Showman bows out seeing double: Martin Whitfield previews the last big night for a cinema institution in the West Country

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The Independent Online
THE CELEBRITIES may be local, not international, and the dignitaries may be led by the Lord and Lady Mayor, not royalty, but the guest of honour has an impeccable showbusiness record for the first British showing of Richard Gere's latest film, Mr Jones.

Colin Jones, manager of the MGM Plymouth, has spent 35 years in showbusiness - albeit at the less glamorous end of the trade; dealing with the nitty-gritty of selling tickets and ice- creams to several generations of film fans. Now, the self-styled showman of the South-west is hanging up the costumes he donned to entertain the crowds queueing to get into the season's blockbuster. After years of interpreting the latest hits on the streets of Plymouth , Mr Jones is retiring. The crowds on the Plymouth pavements outside the MGM cinema will no longer be witness to his interpretation of the latest drama.

Tonight is his final performance, a special showing of Mr Jones, for Mr Jones. The film has its formal premiere on 8 September in London. But the first people to see it in Britain will be Mr Jones's friends and colleagues at the the MGM, formerly the Cannon, formerly the EMI, formerly the ABC and originally the Royal.

'There won't be anybody else like him,' said Maureen Body, who first put an usherette's uniform on in 1958 at the age of 18. 'The showmanship is there all the time, it never stops.'

Your average multiplex cinema may be packing them in but the queues outside do not sing along to the Flintstones theme tune while they wait. Mr Jones, 65 on Wednesday, provides big atmosphere for the big screen.

His training in the picture palaces of Bridlington, Bradford, York and Cheltenham taught him the value of creating the 'night out'. He even met his wife, Rosemary, while he was in Harrogate and she was an usherette.

'Videos at home are not enough. People want to get out,' he said. 'If the film is right Joe Public is here.'

Mr Jones's stage at the Plymouth MGM is the perfect setting for the showman. Opened in 1938, its grandeur remains evident despite conversion of the 2,400-seater auditorium to a bingo hall and three smaller cinemas in 1977. Upstairs in Screen One, 600 seats remain, representing two- thirds of the old gallery, and the gilt and plush red carpets are immaculate. Downstairs in the old stalls - now the Gala Bingo Hall - the original Compton organ is still played every other Sunday. The cinema's opening show was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Stage Door. During the war, servicemen handed in their rifles to the usherette and Winston Churchill watched Pathe News while visiting the naval base.

Live acts, including The Beatles, who made their escape from screaming fans through a secret tunnel leading to Westward Television two doors away, ended with Morecambe and Wise on stage until 1am just before the building's conversion.

Mr Jones said: 'There wasn't a seat to be had or a dry eye in the place.'

(Photograph omitted)