It is an extract from Ursula Bloom's autobiography "Mistress of None" (Hutchinson, 1920).
‘Ursula Bloom was a popular novelist of yesteryear, but before the First World War she was for a time a pianist at a cinema in St Albans. She wrote five volumes of memoirs, and in the one I've read (Mistress of None) there is a delightful account of the experience of playing in a small cinema of the period, as well as being a good account of the cinema experience at that time in general. Gaps in the texts as transcribed by me are marked with ellipses.’
[p. 86] I met a young man. I suffered the inevitable romance. The young man was sorry for me, I think he understood the position, and knew that I was up against it. He was an architect, and he had just erected a cinema at Harpenden. It was called 'The White Palace,' and he was to be the manager. It was suggested that I could play the piano for the pictures. I thought I probably could. I was to be paid thirty shillings a week, minus ninepence for the insurance stamp, and with the whole thing arranged I went home on wings. My new venture, however, did not receive favour in the domestic circle. Mother thought that it was dreadfully infra dig, and [p. 87] she wept tears of woe that her daughter should sink in the social scale like this! A player at a cinema!
On matinee days I was to play from two-thirty until five, and six until ten-thirty. It certainly looked a bit grim. We started the next week with an opening ceremony, and everybody who was anybody was invited. Nobody paid for seats. The whole place smelt of new paint and distemper, and that general dampness which fills a very new building. I have got to admit that as the hour approached, I got more and more frightened.
It was a nice little cinema with a dynamo that persistently let us down that first week (twice we had to give the money back) and rows of plush ‘tip-ups' in the accepted style.
[p. 88] We had a box stuck far back near the operators' room, but it was discovered later that one of the operators used it for immoral purposes, and it had to be closed. In the beginning the piano was set on a balcony, which was very public for me, and I found it distinctly trying. For the whole preceding week I had been practising Hermann Finck's 'Melodious Memories' and 'Danube Waves,' and a selection from the Geisha, which the music shop had suggested would be very suitable. Now I was frightened to death.
[p. 89] The moment I started playing at the cinema, a very horrid fact was borne home to me. The piano was far too near the roof. The echo went upwards to the roof, and descended, with the result that the waves of sound met each other. It was nothing more or less than a hideous row. In that first bitter afternoon I lost all my affection for Chin-Chin-Chinaman, for Hermann Finck and his 'Melodious Memories,' also for 'Danube Waves.' I never wanted to hear the beastly things again. By five o'clock my hands were aching beyond belief, and I went out to tea at a café, and treated myself to a fairy cake, which I felt that I had deserved. Only the piano would have to be moved, I had become quite decided on that point, it would not possibly continue where it was.
The subsequent evening performance was little short of Hell. You got about two and a half minutes' rest in every half-hour, in between the pictures, and it is few people who are used to playing the piano for four and a half hours straight off. Mother helped me most nobly, but she had to leave at nine, and the last hour and a half in that fetid atmosphere were terrible. After that I could not understand [p. 90] why people ever went to the pictures for fun. I can still recall the enormous relief with which my aching fingers played 'God save the King.'
'Tomorrow they'll be worse, because they will have got stiff,' the young manager told me.
That was a nasty thought, and probably a true one, and I cannot possibly stress how stiff your hands can get when playing the piano at the cinema.