Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Dewsbury’s Pioneer cinema

Folk would queue to see American musicals

By Jane Chippindale
Wednesday, 23rd March 2022, 8:36 am
Updated Wednesday, 23rd March 2022, 9:01 am

Margaret Watson writes: Some years ago I interviewed Geoffrey Oats and was able to persuade him to write down as much information as he could about his life and that of his parents.

Happily he agreed and gave me so many interesting facts I managed to write three columns, and if I’d had the time, I could have written a book.

The story which interested me most, however, was about his memories of father, Alexander (Alex) Oats who was chief projectionist at the Pioneers cinema in Dewsbury in the late 1920s onwards.

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CINEMA STAFF: The old Pioneer cinema situated in the old Co-op building on Northgate. Projectionist, Alexander Oates, is pictured second from the left, front row. The manager, Mr Masterman, is pictured in the centre of the middle row

Born in 1901 at Craig-y-Don, Earlsheaton, Geoffrey’s father was the youngest of four brothers, Herbert, George and John Henry.

His father, Marsden Oates, owned a number of knitting wool shops in various parts of the district, including one in The Arcade and another in Crackenedge, all run by members of his family.

Alex, however, didn’t want to join the family business but went instead to train to be an electrician at the Dewsbury firm of Foggo’s plumbers and electricians.

Later he would enter the world of cinematography in the days of silent movies when cinemas were known as “picture houses” because that was all they showed – moving pictures.

By this time, Alex had left Foggo’s and gone to work as a traveller for the Leeds firm of Walter Dore Film Rentals, going from town to town renting films to managers of picture houses.

One of his calls was to a picture house in Dewsbury known as “Andrews” which was on the top floor of what was then the headquarters of the Dewsbury Pioneers Industrial Society – Dewsbury Co-op to give it its shortened name.

It was situated in what was known as the public hall which had a seating capacity of more than 1,500 and had previously been used as a lecture hall and library for members of the Co-op.

It was here where Alex would later be offered a job as projectionist at the Andrews picture house by its manager, George Restall.

But this picture house was nothing like the plush cinema it was destined to become in the years ahead which most of us remember today as the Pioneers.

No, this one was situated in what was just a big empty space with ordinary straight-back chairs lined up in rows, and a table in the middle where the projectionist projected films onto a screen rigged up at the other end of the room.

Later it would be transformed into the Pioneer cinema with carpeted floors, a proper stage, plush chairs installed, and later a balcony and a lift – the first cinema in Dewsbury to have one.

Many may remember when the Pioneers had two entrances, one at the front of the building and another at the back known as the gangway which was steep and sloping, and at one time there was also a pay desk at this entrance.

By the time, Alex was married with a family and living on Warren Street, Savile Town. He often would take home films of Laurel and Hardy to show his children.

Geoffrey as a child used to go with his father and sit with him in the projection room which was a small room with no windows and no lights, where his father worked hour after hour in complete darkness.

He clearly remembered there were just two holes through which the film was projected onto the screen, and people in the cinema could see this jet of light and the smoke of cigarettes rising through it.

Geoffrey also recalled the excitement generated when the “talkies” arrived in Dewsbury in 1931, followed very quickly by American musicals, the like of which Dewsbury people had never seen.

The real favourites were the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ films, which were so popular people would queue up outside waiting to get in.

They would queue up in front of the building all the way up the road and round to the back, and when they got in, live entertainment would be provided before the start of the film to keep them entertained.

In 1935 when they showed a film called “The Life of a Bengal Lancer”, with Gary Cooper, all the men who drove the Co-op horses and carts would go round the town wearing turbans.

There were also lancers displayed on the walls around the cinema, and when they showed Walt Disney’s “Snow White” in 1936, all the female staff were dressed in Snow White costumes.

There were no Sunday cinemas in those days, but the cinemas could still open to provide live entertainment with many top stars travelling to Dewsbury to entertain, including singer Donald Peers.

Sunday was the day when Geoffrey’s father would go into the cinema to rewind the films and to wind up the famous Pioneer clock and he always took him along.

There was a ladder up to the clock tower, and Geoffrey would climb up with his dad to watch everything he had to do.

It wasn’t an electric clock and his dad had to wind it by hand.

It was a really big handle, but once it was wound up, the clock ran for a week.

Geoffrey remembered the days when there were no shops inside cinemas and no ice cream or drinks on sale.

But there was a man who used to stand outside the gangway entrance to the Pioneers with a little wooden cart he’d made himself.

He would stand there every Saturday afternoon and night selling oranges, nuts and PK chewing gum, all for a penny.

Alex was himself a keen film-maker who went around Dewsbury shooting films of incidents and when the police and fire brigade notified him when anything was going on, he would rush down with his camera and record it.

Many of these films were loaned to a television company but never returned, including a film of Dewsbury when they played at Wembley.

Sadly, now all gone.

* You can email your recollections of Dewsbury in years gone by to: [email protected]

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