Topic

City centre picture palaces

Visitors to Scotland's main cities often remarked on the grandiose quality of their cinemas, and the local papers often ran self-congratulatory pieces about how they compared to London or New York. While these comments should be taken with a pinch of salt, it is true that, by the start of the First World War, the hastily converted halls of the first cinema boom had given way to the Picture Palaces, with magnificent facades and all the appearances of luxury and taste. The gradual nature of the first expansion trained a remarkable supply of talented cinema architects, and convinced investors to put their capital into more ambitious buildings.

As mentioned elsewhere, cinema entered Glasgow from the periphery of the city centre, first appearing in existing venues like an old music hall, a skating rink, and a large public hall. The first purpose-built venue was the Charing Cross Electric Theatre, a small auditorium on the Western edge of the city centre, which opened in May 1910. It signalled the start of the rush for Sauchiehall Street. By the start of the war, there were seven cinemas along this commercial thoroughfare, with several more clustered around the theatrical district at the top of Renfield Street, or the more popular area around Argyle Street.

Edinburgh's Princes Street had five venues, as did Union Street in Aberdeen, while Dundee's most prestigious cinemas were not far off the High Street. Cinemas appeared in parts of the city that were already well established as leisure hubs, where people would go shopping (or window-shopping), meet friends, or take their lunch break. Only a decade earlier, the first department stores had started offering a whole new way to be a consumer, by turning their display into a spectacle of abundance and choice. Just as the department store had transformed the commercial warehouse into a cave of wonders, cinema architects like A.V. Gardner hid the boring hulk of the auditorium behind porticos and columns, blending clean-line modernism with more traditional decorative styles, new building techniques with the familiar stone figures and frills.

City centre cinemas looked very different from neighbourhood cinemas, reflecting two distinct ways of appealing to the public. While neighbourhood cinemas relied on habit and community, city centre venues relied on a transient audience. This meant either catching your fancy as you were doing something else in town, or convincing you that the show was so good that you would go into town to see it. Initially, city centre cinemas focused on the first strategy. They offered a convenient place to take a break from business or shopping, and since their programme ran continuously, you could come in at any point. They had very long opening hours, and offered a range of amenities from 'singing fountains' to parcel delivery and business calls. Tea rooms and smoking rooms were an important feature of many central cinemas. They were luxuriously appointed and comfortable, following on the refined tea-house tradition made famous by Mrs Cranston in Glasgow. An American visitor in 1919 noticed that
"most of the patrons that come in for a cup of tea remain to see the pictures, and those who come to see the pictures usually stop for a tea or coffee, a sandwich, a jam tart, or a piece of the famous Scotch short bread".

Most city centre venues were first-run, meaning that they showed films on the date of release. This meant that sometimes their programmes were quite similar, so all these other attractions were crucial for competition. During the war years, these first-run cinemas started showing 'exclusive' feature films, so their advertising became more focused on the films and their stars. This lead to them hosting premieres and visits from film actors, like Vera Reynolds whose visit to the Regent Picture House in Glasgow was captured in a local topical film.

While most Scottish cinema-owners built their fortunes (or failures) on circuits of peripheral and small-town venues, the palatial city-centre cinemas were more likely to be owned by London-based corporations or limited companies constituted separately. Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, the first UK-wide chain, had flagship venues in Glasgow andEdinburgh, while a few influential managers like F. R. Burnette, Bannister Howard, and R. C. Buchanan directed some key venues. In 1927, Green's opened their first city centre cinema in Glasgow: Green's Playhouse, the largest outside America. It marked a transformation; by the end of the silent era, several central cinemas had closed, while some of the most profitable were absorbed by vertically-integrated companies like Gaumont and Associated British Cinemas. Their business model changed to accommodate sound features, the role of the orchestra diminished or disappeared, and the downtown Picture Palaces gave way to the Super Cinemas, with streamlined exteriors, thousands of seats, and their own ideas of taste and comfort.