway down the distance of Mount Pleasant towards the railway station. Once inside the cinema, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. We sat through the black-and-white B-Film, British Movietone News, the Pearl & Dean adverts, the trailer for next week's film and an intermission before we got to the main features. For Elvis, there was the usual hysteria of teenage girls yelling, screaming and applauding every time he was on screen, and for Goldfinger, it was so popular, the cinema crammed in as many people as they could, and even allowed people to sit in the aisles, which would be unheard of today, and probably be considered a health and safety hazard.
Prices of admission ranged from 1/9d and 2/6d for a seat in the stalls to 3/6d in the circle upstairs, which today is equivalent to about 17p! I can't remember if we thought that was expensive at the time, we probably did, but compared to going to see a movie today, we got a lot more for our money back then; two movies, cartoons, Movietone News and sexy looking girls selling ice creams in the intermission. I remember choc ices were always a popular choice! The Essoldo held about 1600 people, had four projectionists, a restaurant, a stunningly polished foyer and was described as one of the most luxurious cinemas in Kent. The films were usually shown for just one week with continuous performances but for the epic movies like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, there were two separate performances daily, and it would usually end up with an extended run of two weeks. In those days, of course, we didn't give it much thought, it was just the best cinema in town we went to for an afternoon or evening at the pictures. For me it became the place that still holds some of my fondest memories of my teenage years, and growing up in Tunbridge Wells, not only for the films I was fortunate enough to see, but also for being privy to some of the things that went on behind-the-scenes of running a cinema, and of course, the fabulous posters and lobby cards I collected from my friendship with Nellie. I can't remember exactly what happened to them all, or how they got lost, but I am guessing they probably got left behind when we moved to Sussex.
The Essoldo also became notorious for the pop shows that visited the town. Stars like Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and Joe Brown all appeared on the stage for one night only when the live shows replaced the film. It was also where Dusty Springfield gave her debut performance when she went solo after leaving The Springfields. Usually there were two performances at 6.20 and 8.30pm and the ticket prices were a great deal more than the regular price for films. I saw a great number of classic films at the cinema, which without Nellie's kindness of giving me her ticket each week, I would not have seen. And of course, I never missed an Elvis film, which were hugely popular in those days, right up to Harem Holiday in 1966, which was the last of the Elvis movies I saw at the Essoldo, after that, when the Elvis films started to lose their popularity, they were relegated to the other cinema in the town, the Opera House, which was nowhere near as luxurious as the Essoldo. Today the Opera House is a Wetherspoons eatery, and the building that once housed the original Essoldo auditorium, where I sat in the dark with so many others, to share and experience the magic of film and cinema, is sadly nothing more than a derelict and much vandalised site that still awaits demolition.