San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Get a room: The Solari phenomenon

Fresh out of the Air Force after World War II, and only on the strength of a passing acquaintance with electronic equipment, I landed a job as Echometer Operator on the toy oilfield of Eakring in Nottinghamshire. The nearest digs I could find were at Ma Sleightholme’s in nearby Mansfield, where half the professional staff of the borough – the civil, mechanical and electrical engineer, the town planner and the sanitary officer – all lodged. 

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

With one exception, they were all in their early 20s and totally without experience in running a city, but determined to give it the old college try.

The exception was Solari, 30, manager of the local movie house. Below medium height, with slicked-down hair, a perpetual grin disclosing bad teeth, though undeniably a flashy dresser, he was far from my idea of a male sex symbol, yet girls flocked to him like bees to blossoms.

In those days, every town had its own spacious theater, built in the 1920s to house the wildly popular Music Halls. The Hungry ’30s swallowed up t’Halls and the theaters were converted to cinemas; when they in turn found it hard to make a living, they turned to the Repertory Theater to fill in a couple of hours in the evening, taking advantage of the existing facilities – dressing rooms and stage machinery – to present a new play every week.

And this is where our lives turned upside-down, because Ma Sleightholme offered the hospitality of her house to the players, so that we got a fresh group each week. They were a strange lot: The men, all handsome though of dubious orientation, were all still abed at noon, having entered the house via a downstairs window at midnight and spent the next four hours practicing their lines for the next week’s play. The women, without exception, were ravishingly beautiful so that I, being of precisely the right age, fell deeply in love anew every week.

But Ma Sleightholme was a stickler for the proprieties and, to my knowledge, nothing improper ever occurred in her domain. Consequently, on those few occasions when we succeeded in dating an actress, there was nowhere to go but a cafe. 

Solari, however, scion of a local Mafia family, commanded a dozen private dressing rooms, each furnished with a cot for late-late shows. He had carte blanche to behave as you’d expect of a hot-blooded Napolitano. To me, the only odd thing was that the girls practically threw themselves at him, while looking straight through us ordinary folk. It would not have been so bad, except that Solari, once he had made a conquest, quickly tired of the maiden and, prompted by his generous Latin nature, would insist on palming the girl off on one of us, who, having nowhere to go, could not take advantage. 

I did once suggest borrowing one of his dressing rooms, but Solari refused with such vehemence, his flick-knife to my throat to emphasize the point, that I abandoned the attempt. This exhilarating though frustrating situation could not last indefinitely, and in fact Solari eventually got his comeuppance at the hands of a rival Mafeosi, whose wife he had seduced. We of the Sleightholme menage were the only males at the funeral, outnumbered 30 to one by outstanding beauties from every corner of the country. 

I have spent the subsequent decades seeking to explain this phenomenon, without success, but I don’t plan to give up just yet.

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