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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 8 - Music And Movies

Cinema going meant a one shilling ticket on the back row, and a threepence lollipop, wrapped in cellophane, which could be made to last almost right through the show...

Gayle Woodward recalls in vivid detail her early days in New Zealand.

If I could be transported to fabulous places by the books I read, the movies also would transform an ordinary life. In a darkened theatre, it seemed to me that imaginary became real when I rode with the cowboys, cried at the sad bits and cheered with the rest of them when the cavalry appeared. We stamped feet on the wooden floor of the movie theatre down the Bay, to speed the good guys along and cheered, whistled and clapped wildly.

The one-shilling and sixpence I had to spend to get an afternoon’s entertainment was well worth it for me, even if coming out into the afternoon sunshine after the darkened theatre would often bring on a migraine headache.

We would walk from home to St Heliers and this was fun because other groups of friends, boys and girls, would join us on the way. We would talk excitedly about the serial cowboy movies and try to guess what would happen in the story that day.

At the theatre my friends and I would purchase a one shilling ticket in the back rows and a threepence lollipop, wrapped in cellophane. It could be made to last and be sucked almost right through the session. I never ate one of these at any other time, rather as I only eat popcorn at the movies these days and never anywhere else.

The boys usually took the cheaper seats down at the front – not a place a girl would want to be. They would change seats, stand up to cheer (thus blocking our view), wriggle, talk, roll Jaffas down the wooden aisles and generally misbehave which caused us to tut tut like the proper young ladies we were. I thought boys were alien beings, smelly and different and scary. The exception was my cousin Billy, who I never thought of as a boy.

I was blessed by an imagination fuelled by the books I devoured, the movies of the time and another major influence in the musicals. Rodgers and Hammerstein were at their peak, turning out light and romantic musicals with wonderful and enduring music. My ideas of the romance that would be in my life one day came from Oklahoma and South Pacific and after I saw the young heroine in Flower Drum Song singing ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’ all I yearned for was a white bedroom like hers. I was so insistent that when I moved to my own room with its built-in furniture, it was blonded wood with white painted doors and a white telephone. I was ecstatic. I thought it enough to make me a beautiful teenager.

When I saw Deborah Kerr as the teacher in The King and I, I decided to become a teacher one day and to be as kind to my pupils as she was. I thought My Fair Lady entrancing and after West Side Story was shown in the movies, the only place I ever wanted to visit was The Bronx in New York City. I became quite interested in all things American and enjoyed Seventeen magazines with articles about prom dresses, class rings and high school romances. Rose tinted spectacles and movie magic clouded my vision and I daydreamed that one day ‘my prince would come’.

A favourite pastime was a game called Concerts. Mary and I would prepare musical items from the current musical and with our parents as audience, and using the hearth as a stage would sing at the top of our voices, dancing and acting as needed

If school was a dream for me, being academically at the top of the class and well behaved and biddable, often the teacher’s pet, my extra curricular activities were less successful. I was an excellent speller and could write very good stories. My handwriting was exemplary and I coped, but with little understanding, with arithmetic. I seemed destined for a career in the arts.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was writing poetry and storing it in a manila folder on which I wrote the warning, and ‘This is Private Property. Reading these is like tearing open my Heart’.

It was decided that piano lessons would be my next challenge. We had grown up with a Pianola in the house. Mum could play it, as a piano, but didn’t very often. I loved to pedal and watch the roll of paper with its pattern of holes move around. If one lightly laid one’s fingers on the piano keys, one could feel then moving up and down as notes were selected by the paper. I felt as if I could play already and decided that this is what I wanted to do.

A piano teacher was selected, a piano and a leather music case were purchased and off I cycled, case under the luggage rack over the back wheel. I thought the music teacher was a witch, from the very first day. Her house was dark, behind a scraggly hedge and she had grey hairs and warts sprouting from her chin. If I thought I could play already, I was rudely awoken. To scales, which boringly had to be played over and over, up and down the keyboard till my finger tips were bent at just the right angle and tapping the keys at just the right pressure.

As I cycled home at the end of the first lesson, I thought that perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. But a piano had been purchased and placed in the lounge and lessons had been paid in advance at great expense and I knew that I had to keep going. From then on, I remember seven o’clock mornings in winter, sitting at that piano, with freezing fingers, practising scales and the most monotonous of tunes.

I thought the system of music notation to be satisfyingly logical and caught on quickly. But I wanted to be moving on faster than I was, and often made up a few notes, which I thought would sound better. Mrs Witch Music teacher would tap my knuckles with a ruler and tell me to keep to the music written in front of me. Most of all, I hated practising. I always wanted to be very good at everything, and quickly.

The lessons came to an end as soon as those paid for had been taken and I started at college at age 12. I am always grateful though that my parents found the money so I could learn to at least read music and teach myself to become a competent, if not expert, pianist in later years.


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