Category Archives: Fun Palaces

Entertaining Chesterfield: the Winding Wheel

Winding Wheel (former Picture House), Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Winding Wheel (former Picture House), Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Across the road from the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield Borough Council maintains another auditorium, the Winding Wheel, based on the former Picture House, to provide an even wider range of events – everything from classical music to beer festivals, Russell Watson to Ken Dodd – alongside the film and drama of the long-established civic theatre.

The Chesterfield Picture House, designed by the Sheffield architect Harold J Shepherd, opened on September 10th 1923. Its façade, which incorporates shops on each side of the entrance, is in the mock-Tudor style that the Borough Surveyor, Major Vincent Smith, encouraged in the town centre.

The auditorium is in a faintly grotesque Renaissance manner, with a rather more refined T-shaped restaurant looking out over the street. The foyer and the restaurant still retain elegant fireplaces, that must have provided a welcome as well as welcome heat in a town that gained its livelihood from coal.

There was originally an organ, for which Reginald Dixon, then in his late teens, was employed as deputy organist at £5 a week, a significant advance on his first £3-a-week engagement at the Stocksbridge Picture Palace north of his native Sheffield.

The Picture House did well enough for the owners to invite Harold Shepherd back in 1930 to build a ballroom on an adjacent plot, and in 1936 they sold out to Oscar Deutsch, who rebranded it as an Odeon the following year.

Films lasted until 1981, and a nightclub, Jingles, carried on in the ballroom and café areas until 1987 when the Borough Council bought it and converted it to a multipurpose entertainment venue.

In the cinema auditorium the renovations involved stripping out the stalls seating, installing a flat floor which hides the bottom part of the proscenium, and installing a flexible lighting and sound rig suspended from the barrel ceiling.

The Winding Wheel Exhibition, Entertainment and Conference Centre opened in 1987 and was listed Grade II in 2000. Its capacities are now 600 seated theatre-style in the stalls, with 300 in the fixed balcony seating, or 1,000 standing in the stalls area.

For a town with a population of around 90,000, Chesterfield is fortunate in the quality of its auditoria and the range of entertainment that the Winding Wheel and the Pomegranate Theatre between them provide.

What’s on at the Winding Wheel is online at http://www.windingwheel.co.uk/whats-on/winding-wheel.aspx.

Entertaining Chesterfield: the Pomegranate Theatre

Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The Borough of Chesterfield has a proud record of supporting civic theatre.

The Stephenson Memorial Hall, an adult-education institute with a large meeting hall, was built in 1879 to commemorate the railway engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848) who spent the last years of his life in the town and is buried there.

Chesterfield Corporation bought the hall in 1889 and subsequently enlarged it to create a theatre stage and proscenium, but it was leased to a cinema company until 1946.

When the lease expired the borough council established a civic repertory theatre company, which opened in February 1949 with a production of Philip King’s See How They Run (1945).

Weekly repertory theatre, in which a cast on contract rehearse next week’s play in the daytimes while performing each evening and some matinées, became fortnightly in 1965, and continued until as late as March 1981.  The final show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat broke the house record, playing for three weeks at 98% capacity.

This hard-working little theatre, serving a local population of around 90,000, claimed illustrious alumni.  Nigel Davenport and David McCallum were in the cast of Hobson’s Choice, the 200th production (1954), and Diana Rigg made her stage debut while assistant stage manager in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1958).

The council set up a new production company, Chesterfield Theatre Ltd, which operated the theatre as a touring house from February 1982, and adopted the name Pomegranate Theatre in June of that year.  The pomegranate tree “leaved and eradicated proper flowered and fructed Or” appears on the ancient seal of the borough and in the modern borough coat of arms.

The Pomegranate is an intimate, welcoming venue with a rich diet of drama, music, film and other events. It is supported by the Chesterfield Theatre Friends, a group which promotes events, raises funds and looks after the theatre’s archive: http://www.chesterfieldtheatrefriends.co.uk/about-us.aspx.

There is also a separate Pomegranate Theatre Friends Membership Scheme [http://www.chesterfieldtheatres.co.uk/our-theatres/membership.aspx which offers discounts, advance booking opportunities and free parking to regular patrons.

Cameron’s cars

Manx Electric Railway "Tunnel" car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

Manx Electric Railway “Tunnel” car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

John Cameron was a Victorian engineer whose career deserves to be better known.

He began his career as a ganger on the Settle & Carlisle Railway in the early 1870s, and was a subcontractor for the Manx Northern Railway in 1878.  He stayed on to serve as secretary and manager of the Manx Northern from 1879, making it the cheapest operational railway in the British Isles, and he built the Foxdale Railway in 1886.

He was appointed consultant engineer for the Douglas-Laxey electric railway and the Snaefell Mountain Railway, but left the island before the electric railway extended from Laxey to Ramsey and was renamed the Manx Electric Railway.

In 1898 he became secretary and manager of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad.

Both the MER and the Tramroad were promoted by property speculators.  The Manx line started out as a pretext for property development north of Douglas, and became involved in a bubble of enterprise that spread to electricity supply, quarrying and hotels and burst spectacularly in 1900.

The sponsors of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, Benjamin Sykes and his business partner Thomas Lumb, between them owned or had significant control over virtually all the undeveloped land along the tramroad route.  They proceeded cautiously, and eventually sold their line to Blackpool Corporation in 1920.

For both these electric railways John Cameron provided very similar rolling stock, flat-fronted box-shaped single-deckers with corner entrances.  The Manx Electric Railway was laid to three-foot gauge track, but the Snaefell Mountain Railway, fitted with a central Fell rail to aid adhesion and braking, is 3ft 6in gauge.  The Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, running along the spacious, gently graded Fylde coast, was built to standard 4ft 8½in gauge.  The obvious similarity of the rolling stock on the two lines is clearly Cameron’s signature.

All three lines remain in operation.  The Manx Electric Railway, though unobtrusively modernised for practical reasons, provides an authentic Victorian travel experience as it grinds its way over the cliffs between Douglas and Ramsey, powered predominantly by John Cameron’s fleet of “Tunnel” cars (1894) and “Winter Saloons” (1899).  (There is no satisfactory explanation of why the narrow “Tunnel” cars are so called.  There are no tunnels on the MER.)

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes visitors from the MER at Laxey to the top of the island’s highest mountain.

The Blackpool to Fleetwood tramway has been upgraded to modern light-rail standards, and is operated by uncompromisingly modern Bombardier Flexity 2 vehicles.   There remains one survivor of John Cameron’s Blackpool fleet, no 40, built in 1914, now part of the National Tramway Museum fleet at Crich, Derbyshire.

By courtesy of YouTube, it’s possible to enjoy a cab-ride from Starr Gate to Fleetwood in six minutes:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3vsZWf7Y8U.

The Isle of Man moves at a slower pace, and YouTube offers the real-time experience, complete with rain on the window-glass, of a back seat from Ramsey to Douglas in just over an hour:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxhLp7iGOjs.

(There was another railway engineer called John Cameron, who learned his trade in the south of England and became the locomotive superintendent of the Taff Vale Railway 1911-1922.  He died in 1938.)

Good spirits at the Abbeydale

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Photos:  Scott Hukins [www.scotthukins.co.uk]

I’ve never seen the point of dressing up for Halloween – just as I’ve never understood the point of punk, or tattoos.  If you’re beautiful, why make yourself look ugly?  And if you’re ugly, why make matters worse?

At the Abbeydale Picture House Halloween film night there were lots of people who had taken a great deal of trouble to make themselves look as if they’d just been dug up.

Even though I’ve never had a taste for horror films, Nosferatu (1922) came to life, so to speak, in the Abbeydale’s faded auditorium with the brilliant piano improvisations of Jonathan Best:  http://www.silentfilmpiano.com.

There is something magical about watching a silent movie in a packed silent-movie picture-house with a resonant piano that fills the acoustic.

Effects that would seem primitive through the prism of modern media, such as colour-tints for mood, work when seen as they were meant to be seen.

Though a modern audience inevitably reacts to Nosferatu with the irony born of two generations of horror movies, I found myself wondering just how frightening all this was in 1922.  Though it’s now PG-rated, it must have seemed pretty scary to the original audience.

For those of us who seek to bring Sheffield’s finest suburban cinema back to practical use there’s magic in seeing hundreds of people turn up for an exceptional cultural experience within its walls.

For me, there was extra magic on the way home when the taxi-driver, who came to Sheffield fifty years ago to work in the rolling mills, asked me where I’d been and reminisced about the cinemas he knew – including the Abbeydale – in the 1970s.

Sunday afternoon, he told me, was when the Asian community gathered at the Adelphi and the Pavilion to watch Bollywood.

And he’s glad to see such places survive and come back to life.

Cinema is magic – before, during and after the film.

For the next life-enhancing Abbeydale experience, watch this space:  https://www.facebook.com/Abbeydale-Picture-House-Events-414197585395539.

Elite cinema

Former Elite Cinema, Nottingham

Former Elite Cinema, Nottingham

Diagonally opposite Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, the town’s prestige entertainment building of the mid-nineteenth century, stands the Elite Cinema, aptly and no doubt deliberately named as the city’s premier picture palace of the early 1920s.

This huge building, clad in white Hathern faience with an elaborate display of statuary on its parapet, was designed by James E Adamson of the architectural practice Adamson & Kinns.

The foyer welcomed patrons with a roaring open fire in the winter months, and there were two “swift and soft-running passenger elevators” to the upper levels.

The auditorium, a confection in the style and colouring of Wedgwood ware, with trompe l’oeil arches and portrait medallions, brought a new level of quality and luxury beyond the picture palaces that had opened before the Great War.

The Elite had a magnificent Willis & Lewis organ, “the largest and most complete instrument that has been built for any cinema in the British Isles”.

The building was intended not only to show movies, but to build a separate reputation as a social and business venue.  A suite of dining spaces offered catering for individuals and groups.

The Louis XVI Café, white, green and gold, decorated with tapestries, contained a Soda Fountain “of the latest pattern”.  The larger of two cafés on the second floor was decorated in Jacobean style.  On the third floor there was another large room in Georgian style, “a thoroughly joyous room” decorated in a “daring” white and yellow scheme, and a smaller companion called the Dutch Café, “adorned by a very attractive hand-painted frieze illustrating scenes from favourite fairy tales”.

The entire building was cleaned by a Stuyvesant Engineer centralised vacuum cleaner, “sucking up ravenously every particle of dust and small refuse and depositing it all, via a suction hose, in a central dustbin”, and in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic, the heating and ventilation system was designed so “that the ubiquitous influenza bacilli and their kin will have a difficult task to make both ends meet”.

It opened on August 22nd 1921, and became part of the ABC circuit in 1935.  Though repeatedly refurbished in the 1950s, it gradually lost its prestige as the years went by.

Much of the décor survives because the Elite was listed as long ago as 1972, and was subsequently upgraded from Grade II to Grade II*.

The auditorium and café areas are described in the English Heritage listing [http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-457422-elite-building-#.VgQggDZdHcs],

The fact that the Elite went over to bingo in 1977 helped to keep the place in good order, and after the demise of bingo in the 1990s the auditorium became a night-club.

The building was advertised for sale at a price of £4¼ million in June 2015.

Steaming out of Whitby

North Yorkshire Moors Railway, outside Whitby station:  BR locomotive 76079

North Yorkshire Moors Railway, outside Whitby station: BR locomotive 76079

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is one of the premier heritage lines in Britain, started up in 1973, seven years after the British Railways service closed down.

It runs from Grosmont, the junction with the Esk Valley line, south to Pickering. It has spectacular moorland scenery, beautifully preserved stations, authentic rolling stock that is kept in good order and a fleet of powerful tender locomotives that can tackle steep gradients.

Its greatest asset of all, however, is its army of volunteers. Stations and trains are well staffed, so that the public is well looked after. The railway offers a warm welcome, decent catering and unobtrusive shopping opportunities to holidaymakers and rail enthusiasts alike.

Among the many preserved railways up and down the land, the NYMR is at the top of the game, alongside such lines as the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway and the Severn Valley Railway.

Travelling between Whitby and Pickering and back in either direction is a full day out, and there’s time to make at least one break of journey. Grosmont station gives access to the locomotive works through the original tunnel of the horse-drawn Whitby & Pickering Railway; Goathland, made famous by the TV programme Heartbeat, is irresistibly picturesque.

The re-entry of steam trains into Whitby is a huge success, and line-capacity has been improved by bringing a second platform back into use. Collaboration between the local authorities, Network Rail and the NYMR has created a win-win situation, boosting the local economy and bringing pleasure to thousands.

Whitby Station

Railway Station, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Railway Station, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Whitby’s railway station is an imposing building that, like the line that serves it, has survived a succession of threats.

It was built in 1845 by the house architect of the York & North Midland Railway, George Townsend Andrews (1804–1855), to replace an earlier terminus for the primitive, horse-drawn Whitby & Pickering Railway, engineered by George Stephenson in 1836.

From the 1880s to the late 1950s, Whitby station served four different railway lines, the original main line to Pickering and on to York, the Esk Valley line to Middlesbrough and the two coastal lines south to Scarborough and northwards to Loftus.

Dr Beeching would have shut all four of them, but the difficulties of providing replacement buses in the Esk valley meant that the circuitous and picturesque line via Battersby remained open, even though an eccentricity of railway geography has meant that every train down the line has reversed at Battersby since 1954.

Whitby’s rail connection to the rest of the country has been tenuous for decades, and it’s still not good: there are only four trains a day to Middlesbrough, the first starting its 1¼-hour journey at 0850.

However, the enterprising North Yorkshire Moors Railway has negotiated rights over Network Rail tracks from its junction at Grosmont into Whitby, so that it’s again possible to travel by steam between Whitby and Pickering in the summer months.

And you can get a proper breakfast at the Whistlestop Café in G T Andrews’ original station building.

The bikers congregate there so it must be good.

Cathedral of the movies

Granada Cinema, Tooting, London

Granada Cinema, Tooting, London

When David Atwell wrote the first detailed account of cinema architecture in Britain, Cathedrals of the Movies (Architectural Press 1980), the front-cover illustration was of the Granada Cinema, Tooting, in south London.

The Granada cinema chain was founded by the brothers Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, and they named their company as a result of a walking holiday in Spain.

They employed a Russian emigré theatre-director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, to design a series of purpose-built cinemas, starting in Dover in 1930.

The Tooting Granada, built in 1931, was the flagship.

Its exterior shell was designed in a discreet Moderne manner by Cecil Aubrey Masey. Within, Komisarjevsky provided an utterly magnificent, Venetian extravaganza with a baronial hall and minstrels’ gallery in the foyer, a hall of mirrors in the circle lobby and a 3,104-seat auditorium with a coffered roof, Gothic tracery decoration and a cusped proscenium arch.

It had, and still has, a Wurlitzer organ bought second-hand from the Majestic Theater, Sacramento, California and subsequently enlarged.

All this was planted in a workaday part of south London, near the local tube station. Londoners came off the street into a palazzo of the pictures, inspired by the Doge’s Palace, the Ca d’Oro, and the Palazzi Cavalli, Pizini and Foscari.

Not that they needed to know the cultural references. Komisarjevsky and his left-leaning clients believed that ordinary people deserved the best that could be provided, and economies of scale made that possible.

In the opening-day brochure for the broadly similar Granada Cinema, Woolwich (1937) Komisarjevsky wrote –

The picture theatre supplies folk with the flavour of romance for which they crave. The richly decorated theatre, the comfort with which they are surrounded, the efficiency of the service contribute to an atmosphere and a sense of well-being of which the majority have hitherto only imagined. While there they can with reason consider themselves as good as anyone, and are able to enjoy their cigarettes or their little love affairs in comfortable seats amidst attractive and appealing surroundings.

In the pre-war period the Tooting Granada could easily fill three full houses a day.

It was the first British cinema to be listed Grade II*, in 1972, and the first to be upgraded to Grade I in 2000.

The building is no longer a Granada. It’s now operated by the Gala Bingo chain [http://www.galabingo.com/clubs/tooting], which takes good care of it.

There are images of the parts of the building that the public don’t reach at http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/granada-cinema-tooting-july-2015.t98224.

 

Majestic picture palace

Former Majestic Cinema, City Square, Leeds (June 2015)

Former Majestic Cinema, City Square, Leeds (June 2015)

A highlight for me of the Abbeydale Picture House Revival weekend was watching the first film ever shown there, The Call of the Road, with Vincente Stienlet, the grandson of the architect of the building, Pascal J Stienlet. As Mr Stienlet pointed out afterwards, his grandparents almost certainly watched the same film, in the same space, on the opening night in December 1920.

There is, to our mutual regret, no material about the Abbeydale in the archive of the Pascal J Stienlet & Son practice. However, Mr Stienlet showed me some fascinating images and plans of what was probably Pascal Stienlet’s largest cinema commission, the Majestic Cinema, City Square, Leeds.

The old Majestic is a much loved Leeds landmark. Designed by Pascal Stienlet in partnership with Joseph C Maxwell, and opened in June 1922, its dignified Beaux Arts façade, of Burmantofts ‘Marmo’ terracotta, is a delicate cream which for years was darkened by Leeds’ polluted atmosphere.

In the 2,600-seat auditorium, giant fluted Ionic columns and a Grecian frieze based on the Parthenon supported a coffered dome 84 feet in diameter. On either side of the proscenium were the pipes of the three-manual Vincent organ. In the basement below was a restaurant 110 feet × 110 feet with a sprung floor for dancing.

The Majestic became part of the Gaumont chain in 1929, and remained a premier film venue well into the 1960s – its run of The Sound of Music extended from April 1965 to September 1967 – but it went over to bingo in 1969. It’s unusual among city-centre cinemas because it was never subdivided. It was listed Grade II in 1993.

In 1997 the entire building became two night-clubs, the Majestyk in the auditorium and Jumpin’ Jacks in the ballroom below.

It was closed in 2006; an application for a casino licence was refused and the site became vacant.

In 2011 the Leeds developer Rushbond financed a clever refurbishment for retail use.

When the redeveloped building was almost ready for opening it caught fire on the evening of September 30th 2014. The fire brigade declared a major incident, closed off much of the city centre for over twelve hours, and by their skill and good judgement, though they lost the roof, saved the exterior walls.

Within a matter of days a 32-year-old man was arrested in connection with his suspicious behaviour at the scene. He was cleared of all charges in March 2015: http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latest-news/top-stories/leeds-majestic-blaze-man-cleared-of-arson-charges-1-7183724.

It remains to be seen what happens next. Yorkshire Post images [http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/local-stories/what-sparked-majestic-inferno-1-6872539] suggest that at least some of the interior remained intact.

The story of the Majestic is neatly encapsulated in a Yorkshire Evening Post article – http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latest-news/top-stories/proud-history-of-a-leeds-landmark-1-6871416 – and there is an illustration of the interior in original condition at http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/2718.

Abbeydale Picture House Film Revival

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield:  Film Revival, Sunday July 18th 2015

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: Film Revival, Sunday July 18th-19th 2015

Photos:  Scott Hukins [www.scotthukins.co.uk]

For the first time in forty years, a sizeable audience sat in the stalls of the Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield’s finest surviving suburban cinema, and watched feature films on the big screen over the weekend of July 18th-19th 2015: http://www.thestar.co.uk/what-s-on/out-about/video-sheffield-picture-house-revived-with-film-festival-1-7359851.

Thanks to the inspired vision of the arts platform Hand Of, run by three recent Sheffield graduates, Rob Hughes, Louise Snape and Ismar Badzic, several hundred people – some of them from surprisingly far afield – experienced this very special building doing what it was designed to do, making people happy.

Pullman-style seats – more comfortable than the originals – were installed, together with three bars, one of which sold sarsaparilla, the traditional temperance drink of pre-1960s Sheffield. Outside in the car-park there was a rich choice of street food and cakes; in the foyer, the distinctive fragrance of popcorn hung in the air.

The choice of films touched on Yorkshire’s film heritage – Brassed Off (1996) and Four Lions (2010) – and the Abbeydale’s heyday – two Laurel & Hardy titles, the short Brats (1930) and the feature A Chump at Oxford (1940), together with the first feature-film ever shown at the Abbeydale on its opening night, December 20th 1920, The Call of the Road, starring the British boxer-turned-actor Victor McLaglen.

The Call of the Road was a very special opportunity to see a silent movie as it was originally presented, on a big screen, with a fully improvised piano accompaniment by the virtuoso Jonathan Best [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAJdJ7iSrMM].  Any other experience of pre-1929 feature films pales in comparison with watching a clear print, run at the correct speed, with live musical accompaniment in a crowded auditorium.

The afternoon was made even more special by the presence in the audience of Vincente Stienlet, grandson of Pascal J Stienlet who designed the building, and Cynthia Allen McLaglen, the niece of the film-star Victor McLaglen.

The Abbeydale has been very lucky in its owners since 1975 – the office-equipment dealers A & F Drake Ltd who found a use for the place into the early 1990s, the Friends of the Abbeydale Picture House who made use of it up to 2012, and the current owner Phil Robins who is developing it as a multipurpose community venue.

The Picture House Revival was a huge step forward in bringing the place back to life. Thanks to Rob, Louise and Ismar, the place was lit up on Saturday and Sunday evening, and after the end of the show crowds of people poured out on to the street, smiling: http://picturehouserevival.tumblr.com.