The Demise of Cinema City

Although not every cinema from 'Cinema City' can be held up as a classic of design, efforts ought to be made to retain the best and most representative examples as a consistent part of architectural heritage.

Feature by Rosie Crerar | 15 Jul 2006

In the 1930s Glasgow was hailed as the 'Cinema City'; with over 110 cinemas at its peak, and a total seating capacity in excess of 175,000, Glasgow had more cinemas per head than any other city in the world.

Cinema first appeared in Glasgow in the late 19th century. After a series of hasty conversions resulted in fires from the precarious nitrate film, the 1909 Cinematograph Act came into play, forcing proprietors to create the first generation of purpose built cinemas. Though cheaply constructed, these early cinemas provided a template for later developments, and established film as a lucrative and competitive industry. The first of these cinemas, The Charing Cross Electric Theatre, was so popular on opening that there were queues for blocks, and the management later issued an apology in the press for having to turn away thousands of people.

Though these early cinemas were often architecturally flawed, their gaudy theatricality was to have a great impact on the surrounding neighbourhoods. Though they ostensibly stood as entertainment venues, the cheap tickets, warmth and convivial atmosphere soon made them into social hotspots, with locals gathering in their droves to gossip, court and do business.
Not all cinemas of this period would pervade the streets: tenement cinemas were accessed through a long, thin corridor through to the back court of the tenement where, like the Rosevale in Partick, a 1000+ seater auditorium would protrude, not only leaving the surrounding tenants devoid of a spot to hang up their washing, but blocking out sunlight and fresh air. The local council gave the go-ahead, however, believing the commercial incentives to outweigh the pitfalls for the surrounding residents.

It was to be the pre-war '30s that took cinema in Glasgow to the next level: with the advent of the 'supers' most of Glasgow's main streets were illuminated by the cinemas' flashy neon outline, and their gaudy advertising campaigns. Proprietors wowed their audience with grandiose interiors and exteriors, immersing them in a complete theatrical experience. The colossal Green's Playhouse (later the Apollo) was the flashiest of these picture palaces with the cinema alone providing room for over 4,000 punters. There was also a ballroom, a café and space for 10,000 revellers altogether. The Paramount (2,784 capacity) - which later became the Odeon - took up the major part of a city block and had the most extensive display of neon lights in town.

Yet despite their significance and history, of the 114 cinemas open in 1939, 40 remain - not 1 in its original form - and only 6 still operate as cinemas. By the 1950s-60s chain cinemas owned by big Hollywood studios were putting the independents out of business and monopolising Glasgow's screens. The ABC circuit release system ensured that non-circuit houses were excluded from showing films until they'd first completed the rounds of the majors.

Social habits changed with people finally coming out of the austerity of the post-war years better off and more mobile, choosing alternate modes of entertainment. Housing improved, and an increasing number of people had TVs which reduced the incentive to go out for entertainment. In order to combat reduced audience figures, huge cinemas were subdivided into smaller screening rooms and were often completed insensitively to the original building design.

In the 60s and 70s, large suburban areas of Glasgow were demolished for redevelopment, their population shunted to new housing schemes that left fewer customers for the few surviving cinemas. Many of these spaces were transformed into bingo halls. The Paramount/Odeon closed last year and now lies boarded up awaiting its fate; The Sauchiehall St 1000+ seater La Scala is now a Waterstones bookshop; The Picture House was demolished in 1972, the front was retained and now stands as the Savoy Centre; The Toledo/ABC Muirend has been converted into flats; and The Britannia Music Hall/Panopticon houses an amusement arcade. The celebrated art house cinema, Cosmo now stands as the GFT.

Cinema numbers have slowly begun to rise with an upsurge in the popularity of the multiplex, but this modern cinema experience is a maze of repetition and conformity with unimaginative design stripping away any sense of originality. The contemporary cinema experience needs to embrace the developments of contemporary architecture, creating spaces that heighten the experience of cinema going, rather than playing a mere supporting role.
At the same time, although not every cinema from 'Cinema City' can be held up as a classic of design, efforts ought to be made to retain the best and most representative examples as a consistent part of architectural heritage.

- There is currently a campaign underway to return The Panopticon to its former glory.

For more information on Glasgow's cinemas please visit here, here and here.