Few people know more about Mansfield’s cinema history than Fred Shelton - and amazingly the Forest Town pensioner says he’s never been to see a film in his life.
The projectionist pulls down a screen to block out the window light. In his living room, he sets up a cinema of his very own. At the back of the room, he fixes a 16mm film reel to the plate and the wheel starts to whirl. The projector flickers, and the show begins. As Fred Shelton sits in his chair, the MGM lion roars and the music begins.
He turns down the volume – he’d rather listen to the clattering of the projector.
Fred was the projectionist at the Granada in Mansfield for years and has worked in cinemas all over the area since he was only 12 He’s watched big names like ABC, MGM and Odeon come and go, an the brightest stars of all time rise and fall.
He’s lived in front of the silver screen - sometimes literally – and now here in his personal cinema he looks back on a career which he loved like a hobby.
He tells: “I fell in love with the cinema the first time my mum and dad took me to Kings Theatre in Sutton. I was 12, and we went to see Mo Gambo - Clark Gable and Eva Gardner. But I didn’t pay any attention to the film. I kept turning around to see where all the light was coming from. It drove my dad mad, I was spoiling the film for them. When the programme finished he asked the manager to show me around. I was mesmerized, seeing the reels turning. I went in a few days later to ask if I could help out, and I started going in after school, doing the re-winding, taking the film up to go in the machine and taking empties back.”
“But the school didn’t know," he adds. "When they found out a month before the end of term, the headmaster told me I wasn’t allowed to go back until school was finished.”
So for four weeks he spent his evenings longing to be back in the projector room.
“I was stood on our doorstep in Langwish street whiling away the hours, and I could see the King’s all lit up outside.
“You believe it, when I left school on the last day I was out at four o’clock and I was there at half past for my first day’s work. I started off on two pound 10 shillings a week in old money as a trainee projectionist."
Fred’s since worked for every cinema company going over the years, and many at the same cinema. After being trained at King's by manager Arthur Denby, he then went on to work at the Empire Heanor in 1961. He tells: "I was nineteen and my girlfriend was only sixteen and I had to ask her father if I could marry her so we could move into the ex-manager's house.
"He wasn't very keen on us getting married at such a young age, but he did give us permission because we had this house and a tight job."
And in all his years he’s shown some of the greatest films in cinema history - Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago - right up to the Lion King and Titanic.
“You instantly know when it’s going to be big. When Mary Poppins came out that was the busiest I ever saw the Granada. I loved showing the films – putting the reel on, watching them go round, and then popping down and watching the audience’s reaction. If there were a lot of people in, the theatre had a buzz about it.”
And it’s fair to say he really did live in the cinema. “I had my stag night at the Empire Alfreton showing films to my friends. The following day I got married and me and my first wife moved into the Empire Heanor, and lived there in the attached house.
“Later I got a job at the 123 studios at Worksop, and there was a flat adjoined onto the projection room. If I wanted a drink of tea I could just open the door and I’d be in the flat, and my wife at the time was bringing me bacon sandwiches while I was working.”
It was in the 1970s that he moved back to Mansfield and got a job at the Granada and then the Canon theatre which changed hands numerous times.
“Canon became ABC and then MGM bought it,” says Fred. “Then Virgin bought it – they had it for a fortnight and then ABC bought it back, and then Odeon moved in.”
But that doesn’t mean he spent his career watching movies. In fact Fred has never been to see a movie since that first time with his parents in 1954. “My manager told me once ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’, but I worked in a cinema six days a week, why would I go back to work on my day off?” he says.
The film itself – the special affects, camera angles, scripts, is not really what he’s interested in. “I’d never write a film – I’m not that intelligent. I’m interested in the presentation of it. It’s the workings of it. You’re a professional putting on a show for people to do. I enjoy putting films on at home and watching them, but I’m doing it myself and I’m showing films that go back to the 50s when stars were really stars, when you had Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart.”
Now 74 and retired with his second wife, Fred continues his projecting as a hobby, with an audience of one, and he’s built up an enormous collection of vintage films on reel. He takes out one of his most prized reels.
“When the ABC closed I took this with me as a souvenir. I’d never seen it and I thought I’d put it on the plate and see what it’s like. It could have been anything, but it turned out to be a film about the building of the M1.”
This reminds him of what the cinema used to be. It wasn’t just about going to see the latest flick - it was an event. “You’d get the trailers, and the news, music, shorts and then the feature. We put on whole-day showings. But I haven’t been into a cinema since I retired in 2005. It’s not the same anymore,” he says, and he finds the move to digital has ruined the handmade pleasure of going to the pictures.
“It is upsetting. When they show a film now it’s like putting on a DVD. It’s not professional and manual. You haven’t got the presentation anymore."
The industry changed so much over his career. First there was the march of automation, which was a nightmare, says Fred.
“We had a projectomatic to swap from one reel to another on two projectors at the end of a reel. But the automated system would sometimes get to the end of a reel and miss the queue mark. It would run off, close the tabs and bring the house lights up. When that happened the manager would come up and he’d be hairless!”
But he looks back on it with a smile - he spent his life in small rooms putting light into people’s lives, and he wouldn’t change it for anything.
“Cinema has been my life,” he says. “It was a magical hobby that I got paid to do.”
If anyone remembers working alongside Fred please email firstname.lastname@example.org