One of the most enjoyable residential leisure-learning weekends I’ve ever had the pleasure to lead was ‘Dream Palaces: an introduction to cinema architecture’ in November 2004 for the now-closed and much-lamented Wedgwood Memorial College at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent.
The College was blessed with a cosy atmosphere, an eclectic selection of subjects for study, staff who alike knew the regular students and welcomed newcomers, and home cooking.
The centrepiece of my two-day programme of talks, videos and slide presentations was a half-day trip to visit the Plaza Cinema, Stockport, a magnificent example of an early-Thirties super-cinema, designed by William Thornley and a near twin of his Regal, Altrincham, which opened in 1931 and burnt down in 1956.
The Plaza is unusual in that it’s built into a cliff, its façade facing Mersey Square, once the gathering place for the town’s trams and buses. Much of the 1,800-seat auditorium is practically underground. In an evacuation, some members of the audience go upstairs to the emergency exits rather than down.
The interior displays an eclectic mixture of Egyptian, classical, Moorish and Art Deco features of unusual richness: the original decorative scheme was dominated by the burnished silver dome, lit by a Holophane system of 6,000 variable coloured lights.
The three-manual, eleven-rank Compton organ, like its sister at the Regal, Altrincham, was built to the specification of Norman Cocker, deputy organist at Manchester Cathedral, and was the very first Compton organ to have an illuminated console.
The Plaza opened in on Friday October 6th 1932, showing Laurel and Hardy in Jailbirds and Jessie Matthews in Out of the Blue. Its prominent central site protected it from increased competition in its early years and from the inexorable decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s, even though its nearest large competitors belonged to national first-release circuits.
It was bought by the Mecca Group in 1965, and after initial opposition from Stockport Borough Council a replacement bingo club opened on February 6th 1967. The stage machinery was removed in 1989 to increase the bingo playing-area, and for a time the café operated as a night-club. Because the building was used as a bingo club until 1998 the auditorium was never subdivided, and its intact interior was in sufficiently good condition to merit Grade II listing.
Even before the closure of the bingo operation, an active campaign for preservation led to the founding of the Friends of the Plaza, an energetic group of volunteers supporting the Stockport Plaza Trust, whose campaign, in turn backed by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, English Heritage and the National Trust, has provided the town with a venue for live performances, recitals and films.
The Trust took possession in March 2000. Six months later the listing was upgraded to II*, and on October 7th 2000 the building returned to public use.
In 2009, the Plaza closed for a comprehensive £3,200,000 refurbishment, and reopened on 11th December the same year with a cine/variety show, similar to its original 1932 opening show, featuring Gold Diggers of 1933, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Towed in a Hole, soprano Marilyn Hill-Smith leading a tribute to Gracie Fields with the Plaza Orchestra, and Richard Hills playing the Compton organ.
When my Wedgwood Memorial College group visited a month before Christmas 2004, after a behind-the-scenes tour we joined an audience for Holiday Inn, the film for which Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’, together with a period newsreel, Pearl & Dean advertisements, the Compton organ, the lady with the ice-cream tray and, at the very end, we all stood up for The Queen.
There could hardly a better prelude to Christmas – all in the cause of adult continuing education.
Learning should be fun.