Yesterday, I had a tour of the Cinema Museum in London with Ronald Grant of the separate but linked Ronald Grant Film Archive which has well over one million images from more than 50,000 movies.
Ronald was born near Aberdeen and brought up watching films in his local village hall three nights a week.
“I became enchanted with the cinema,” he said yesterday, clearly under-stating the case. “I liked to help the projectionist and got pieces of film and took them home and showed them on the wall with a magnifying glass and a torch.”
By the time he left school, he just wanted to be a projectionist and got a job with the four Donald brothers who ran 13 of the 15 cinemas in Aberdeen.
Eventually, in London in 1981, his extraordinarily wide-ranging collection of movie memorabilia formed the basis of the Cinema Museum, which is housed in The Master’s House of the old Lambeth Workhouse – the workhouse where Charlie Chaplin was partly brought up.
As well as screening rare films, occasionally with producers/directors/actors there to talk about the production, the Cinema Museum has an almost eccentrically wide collection of film memorabilia from stills and posters to UK and UK books and fan magazines, original cinema projectors, signs from the inside and outside of old cinemas, staff uniforms, pieces of period carpet and even something I had never heard of – small tins of cinema fragrance sprays.
Ronald Grant told me:
“You have to remember that, in the 1920s and 1930s, many houses had no piped water. If you had no piped water, then there was a tap and there were lavatories outside and you shared them with the other tenants. If you wanted to have a bath, you had to go to the municipal baths, which cost money. Or you could have a tin bath which you put in front of your open fire. But this meant you had to go downstairs and bring up pails of water, fill the kettles, put the kettles on the range, heat the kettles, fill the bath…
“It was a whole lot of diddle-daddling and fiddling about, so children sometimes shared the water that other people had bathed in and, generally speaking, people didn’t bathe as regularly as they do now.
“In which case, if you had 1,500 to 2,000 of these people in a confined space like a cinema on a hot summer night…
“The other thing was that, before 1948 and the National Health Service, there were a lot of diseases and illnesses that might prove fatal. There was scarlet fever and diphtheria and there was a lot of tuberculosis around, which is a disease of the lungs. People would cough-cough-cough and spit on the floor. Tuberculosis is carried by moisture so, if you’re coughing – and with many people who had tuberculosis their lungs were bad so they would cough – the moist air could carry the tubercular infection.
“People were very nervous about going to crowded places and maybe catching something that might kill them or might involve a lot of attention from the doctor. Before 1948, you had to pay for the doctor. He was a professional like a lawyer and would charge a professional fee. Medicines would all have to be bought at full price.
“So poor families did not want to go anywhere and risk catching something that would create illness.
“And so cinema owners wanted you to think it was fresh and hygienic and they would spray this perfume.
“Here’s one you can smell. This is what was sprayed in the cinema. We have various flavours and scents. This one is Neuroma Spraying Essence – germicide, it says in brackets – Guaranteed to contain powerful germ-destroying properties blended with a delicate perfume.”
The Cinema Museum has existed since 1981 and has never received any money from any funding body. It hopes to buy its current building which it leases from the NHS, but that could cost anything from £2 million to £5 million.
It would be tragedy to lose a unique collection of movie memorabilia.
Here is a 2000 tour of a small part of the Cinema Museum: