Celebrities, saucy lost property and a riot over Rocky II…

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.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekly Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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Saving our Spitfire is the least we can do

There can’t be many blokes my age who didn’t have an Airfix model aeroplane hanging from their bedroom ceiling at some point during their childhood.

My guess is that, of those who did, most will have chosen a Spitfire over a Tornado or a Harrier jump jet – along with the obligatory Messerschmit ME 109.

Transforming those fragile bits of grey plastic into something vaguely resembling the fighter plane which saw off the Luftwaffe and turned the tide of the Battle of Britain was actually something of a challenge.

I recall I accidentally glued the cockpit hood on before realising I had forgotten to put the tiny pilot in his seat. A schoolboy error.

My painting wasn’t great, neither. It still looked pretty good hanging from the lightshade on a piece of black cotton, though.

After all, it was a Spitfire. Sleek lines, the curvature of those wings – one of the most iconic and important pieces of engineering the world has ever seen.

Perhaps not the one in my bedroom, like, but you take my point.

How proud I am – Indeed, how proud we should all be – to say that the man who designed this work of genius hailed from our neck of the woods.

Not only that, but our city is lucky enough to actually own one of Reginald Mitchell’s stunning creations.

As a youngster I remember visiting the ‘greenhouse’ which housed our Spitfire outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

In an age of simulators, jaw-dropping movie CGI, hand-held consoles and video games which are so life-like you have to pinch yourself, it is perhaps hard to explain to children and young people how an old aircraft can be impressive and inspirational.

This is worrying when you consider that there are millions of people in this country who have no link with anyone who lived through or fought in the Second World War.

When I was a kid we were still watching all those epic war movies made in the Sixties and Seventies.

Our grandfathers had fought against the Nazis. It all seemed relatively recent history and therefore still relevant.

Ask my mum and she’ll tell you how many hours I spent drawing pictures of battlefield scenes involving Tiger tanks and Lancaster bombers or playing on the back room carpet and in the garden with little toy soldiers who were my ‘Tommies’ and ‘Jerries’.

Present most children today with a pack of plastic soldiers and they will look at you as if you’ve gone daft.

The fact is it’s now almost 70 years since VE Day and the great generation who can remember those momentous times, and to whom we owe so much, are dying off.

Not long from now World War II, its commanders, battles and weaponry will be the stuff of dusty museums and the preserve of a minority of people like me who are fascinated by military history.

They will feel no more relevant to people in 30 years’ time than the Battle of Waterloo, the Iron Duke and the Baker rifle do to most people today.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity to ensure that here in Stoke-on-Trent, our Spitfire, along with its creator, are never forgotten and that the significance of their role in the fight against Hitler’s tyranny is properly explained to future generations.

Sadly, our plane – the Mk XVI Spitfire RW388 now housed at the Potteries Museum – is in need of a little TLC (about £50,000 worth to be precise) to prevent the old girl from rusting.

The Friends of The Museum have launched a major fund-raising drive to bring this amazing exhibit to life through an interactive display.

I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavour as I’ve felt for some time that our Spitfire is, at present, somewhat hidden away at the museum.

Indeed, when I visited the venue recently I talked with museum bosses about their plans to enhance one of their three unique attractions.

I even suggested they recreate the cockpit as part of the exhibition. Bugger Health and Safety concerns with the actual plane. I want to know what it was like to sit in a Spitfire.

During these austere times the city council was never going to throw £50,000 at conserving one museum exhibit.

Not to worry, I’m confident that we – the people of North Staffordshire – can come to the aid of our Spitfire in its hour of need.

I’ve made a donation to the appeal and I would urge everyone to support this very worthy cause.

If we all chuck in a couple of quid we’ll have the old girl scramble-ready before you know it.

I would suggest it’s the very least she, and Reginald Mitchell deserve, from their native city.

*To make a donation, visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel