When Peter Kelly first arrived in Hanley he was 29 years old. The year was 1972 (coincidentally, the year yours truly was born) and, although he didn’t know it at the time, Peter was to spend the rest of his working life in the Potteries.
When he took early retirement in 1999 at the age of 56, Peter had managed both the Odeon cinema in the city centre and its new incarnation at Festival Park, Etruria.
He oversaw numerous celebrity film premieres and, during the late Eighties, presided over the most successful Odeon business in the UK in terms of admissions.
Now aged 69, Peter looks back on his cinema years with fondness.
He said: “I was very lucky. It was a wonderful job and I got to meet and work with some wonderful people over the years – some of whom remain my friends to this day.”
Originally from Scarborough, Peter had been to theatrical school and was destined for a career on the stage before deciding to switch career and head into management with Rank.
When he first arrived in Stoke-on-Trent, Peter ran the Odeon at the former Gaumont on Piccadilly (now The Regent Theatre) which, at the time, was a dual-purpose cinema and theatre.
If you’re my age you’ll remember the free trips to see old movies there as part of the Staffordshire Police Activities and Community Enterprise (SPACE) scheme.
Peter said: “In those days, of course, there were no computers. It was very much a case of people turning up and paying to see the film they wanted.
“If the showing was full then they had to either get in the queue for the next one or come back at another time.
“There was no paying in advance or credit cards.”
In fact, on one occasion, there was no paying at all… as Peter explains.
“I remember turning up for work one morning at the Odeon in Hanley at 9am and finding a queue of 300 people outside.
“They were waiting to watch Rocky II (1979). Rocky had been released on video at the same time that Rocky II came out and there was great anticipation for the movie.
“I recall thinking that I was going to need some extra pairs of hands and so I rang my assistant managers who came in to help.
“By the time we opened the doors at 1pm the queue was enormous and snaked all the way around the building to where Radio Stoke was on Cheapside.
“There was an almighty rush and it was chaos. Windows were broken and people started helping themselves to sweets and merchandise.
“I called the emergency number at our head office and was basically told: ‘you handle it’.
“So I let the first showing in to see the film for free. I didn’t know what else to do. Then the next lot paid.”
If you think that was bad, then don’t ask Peter about the things he and his staff used to find in the cinema after showings. Let’s just say it wasn’t just bras and knickers that turned up around the so-called ‘love seats’ at the back of the auditorium.
Back in the 1980s cinema chains had deals with certain film companies which meant that, for example, Peter’s Odeon never showed some of the biggest blockbusters such as ET.
He said: “I remember standing outside at the Gaumont (Hanley Odeon) and looking down at the old ABC to see how big their queues were.”
Some of Peter’s fondest memories of running cinemas in the days before IMax, CGI and 3D that works, involved his benefit events – such as midnight screenings where the proceeds went to causes such as the Lord Mayor’s charities.
In 1987 the Odeon relocated to Festival Park and over the following two years ticket sales soared – making it the number one Odeon cinema in the country. Thus the decision to increase the number of screens from eight to 10.
Peter fondly recalls some of the quirky ideas he had to get bums on seats – such as a ‘Weepy week’ of films.
He said: “I remember this included the Lana Turner film Madame X and all of the audience weeping.”
Peter was also responsible for showing horror classic The Exorcist very late every Saturday night. It ran very successfully for more than a year at the Festival Park Odeon.
But it is the celebrity film premieres featuring the likes of Pierce Brosnan and Dudley Moore that brought him the most pleasure.
He even persuaded Sir Richard Attenborough to attend the Festival Park premiere of his 1993 film Shadowlands.
He said: “I met him in London and asked him if he would attend the Stoke premiere. He asked me why he should and I said ‘because Stoke-on-Trent’s Odeon sells more tickets than any other in the UK – including the one in Leicester Square’.
“So he came up to Festival Park and I got him on stage and he was thrilled because Sir Stanley Matthews was in the audience. They were both lovely people. Real. gentlemen.”
Peter’s favourite film is actually the musical Funny Girl which launched the career of Barbra Streisand.
But it’s a little known secret that he’s also partial to a bit of Dirty Dancing and Ghost – which left him ‘in tears’.
After all this, you may be surprised to learn that Peter, enjoying his retirement and living in Lower Tean, hasn’t seen a film at the cinema since he retired.
He said: “When you have spent so long around people you value the peace and quiet to be honest.”
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