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Illuminating past in picture houses

Happy memories flooded back when a former projectionist who worked in some of Croydon's best known cinemas saw the last Heritage story about the borough's picture houses.

Bill McKay, 68, said his years as a projectionist in cinemas were among the best of his life.

The married grandfather of 15 says modern cinema multiplexes lack the sense of occasion which made picture houses the most popular form of entertainment between the 1930s and 1950s. "I haven't been to the cinema for years," said Bill, who lives in Headley Drive in New Addington. "The last thing I saw was Saving Private Ryan.

It's just a completely different experience now. You go in, watch the film and you're out again. "Back then we had the second feature, adverts, then the news and the main feature after that. Going to the cinema was much more of an occasion."

Bill started work as a trainee projectionist at the age of 17 at the Palladium picture house at the top of Surrey Street. "It was known as the flea pit back then," added Bill. "I wanted to work there because of the free films I would get to see.

"I can remember removing the film and relacing it in the projector. I can remember that each part of the film was around 20 minutes long. "I got paid one pound, 17 shillings and sixpence a week. I gave my mother 1 and kept the 17 and six for myself."

From the Palladium, Bill went to work at the Granada in Thornton Heath as a fourth, third, then second projectionist before going to the Davis Theatre in 1956. "The Davis was my favourite," Bill said, "I was a projectionist for a couple of years then I worked on some of the stage shows.

"I was one of the people 'on spot' when the Russian Bolshoi ballet performed, which means I had to shine a spotlight on the performers.

"I also enjoyed seeing the many bands who played there too, although I think the most important person I met at the Davis was the theatre's organist, Molly Forbes. Everything had to be just right for her."

A cinema was also the place Bill met his wife of 50 years, Joan, who was working at the Eros cinema in Croydon. "She was 4foot 11inches. I was 6foot 2inches. I gave her my ticket and said: 'what's the weather like down there'," Bill added. "She didn't say much but I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen so I waited outside for her to finish work and followed her. "We got chatting and I asked her to go out with me. She said yes and six months later we were married."

Bill stopped working as a projectionist in 1959 and later worked as an HGV driver. "But I will never forget my time in Croydon's cinemas."

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