Category Archives: Sheffield’s Cinema Heritage

New cinema history

Former Odeon Cinema, Flat Street, Sheffield (1993)

It pleases me to have books on my bookshelf that were written by people I know.

I met Sam Manning at the 2015 Picture House Revival weekend that Hand Of created to relaunch the Abbeydale Picture Palace as a cinema after it had been closed for forty years.

Sam was at the time doing postgraduate research into cinema-going in Sheffield and Belfast between 1945 and 1965, and asked me to contribute an oral-history interview to his PhD thesis.

That research is now published as Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom:  decades of decline, 1945-65 (University of London Press 2020), and I couldn’t resist buying a paperback edition. You can preview it as a .pdf file at https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/cinema-going.

I’ve never been to Belfast, so that aspect of his writing was new territory for me, but the Sheffield sections relate to my childhood memories and my more recent local-history research.

Sam writes as part of the “new cinema history” movement [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137337016_7], which seeks to place the contemporary experience of going to the pictures in the wider context of social history in the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century.

This extends the ubiquitous nostalgia accounts of the generation that knew or worked in cinemas until the 1960s and the analyses of cinema architecture, the business history of the industry and the endless literature of films and film-makers that have appeared in recent decades.

On the local level, I learned a great deal because Sam has done the legwork of surveying the surviving archives of individual cinemas against city-wide data from local newspapers, government and industry records and oral-history evidence.

He revises the long-held view that suburban cinema-going was killed by the advent of television.  There were other significant factors in play – increasing affluence, flight from inner-city slums to new housing estates and the rise of a generation of young people who thought they’d invented “teenage”, the generation commemorated in Cliff Richard’s hit ‘The Young Ones’ (1962).

He also explains a counterintuitive feature of Sheffield’s post-war cinema history, the building on Flat Street of one of the few post-war Odeon cinemas, later followed by a luxurious ABC on Angel Street.

In the 1930s, when three major chains – Odeon, Gaumont and ABC – dominated the national industry, Sheffield’s cinemas were largely owned by local companies.  Gaumont British Theatres took over the Regent in 1929, two years after it opened, and in 1931 ABC leased the Hippodrome, a variety theatre dating back to 1907, which they gave up in 1948.  Neither invested in the sort of super-cinema that is the villain of the piece in the film The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

The Odeon chain leased a site at the junction of Flat Street and Norfolk Street in 1933, and after a five-year delay the architects Harry Weedon and W Calder Robson designed a 2,326-seat cinema, four shops and a three-storey office block.  Construction began in March 1939 and quickly came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The post-war realignment of Sheffield’s proposed inner ring road, later known as Arundel Gate, meant redesigning the Odeon on a smaller footprint. 

When building restrictions were removed in 1954 the pre-war steelwork was dismantled and the new cinema, without the intended shops and offices, was built to a completely fresh design by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant.

This design featured a 55-foot screen and seated 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting in the auditorium was by three rows of fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in the two decorative panels each side of the proscenium.  Sheffield had seen nothing like it before.

The new Odeon opened on July 16th 1956 with the newly-released Kenneth More feature-film Reach for the Sky, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ald Joseph Curtis, the managing director of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, and his wife, film star Dinah Sheridan, accompanied by the Dagenham Girl Pipers, state trumpeters from the York & Lancaster Regiment and a contingent of service personnel from RAF Norton.

In November 1958 the Odeon was equipped to show Todd-AO wide-screen films with stereophonic sound so that it could specialise in long runs of blockbuster movies. 

By the mid-1960s, cinema-going habits had changed radically.  The Sound of Music on first release ran from October 3rd 1965 until February 1967.  It was immediately followed by Khartoum (1966). 

For a short period of slightly less than two years, there were four high-quality 70mm screens in the city.  The new ABC had a 60ft screen from its opening on May 18th 1961.  The 70ft screen at the Gaumont was first used on July 23rd 1969 and the smaller screen at Gaumont 2 followed in October of the same year.

The Odeon closed on June 5th 1971 at the end of a further fourteen-month run of The Sound of Music and reopened in September of the same year as a Top Rank bingo hall, later rebranded as Mecca.

The Gaumont closed on November 7th 1985, followed by the ABC on July 28th 1988.  Both buildings were demolished.

Organ transplant

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: fly-tower (2017)

Before Christmas I was the live act at the launch of photographer Darren O’Brien’s new book about the Sharrow Vale area of Sheffield:  https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/people/new-book-uncovers-hidden-charms-sheffields-sharrow-vale-community-1325708.

The launch took place in the fly tower of the Abbeydale Picture House, and Darren asked me to explain to his guests the history of this unique piece of cinema heritage.

The Grade II listed Abbeydale Picture House was always a gem among Sheffield’s suburban cinemas, and thanks to a succession of sympathetic owners it’s survived to entertain new generations of patrons nearly a hundred years after its opening.

One of six Sheffield cinemas to open in 1920, its original proprietors were local businessmen, led by a professional cinema exhibitor, seeking to capitalise on the demand for entertainment after the First World War.

They hedged their bets by instructing the architect, Pascal J Steinlet, to build a full-scale theatre fly tower, enabling the cinema screen to be flown out of the way of stage performances, and to use the sloping site to include a ballroom and billiard hall beneath the auditorium and stage, with a café to serve cinema patrons.

The directors considered that moving pictures alone might not generate enough trade, and when post-war inflation ate into their original budget of £50,000 they changed plans and installed an organ by the Sheffield firm Brindley & Co.

Because Pascal Steinlet had not been briefed to include an organ chamber, the instrument stood immediately behind the screen, centre stage, making it impossible to use the stage and dressing rooms for performances.

Anxious to generate income, they opened the cinema as soon as they could, on December 20th 1920.  The Lord Mayor, Alderman Wardley, attended the first film-performance, a costume romance, The Call of the Road, starring Victor McLaglen.

Their fear that film alone would not support the company proved correct.  In June 1921 the original board was replaced by the directors of the Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road, who quickly took out debentures to complete the café, ballroom and billiard hall before the end of the year.

In 1928, probably as a response to the imminent arrival of talking pictures, the organ was moved to the back of the stage, where it was barely audible, to make way for cine-variety performances, which continued until the first sound film, Janet Gaynor in Sunny Side Up, played on March 10th 1930.

The organ continued in use until 1940, and the last organist, Douglas Scott, complained that “the volume was poor, due to the fact that the organ chambers were placed as far back as possible on the stage and…at least 20% of the sound went through the stage roof.  The screen and tabs took their toll of sound and when the safety curtain was lowered nothing could be heard in the theatre.”

There’s evidence for this on the back wall of the fly tower, where two rows of holes for the joists of the stage floor are visible, the higher row showing a clear gap where after 1928 the organ would have stood on the original stage floor.  The position of the organ meant that only the downstage half of the stage was usable, so presumably the rake was increased to maintain the sight-lines Pascal Steinlet had intended.

I hope that when the building is comprehensively restored the stage floor will be reinstated so that it can be used for performances.

But I’d think twice about reinstating an organ.

Darren O’Brien’s book Sharrow Vale and the Antiques Quarter (History Press 2019) is available from https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/sharrow-vale-and-the-antiques-quarter/9780750989329.

Clad in complete steel

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (2015)

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (2015)

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (January 12th 2017)

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (January 12th 2017)

Steel cladding is an admirable and relatively inexpensive way of modernising the façade of a building.  It conceals the original usually without obliterating it.  I’d far rather see a historic frontage, such as the Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, clad than stripped of its aesthetic value.

The Bijou Cinema, Derby, lost its elaborate faience façade when it became a furniture showroom in the early 1960s.  The interior, at balcony level at least, survived to become a particularly beautiful curry house, which would have been even more eye-catching if the original cinema frontage had remained intact.

There’s hardly anything left of the auditorium of the former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield, which after it closed in 1958 also became a furniture showroom, and latterly a self-storage unit, yet the rich façade in brick and brown faience survives largely intact behind steel cladding that was installed as late as the 1980s.

Indeed, part of the façade became visible when a gale brought down the corner of the cladding on January 11th 2017.

Though at present barely recognisable , the Don has a particular place in the history of the city’s cinemas.

Sales people working at the furniture showroom were perturbed by manifestations that they couldn’t explain – whirring noises, voices and a figure in an overall wearing cycle clips.

The late Bernard Dore, who had managed the Don Cinema in the 1950s, pointed out that the chief operator, Mr Potter, invariably cycled to West Bar from his home in Ecclesall rather than take the tram, and stored his bike in the projection room.

Furthermore, he habitually wore plus-fours and a tweed jacket covered by an overall.

He had a habit of creeping up behind his junior colleagues and whispering their names to make them jump.

Dan, the manager of Armadillo Storage, showed me what’s left of the cinema structure – an intact staircase and the space that was once the projection room.  He and his colleagues say they haven’t experienced manifestations.

I hope that when the steel cladding has eventually to come down, the façade behind it will be retained.

After all, the Don Picture House is, as far as I know, Sheffield’s only documented haunted cinema.

We never closed

Former Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (2016)

Former Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (2016)

I passed the former Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, twice a day for nearly thirty years on my way to work without ever taking much notice of it, from a time when it was still a cinema, through years as a bingo club, until eventually it became a carpet showroom.

I wrote a blog article about it and illustrated it with an image dated 1985, when the exterior was largely as designed by the London architect, George Coles.

A couple of years ago the carpet showroom advertised what became the longest-running closing-down sale I can remember.

I got to know the staff, who were unclear about when and indeed whether the closure would take place.

They’re still there, and in the autumn of 2016 the cinema marquee was dismantled and the entire façade covered with elegant steel cladding.

It’s reassuring to know that the owners are investing in the building, so it’s unlikely to be threatened in the near future, which is as well because it’s unlisted and unrecognised as a building of merit.

It was Sheffield’s last pre-war cinema, opening shortly after the start of the Second World War, on September 18th 1939.

George Coles was a highly regarded architect who built numerous cinemas for Oscar Deutsch’s Odeon circuit, such as the Odeons at Muswell Hill and Woolwich.

In Sheffield he was commissioned by the building contractor M J Gleeson to build the Forum, Southey (1938, demolished) and shortly afterwards began work on the Capitol.

Indeed, Coles’ plans for the proposed cinema show that Gleesons intended to name it another Forum, until they thought better of having two cinemas with the same name a little more than a mile apart.

The exterior is an impeccable, restrained version of the Art Deco manner that Odeon favoured, but the interior in contrast is elegant neo-Georgian, with alcoves and statuary and a 36-foot proscenium, much of which remains, apparently, behind immaculate white cladding.

The street-level foyer has been swept away to open up the showroom area, but the upstairs crush lobby (inaccessible to the public) remains as it was in the days of bingo, and the operating box and rewind room are intact though empty of equipment.

Although the building has a secure future for the moment, some day it will change hands, and its considerable architectural merit may not be recognised as a largely intact late-1930s moderne cinema by an architect with a national reputation.

Lacking the protection of listing, the long-term future of the Capitol depends on the vigilance of local observers and the support of national conservation organisations.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the building as worth less than the site, when in fact its historic integrity could be a selling point sometime in years to come.

Café for film-lovers

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Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield:  March 26th 2016

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: March 26th 2016

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

The latest improvement to the Abbeydale Picture House was revealed at the most recent film-revival night on Saturday March 26th.

The back of the stalls has been converted to a superb café-bar with a flat timber floor and dado panelling in keeping with the architecture, and painted in a relaxing cream and beige scheme which highlights the plasterwork and echoes the original 1920 decoration.

It’s an unobtrusive addition to the auditorium and a welcome asset to help the building once more earn its keep.

The film-night showed comedy programmes by two of the greatest figures in silent cinema, Buster Keaton in One Week (1920) and The Goat (1921) and the most famous of Harold Lloyd’s many films, Safety Last! (1923), with a live piano accompaniment by the immensely talented Darius Battiwalla [http://www.dariusbattiwalla.com/Darius_Battiwalla/Home.html].

More power to the Abbeydale’s owner, Phil Robins, and the team that runs the film nights, Rob Hughes, Louise Snape and Ismar Badzic.  They’re bringing the Abbeydale back to life and filling it with an appreciative clientele that’s clearly growing by word of mouth.

And now you can wake up and smell the coffee at the Abbeydale, where the café is open on Fridays and Saturdays, 10.00am-5.00pm:  http://picturehouserevival.tumblr.com.

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.

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.

Movies return to the Abbeydale

Former Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield

Former Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield

I’ve been providing historical back-up to an events organisation, Hand Of, who are devising an film weekend to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the last picture show at the Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield.

Picture House Revival: a Festival of Film takes place on Saturday July 18th and Sunday July 19th 2015, combining films, food, popcorn, ice cream, real ale and a sarsaparilla bar, a recreation of  a once much-loved temperance alternative to Sheffield’s pubs: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/picture-house-revival-a-festival-of-film-tickets-17122290231.

In fact, the event doesn’t take place on the actually anniversary (which would be July 5th) and it doesn’t reproduce the last picture show (Charles Bronson in Breakout, supported by Lords of Flatbush).

Instead, the programme includes the very first film ever shown at the Abbeydale, on December 20th 1920, a costume romance called The Call of the Road, billed as “a picture that will make history”, alongside Laurel & Hardy and more recent Yorkshire favourites, Brassed Off (Mark Harmon 1996) and Four Lions (Chris Morris 2010).

It’s a very exciting development to bring back movies to one of the few surviving Sheffield suburban cinemas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVD7_x3cb1w.

I hope it’ll be the first of many film revivals in the Abbeydale.

Sheffield’s surviving cinemas 4: Manor Cinema

Former Manor Cinema, Manor Top, Sheffield

Former Manor Cinema, Manor Top, Sheffield

The most intriguing of all the surviving Sheffield picture-houses is the Manor Cinema (1927) at the top of Prince of Wales Road.

Like the Hillsborough Park Cinema this was until recently a supermarket, latterly operating as a Tesco. When you walked in off the street there was no hint that until 1969 it was an auditorium.

But the oddity about the Manor Cinema is that it was built into a steep hillside, and the street-level access led into a wide foyer and then into the circle. The stalls-area was downstairs.

Indeed, the Manor was unusual for having two balconies: the three tiers were described as saloon, first balcony and second balcony.

Below the first balcony, and behind the saloon, was a basement billiard hall, with three additional private billiard rooms which projected beyond the building line under the street pavement.

This was the work of Pascal Stienlet, who had previously worked in Sheffield at the Abbeydale Picture House (1920), which also stands on a sloping site and had a ballroom and billiard hall below the auditorium and stage.  He also designed the Majestic Cinema, Leeds (1922).

Before the Tesco store closed I was told that there was no access to the parts of the building that aren’t in practical use.  A Poundland store currently occupies an area equivalent to the original foyer.

Apparently, the last time the building was surveyed was when Tesco took it over in 2010.

It would be an interesting revelation to discover if, like the Hillsborough Park Cinema, anything of the auditorium remains.

Sheffield’s surviving cinemas 3: Hillsborough Park Cinema

Former Hillsborough Park Cinema, Middlewood Road, Sheffield

Former Hillsborough Park Cinema, Middlewood Road, Sheffield

Sheffield has two Grade II listed cinemas, the Adelphi and the Abbeydale. Of the others remaining, one of the best and most surprising survivals is the Hillsborough Park Cinema of 1921.

Its elegant brick and faience façade, vaguely classical but with mullion-and-transom windows, decorates the streetscape on the tram-route at Parkside Road.

An English Heritage inspector would no doubt turn up his or her nose at the place, because when you walk through the door you’re in a perfectly conventional Asda supermarket. There’s hardly any indication that this was once a picture palace.

But thirty-odd years ago, when the Sheffield journalist Steve McClarence and I went exploring for his ‘Sheffielder’ column, we were taken through a door back into the 1950s, climbed the staircase to the circle, and found ourselves on the balcony, devoid of seating but otherwise intact.

There was the proscenium, and the clock, and through the panels of the suspended ceiling that fills the void in front of the balcony, we could glimpse unsuspecting customers trundling their trolleys.

Back downstairs we tried to run a trolley by gravity towards the screen end, but the floor has been levelled.

We thought this rather a pity, though practical.