Head And Tales Of The Ambassador - Part 2

by Orville Green
(Toronto, Canada)

As darkness fell, from every street in the community people would come streaming towards Thompson Street, on their way to enjoy the latest cinematic offering at The Ambassador. Frequently, in order to beat the rush for the ticket line, those who were young, small, agile and dishonest enough would squeeze through a hole they had created in the chain-link fence on Thompson Street, and get to the ticket booth well ahead of those who had to walk all the way around to the entrance of the premises.

Myers Street was one of the main pedestrian conduits to the theatre because, at the point where it ended at Thompson Street, there was access straight ahead, along a narrow dirt track between a house on the right and the theatre’s northern perimeter fence. This track sloped down toward the street in Trench Town (now called Collie Smith Drive) on which the main entrance to the Ambassador premises was located. The track was muddily treacherous when it rained. At the entrance to the foot path stood a large tree that overhung the fence at the north-eastern corner of the lot.

Fares for the theatre’s three sections were, originally, one shilling, one shilling & sixpence, and two shillings, respectively. (Later, there was a sixpence increase across the board.) The cheaper seats were predictably closer to the screen and separated from the other sections by a two-tiered rail made of metal pipes painted silver. This section had its own ticket booth. The mid-fare and upper-fare sections were accessed via a box office that faced the car park at the north side which, bizarrely, frequently glistened with shards of broken bottles.

If you bought tickets at the box office, you would have been standing in the lobby where poster-sized photos of movie greats such as Errol Flynn, Carey Grant, Betty Davis and Jimmy Stewart were on display. From there you entered through velvet curtains/drapes, and an attendant would examine your ticket. If it was for a premium seat, he would swing open a 'gate' (made from the same piping that divided the other areas) and let you in.

My Aunt Evelyn occasionally gave her nephews and/or their friends additional money for tickets to the better seats. She topped up our own money because she thought we would be safer in the two-and-six seats. To begin with, those seats were nearest the main exit -- a strategically important location in case bottles were thrown (not unusual) or other fracas developed. There were no more than eight or so rows of seating for the highest-price ticket, and those seats were below the projection booth and the theatre office, which provided those seats shelter in rain. (It was in deference to those patrons that movie-shows were continued during a rainfall.) However, at the first drop of rain the patrons in the ‘cheap’ section stampeded toward the relative protection of the rear section, scaled the partition, and frequently remained there even when the rain stopped.

There were several other ways that patrons would ‘beat the gate’ either to enter the theatre or to upgrade their seating, gratis. It was not uncommon for the fire exits in the cheap section (red doors nearest the screen) to squeak open after the lights were doused, to admit friends who had been standing outside.

Most often, so the suspicion went, the ones who opened the doors had been enabled to pay the fare with financial help from those being let in. Others chose to buy the cheap tickets and hoped to scale the rail and into the high-priced area under the cover of darkness during the show.

Whereas Bas was similar to other open-air theatres in respect to its design and the behaviour of its patrons, its unique feature was the 'off-site' viewing gallery. Beyond the devious strategies employed to enter or upgrade inside the theatre, there was a very lively cadre of would-be patrons who found some ingenious (if not totally satisfying) means of viewing the movies. Some hid ladders in the nearby gully on the Trench Town side, which they retrieved and used to ‘scale’ the supposedly indomitable wall that led to the roof of the projection booth, from which perch they got both sight and sound of the “movin' pitcha” show.

On the Jones Town side, there was always a crowd of boys standing along the north-eastern corner of the fence, the informal balcony with a view of only the heads on the screen. That area became known as “Heads”. One step up from that viewing point was a three-pence access into the tree (mentioned earlier), controlled by some enterprising fellow. From their loft, a privileged few would enjoy full view of the screen, but neither they nor the ones on the ground below enjoyed the benefit of sound from the theatre.

What is also memorable is that even someone who had not attended the movie could tell when it was over, as the streets became full of homeward-bound people reliving the scenes, some stopping off for a ‘quick one’ at Bowler’s or P-Son’s bar on nearby Asquith Street. There were those who could not remember the name of the star-bwoy but would blithely and recount, for instance, how "He Walks" pulled off one feat after another (referring to the star of the movie thriller “He Walks by Night”).

It was particularly amusing to hear the discussions of a movie among those who had viewed it from the Heads section. Theirs was the most vociferous and argumentative rehashing of the film as their voices faded into the distance until they were completely out of earshot, to be retold by streetlight to their comrades who had missed the show, for many weeks to come.

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