'Pennies From Heaven' paid my way

It is gone now, the little cinema opposite the old parade ground in Dehra, India. A shopping arcade has taken its place. It was called the Odeon, and back in the 1940s and early '50s, when I was a boy, it screened the latest productions from Hollywood and Britain. The movie theater could seat about 150 people, and in its best years it was well attended by Anglo-Indians and English-educated Indians who lived in Dehra.

For me, then a lonely and insecure boy, it provided the great escape into another world.

My mother and stepfather were not overly interested in what I did with myself during the school vacations. I missed my father's companionship and found it difficult to make friends with young people of my own age. There were a few books at home, but the town had no bookshops to speak of, and I had soon exhausted the contents of the small lending library down the road.

So I saved my meager pocket money and went to the movies whenever I could.

It was a 20-minute walk from where we lived. After the evening show, I would walk home across the deserted parade ground, the starry night adding to my dreams of a starry world where tap-dancers, singing cowboys, Keystone Kops, swashbuckling swordsmen, and beautiful women in sarongs reigned supreme in the firmament.

I wasn't a daydreamer; I was a star-dreamer. I'd try dancing like Gene Kelly or singing (very unsuccessfully) like Nelson Eddy. I even did my hair in a puff like tough guy Alan Ladd.

Dehra was then a town of bicyclists, and rows of bicycles would be neatly lined up in front of the Odeon while a show was in progress. Those were pre-popcorn days, but during the intermissions cups of tea could be taken into the hall.

During these intervals (two-minute breaks between the shorts and the main feature), the projectionist or his assistant would play a couple of gramophone records for the benefit of the audience. Unfortunately, the management had only two or three records, and the audience soon had grown weary of listening to the same tunes at every show.

I must have been forced to listen to "Don't Fence Me In" about a hundred times, and I felt thoroughly fenced in.

At home, I had a fair collection of gramophone records, passed on to me by relatives and neighbors who were leaving India at the time of Independence (1947). I thought it would be a good idea to give some of the recordings to the movie theater's management, so that we could be provided with a little more variety during the intermissions.

So I made a selection of about 20 records – mostly dance-band music of the period – and presented them to the manager, a Mr. Khanna.

Mr. Khanna was delighted. To show his gratitude, he presented me with a free pass, which enabled me to see all the pictures I wanted without having to buy a ticket! Could any ardent moviegoer have asked for more?

This unexpected bonanza lasted for almost two years. As a result, during my school vacations I saw most of the films made during that period and could rattle off the names of stars, supporting actors and actresses, and directors.

I was particularly fond of musicals and, of course, films based on famous books. Dickens was a natural for the screen, as were Mark Twain, Daphne du Maurier, and Somerset Maugham.

Occasionally I brought the manager a change of records. Mr. Khanna was not a very communicative man, but I think he liked me (he knew something about my circumstances), and with a smile and a wave of his hand he would indicate that the freedom of the theater was still mine.

Eventually, school finished, I was packed off to England, where my moviegoing days went into something of a decline. All my spare time went into my writing. It was almost four years before I saw Dehra again. That's when I found that the little cinema had closed and was about to be demolished.

We move on, of course. There's no point in hankering after distant pleasures and lost picture palaces. But there's no harm in indulging in a little nostalgia. What is nostalgia, after all, but an attempt to preserve that which was good in the past?

And last year I was reminded of that golden era of the silver screen. I was rummaging around in an old curio shop in one of Dehra's bazaars when I came across a pile of old 78-rpm records, all looking a little the worse for wear. And on a couple of them, I found my name scratched on the labels."'Pennies From Heaven" was the name of one of the songs. It had certainly saved me a few rupees – that record and the goodwill of Mr. Khanna, the Odeon's manager, all those years ago.

I bought the records. I can't play them now, as I have no windup gramophone! But I keep them among my souvenirs, as a reminder of the days when I danced alone across the silent moonlit parade ground.

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