Exhibition sparks hunt for former Portsmouth cinema usherettes

The launch of an exhibition about cinema usherettes has sparked a hunt for a group of local retired cinema usherettes.

Twenty years ago, University of Portsmouth lecturer, Eva Balogh, interviewed the women who had worked as cinema usherettes in Portsmouth during the 1930s and 1940s but has since lost touch with them. Now she would like them to be guests of honour at a new exhibition, Stars in the Aisles, being staged at the University’s Space gallery.

The free exhibition is a celebration of the glamorous days of cinema and examines the usherette’s central role in 20thcentury film culture with a fascinating display of photographs, film and objects.

Florence Wall (4th right)

Florence Wall (4th right)

The interviews with former usherettes Olive Durrant, Betty Weston, Florence Wall, Margaret Eva Hunt, Vera Ayres and Molly Rowe in 1995 originally formed part of an oral history project in collaboration with Portsmouth Museum.

“It was these women who really ignited my passion for the subject,” Ms Balogh said.  “I’d love to invite them to the exhibition as honoured guests but unfortunately I’ve been unable to track them down.”

Ms Balogh who is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture in the School of Art and Design, has spent the past two decades researching the history of the cinema usherette.

“They were glamorous, welcoming and stylishly attired and they lit the way to a world of dreams. Immortalised as symbols of fantasy and desire, they were once an integral part of the cinema experience and in our exhibition they are fondly remembered for adding an extra touch of magic to ‘going to the pictures’.

“This was the golden age of cinema-going, when auditoriums were regularly filled to bursting and queues formed around corners. Above all, these grand ‘picture palaces’ offered an opportunity to indulge in a little Hollywood make-believe. Their sumptuous interiors seduced patrons with the promise of far-away lands and rip-roaring adventures.”

But behind the uniform and pleasant smile, however, was a woman who had to work hard for her living, said Ms Balogh, who is planning a public talk on the subject later this year.

“All of the usherettes I interviewed came from working class backgrounds and most left school in their early teens. The job demanded long and unsociable working hours, perhaps not unlike today’s cinema workers, but back then there was no legislation on equal pay or equal opportunities for women.

“If you are one of these former usherettes, or you know them, please contact me.”

Ms Balogh is also trying to find a Sylvia Abraham (who lived at Grafton St, Portsmouth) who worked at the Odeon cinema at Cosham. In 1956 she became ‘Miss Cinema of Great Britain’. Finally, she would like to hear from any other former cinema usherettes and from people who experienced cinema in the time of the usherette and would like to share their perceptions.

Stars in the Aisles is curated by Eva Balogh and Dr Oliver Gruner from the University of Portsmouth with help from local graphic designer Steve Byrne and collaboration from students. It opens with a launch event on Thursday 13th March 5-7pm – usherettes will serve ice-cream and popcorn – all welcome – free entry.

The exhibition runs from 14-26 March in ‘Space’, University of Portsmouth, Eldon Building West, Winston Churchill Avenue, Portsmouth. PO1 2DJ

To contact Eva Balogh or Oliver Gruner, please telephone 023 9284 3833 or email eva.balogh@port.ac.uk or oliver.gruner@port.ac.uk

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