A charming lady

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. In 1992, I was a freelance journalist— mostly writing local interest stories for the Liverpool Echo. That September I did a two-page spread on ‘The Silver Screens of Yesteryear’—a nostalgia piece fondly documenting some of the old picture palaces in the Merseyside area. It was after reading my article that a Mrs Sally Murgatroyd contacted me. On the phone she informed me that she was, in fact, the daughter of Henry Sutton, the last manager of the Ritz cinema in Birkenhead (one of the cinemas I’d written about). She said that if I cared to meet her the following week, she had a story I might be interested in.

I found Sally to be a charming engaging lady, then in her late sixties, although age had done nothing to dim her sparkle. She spoke lovingly of her father and the cinema he had managed. In its day the Ritz was regarded as one of the best theatres outside London’s West End. Of course, this was the era of cine-variety, when the presentation of live acts between films had been a regular part of the cinema-going experience. The Ritz had been purpose-built for cine-variety and soon gained a reputation as the ‘Showplace of the North’, well known for attracting the top variety acts of the day and the biggest names in radio. From my own research, I already knew that the Ritz had been a prestigious venue—a monument, almost, to civic pride.1 Unfortunately (as I reported in my piece) the building had burnt down on Valentine’s Day, 1932.

After we’d talked for about an hour, Sally finally turned the conversation around to the fire. I’d been led to believe that the blaze had started in the projection room (nitrate film is notoriously flammable) but Sally informed me this was not the case. The tale she went on to tell, quite frankly, I found incredulous—an absurd yarn, involving the blanket conspiracy of a whole town. Wistfully she said it was a shame I could not have spoken with her husband, Johnny, who could have corroborated her story, but he had died some years previously.

Sally herself passed away not long after I had interviewed her. For some reason, maybe out of respect, I kept the tape of our conversation.

 

‘Silliness’

I thought nothing more of that chat for over twenty years. Then, two years ago, I read in the Wirral Globe that the Birkenhead Police Department had found the private journal of one Pat Grimshaw, formerly Desk Sergeant and a well-respected officer who would go on to become Inspector before he retired in 1955.2 The Globe article drew attention to the ‘silliness’ of Grimshaw’s entry for 14th February 1932. As I read the date, something in my memory stirred. The next day, I went down to the Police Station and asked if I could take a look at Grimshaw’s journal for myself. What I found confirmed everything that Sally Murgatroyd (née Sutton) had told me.

After two years of verifying all the facts, I now feel it is nothing less than my humane duty to reveal exactly how—and why—the Ritz cinema burnt to the ground all those years ago. But I must warn you: as a serious journalist, my primary objective is to reveal the truth—no matter what pain and anxiety that may cause. So with that in mind, I will make public for the first time, the undisguised facts of what occurred that night. These facts may shock you. They may offend you. But know this—you are reading the truth.

 

Exuberant mood

To fully understand the origins of the events of 14th February 1932, we must first take an imaginative leap in time and space and go back to the kitchen of a modest terrace house on Hoylake Road, Birkenhead, where Henry Sutton, manager of the Ritz, sat at the kitchen table with his eight-year-old daughter, Sally. As Sally was to recall during our interview, her father was in exuberant mood that day, eagerly waiting for his son, Billy, to come out from the front room where he was trying on a new costume. It was a bleak Sunday afternoon and Sally later remembered with sadness that it would be the last time she would be in the company of either of them.

‘’Ey! Our Billy! You ready yet?’ Henry shouted.
‘Yeah,’ the lad called out.
‘Come on then. Let’s be having you.’

As Billy Sutton lumbered into the kitchen, Sally let out a yelp. Henry Sutton, in contrast, was beaming. As for Billy, he just stood there—eighteen years of age, six foot two and dreadful! Truly, horrifically, dreadful! The sharp bony ridges of his face were shaded bluish green, the colour of a long-dead corpse; the top of his skull looked as if it had been sawn straight across, then closed flat like a box. And (what Sally remembered the most) this suffering seemed to be mirrored in his red watery eyes—the suffering of a crazed creature halfdead, half-alive.

‘Dad, do I have to wear this? I look bloody stupid.’
‘Nonsense lad, you look grand.’

By all accounts, it was an ingenious costume design. The idea had been to dress Billy up as Frankenstein’s monster. They had fashioned the now legendary flat-topped head by asking a friend who worked at Cammel Laird’s Shipbuilders to weld two tin side plates on to a small biscuit tin, which would then sit comfortably on Billy’s head like a square helmet. A couple of towels were laid across his neck and shoulders, with a big, ancient blazer worn over them to give him that lurching thick-set look. The arms of the blazer and the hems on his trousers were cut short to make his limbs appear unnaturally large. Finally, to add height, he wore massive diver’s boots (once again, generously provided by Henry’s friend at Cammel Laird’s).3

‘Dad! I feel like a right prat! William Henry Prat! That’s what they’re going to call me.’
‘Don’t be daft, lad, no one will recognise you. I hardly recognise you meself.’
‘Oh God.’
‘Now remember, I want you at the picture house at half ten at the latest. I want you on that stage, full costume at eleven o’clock. I’ll give you a nod and you can follow me on.’

And so…

 

Generator of dreams

On that fateful Sunday evening, the Ritz cinema loomed high above the rain-soaked slate roofs of Birkenhead like a giant power plant—a generator of dreams—a retailer of hope—as the 7 o’clock queue snaked halfway down Conway Street. How could anyone have known that the countdown to disaster had already started? Through my interview with Sally and my other extensive research, I have managed to piece together a rough timeline of the tragic events that night. To the best of my knowledge this is what happened:

• 7.15pm: Two Popeye cartoons.
• 7.40pm: The Dagenham Girl Pipers and Drummers.
• 8.00pm: Newsreel.
• 8.30pm: Jan Ralfini and his Broadcasting Band.
• 9.00pm: Steffani and his 21 Singing Songsters.
• 9.30pm: Interval (in which Mr Reginald Forte introduced and demonstrated the Compton Grand Organ).
• 10.00pm: The main feature film—Frankenstein.

At 10.35pm, Billy Sutton arrived at the Ritz, having spent the last hour in the Argyle pub. Meanwhile, in the main auditorium a full capacity of 2500 people sat frozen, watching the film. How easily the collective psyche is mesmerised by shadows of dark and light that dance on a rectangular screen. How easily the human mind falls into that two-dimensional world! How easily we submit our senses to celluloid—its time, its place, its make-believe window of reality. Who can say what hypnotic effect this remarkable film had on its audience that night?4

Watching the film that night was sixteen-year-old Kitty Reilly, on her first date with local boy Johnny Murgatroyd. We can picture Johnny as he sat there, entranced; his thick-rimmed, penny-round glasses reflecting the strobe-like flashing white images; his mouth slightly agape as, on screen, the monster’s birth gathers momentum…

The table is finally lowered. One hand, limp, lifeless, hangs over the table’s edge. For what seems like an eternity, nothing happens. Then the fingers begin to twitch.

‘It’s alive—it’s alive—IT’S ALIVE!’ cries Frankenstein.

 

Perfectly attired

11pm: At the end of the film, the credits rolled. The screen ran blank, the houselights went up and the peach satin curtains glided across the stage.

Kitty Reilly started putting on her coat:
‘It wasn’t that scary, was it, Johnny? The film? It wasn’t that scary?’
‘Eh… No.’ Johnny, still seated, shut his mouth and straightened his glasses. ‘No, not at all.’

At that point, Henry Sutton, perfectly attired, as usual, in his best suit, stepped out on stage to give his announcements:
‘LADIES AND GENTLEMEN—PLEASE— IF I MAY… Please, ladies and gentlemen, thank you. If I could just have your attention for a moment…’

All eyes were on stage.

‘I’d just like to remind you that next weekend we have a special screening…’

A loud, clumping sound, like heavy footsteps. Some heard it. Some thought they heard it. Everyone ignored it.

‘… a great picture from MGM called A Free Soul. It’s a courtroom drama starring Norma Shearer…’

An inarticulate moan! Stuttering footsteps echoing around the theatre. Everyone heard that!

‘… Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable…’

Clump! Clump! CLUMP! CLUMP! CLUMP! A hand appeared from behind the curtain. The thing that followed it…

The thing that followed it was beyond the comprehension of everyone.

And yet, there it was.

What was once a figment of film fantasy had now somehow manifested itself into the material world!

The monster!

Jesus Christ!

It’s the monster!

RUN! RUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!

 

Who knows what primal terror erupted in the audience that night as Billy stood there in his biscuit-tin head? Back in 1932, the fear must have been like something those people had never known. Instantly, blind panic spread like wildfire. Many were wounded in the crazed clamour for the exit. One can only imagine Billy, bemused, stuck still on stage in his big boots, while Henry Sutton unsuccessfully tried to appeal for calm. It must have taken no more than ninety seconds for the whole building to be evacuated. In shocked silence, father and son looked out over the devastation. Seats had been ripped out; the beautiful stucco relief on the walls torn down; light fittings left hanging by a wire; the auditorium double doors practically off their hinges.

‘They’ve gone mad,’ said Henry Sutton.

‘Bloody hell,’ said Billy.

Just then, they heard the weak voice of a girl: ‘… help me… please somebody, help me.’

Without stopping to think and still wearing his Frankenstein helmet, Billy unburdened himself of his boots and ran down the side of the stage to the aisles.

Having lost Johnny, Kitty Reilly had been knocked unconscious by the demented tidal wave of people fighting to get out. She was just coming round, half-concussed, when Billy arrived at the end of the row of seats.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Come here. I won’t hurt you.’

Kitty took one look at him and screamed.

No one entirely knows whether Kitty Reilly had been naturally inclined to a weak heart. But it’s more than likely that it was at that moment that the poor girl suffered the cardiac arrest that would kill her.

The monster had claimed its first victim.

 

Outlandish

Driven by who knows what and probably in a sense of panic, Billy gathered up the girl’s body in his arms and carried her out into the foyer. When he saw what was on the streets outside, he laid the girl down and ran back to the auditorium in shock.

‘Dad! Dad! There’s hundreds of people out there!’

What now follows is taken from the private journal of Police Sgt Grimshaw, Desk Sergeant on duty at Birkenhead Police Station that night:

I’d been called to a disturbance at the Ritz Picture House in Birkenhead at around 11.20pm. An unruly rabble had already gathered around the premises, and more townspeople were joining the throng by the minute. They carried flaming torches, bread knives, spanners, wrenches, garden spades, rakes— anything that could be used in defence against the creature. Initially, I thought the reports of ‘a monster’ a bit outlandish, to say the least. Then I saw the thing with my own eyes. Pushing my way to the front doors of the cinema, I arrived just in time to witness the fiend striding into the foyer—the battered corpse of an infant in his arms! He dropped the body to the ground, like a warning never to enter, before skulking back into the shadows. I was the senior officer on duty that night and there was no time to call for reinforcements! A decision had to be made at ground level, on the spot. ‘We’re going in!’ I declared to the assembled crowd. ‘We’re going in to confront the monster!’ ‘Kill the monster! Kill the monster!’ They chanted in unison.5

Billy and his father were inside, no doubt deciding what to do next, when what was left of the double doors smashed open, and a riot of faces burst in.

‘There he is!’ cried one of the marauding avengers, a robust man in a white vest.

‘There’s the dark alchemist and his twisted creature spawned from the rotting flesh of innocent victims. Behold! Frankenstein and his creation!’

‘Now, hold on a minute, you’ve got this all wrong—’ said Henry Sutton

Tragically, his protestations fell on deaf ears. Later, it would be said that ten to twelve burly men descended upon him.

 

Inferno

Meanwhile, Billy was making a run for it; out of the main arena, and up toward the fire escape. A few men started after him, but were quickly stopped by the leader: ‘No! Listen to me! The only way to stop a demon born in hell is to send it back there! Burn down this evil place! Burn down this laboratory of madness! The monster will trouble us no more!’

‘BURN IT DOWN! BURN IT DOWN!’ they all roared.

They plunged their lit torches into the plush velvet seats, the satin drapes, the curtains, the screen, and fled. Within minutes the place was an inferno. Somehow, Billy managed to find his way through the black smoke to the roof outside. Coughing and spluttering, he staggered across the roof’s ledge to the canopy at the front of the building, his clothes singed and burning. The infrastructure was perilously unsafe now; bits of masonry already starting to crumble and fall. On that devilishly dark Sunday night, silhouetted against golden flames, fearful tears must have streamed down Billy’s face as he stared at the jeering crowd beneath him.

‘MONSTER! MONSTER!’

Another earth-quaking detonation announced the imminent downfall of the edifice. Billy took one last look at the mob below—the hatred in their eyes—screaming, raging, throwing their garden implements at him. And in that moment, all he could do was look down in pity.

‘I’m not a monster,’ he shouted. ‘There are no monsters! Only the ones we make ourselves!’ And, with that, surrounded by the roaring furnace, he spread his arms out wide like the wings of an angel and fell down to whatever destiny awaited him.

‘GET BACK! GET BACK!’ shouted Sgt Grimshaw. ‘THIS WHOLE PLACE IS ABOUT TO GO!’

Like a collective gasp, the crowd surged backwards as what remained of the cinema crashed down in a cumulous cloud of dust and smoke. There, from a safe distance, the good townsfolk of Birkenhead watched in awe and satisfaction as the final skeleton girders of the ‘Showplace of the North’ collapsed—and the soul-cleansing flames rose higher and higher.

As for the remains of Birkenhead’s own Dr Frankenstein, Henry Sutton—
They were never found.

 


 

1 Constructed on an island site of over an acre, the building’s frontage had been faced with white Portland stone, while on the corner over the main entrance, a circular steel-and-glass tower rose seventy feet into the air (see Fig. 1, p. 74). At night this would be magnificently illuminated in red and green.

2 The discovery of Inspector Grimshaw’s journal had occurred while the police had been searching through their old paper files, then being digitally transcribed for the public to access on the internet.

3 Perhaps a note of explanation is needed here: The main feature to be screened that night was none other than the Hollywood classic Frankenstein (it had premiered in New York in December 1931 and, as was normal in those days, had taken two months to cross the Atlantic). To celebrate the occasion, Henry thought it would be a hoot to have Billy come on stage after the film had finished, dressed as the monster. It would be the icing on the cake after an already extravagant evening of entertainment—a bit of a laugh at the end of the night.
One must remember that the Ritz had been fully equipped for the most elaborate stage presentations. Its stage was 75 foot wide and the cine-screen had been fitted with rollers at the base, allowing it to be moved back and forth along grooved tracks in the floor. Henry Sutton had spared no efforts in justifying the title ‘Showplace of the North’ for his theatre. Although he had dedicated his life to the cinema industry, Henry’s true passion was for the stage—it was often said that he was ‘a born showman’—and it was probably this innate sense of showmanship that had led him to dress his son up as Boris Karloff.

4 And it is a remarkable film. Universal Studio’s Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, is not only a masterpiece of the horror genre, it’s an all-time classic. The ‘birth’ scene is still ranked as one of the finest in cinematic history—often imitated, but never bettered. It is probably the most iconic ten minutes of any horror film. A short refresher for readers who may not be familiar with it:
As a storm rages over the abandoned windmill in which Frankenstein is conducting his experiments, he is suddenly interrupted by his fiancée, Elizabeth, his friend, Victor Moritz, and his one-time tutor and mentor, Dr Waldman. The famous sequence begins when Dr Waldman questions the validity of his former pupil’s endeavours. (Dr Waldman is played by Edward Van Sloan and Colin Clive is Frankenstein).
In stark monochrome, Dr Waldman looks directly at the camera and asks with grim countenance: ‘And you really believe you can bring life to the dead?’
‘That body is not dead,’ asserts Frankenstein. ‘It has never lived. I made it. I created it— from bodies I took from graves, the gallows, anywhere! Go—see for yourself!’ He swirls the sheet from the body on the table and stares at the horrified faces of his witnesses. ‘Quite a good scene, isn’t it? One man crazy, three very sane spectators.’
KERRACK-ARRACK-RACKKK!
On cue, to explosive claps of thunder and lightning, Frankenstein turns to his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz. They rush to operate the mad, monolithic mechanisms that surround them. Dials are turned; levers thrown downwards; jumping electrical currents zig-zag from generator to generator as blinding arcs of chaotic voltage fizzle up, down, and around the machinery, waltzing to a crackling cacophony of white noise.
KERRRACK-ARRACK-RACKKK!
Amidst the mayhem and noise, the trestle, with its hideous burden, is slowly cranked upwards, rising above the heads of those below—rising up to the open skylight—
Where it stops—silhouetted against the crescendo of white lightning that fills the space around it.

5 This extract is quoted from Grimshaw’s private notes—a completely different version of events from the official report he filed.