1. The Picturedrome/Rex. 1911. Lower Church Street.
Lancaster’s first full-time cinema, converted from the Victoria Hall roller rink. The first film was The Siege of Calais, a French film. (With silent movies there was no need for sub-titles or dubbing; just change the intercaptions. Cinemas in silent movie days could be noisy places – my father recalled the jumble of voices as the slow readers spelled out the words, and the literate read out the intercaptions for the those who couldn’t read. Siege was released in a colour-tinted version – did Lancaster see one of the first colour films?) The cinema owner’s wife, Mrs Atroy, accompanied the films at the piano.
Sound was installed in 1930. By the 1950s it was so rough we called it the Bug Hut.
In 1958 it was renamed The Rex, and showed art house movies – mostly excuses for nudity, like Isle of Levant, but I saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day there, spinnakers like curved white steel, sunlit sparkling ocean, Anita O’Day, that hat, that voice, vulnerable, defiant, on a wet Wednesday when I should have been at Games, the only other person in the cinema a teacher from my school pretending not to see me. What if we had spoken, as two people, this jazz lover, film fan, and the culture-hungry kid …?
It closed in 1960, became a Bingo Hall, and was demolished (along with our tripe shop) to build St Nicholas Arcade. It is now the entrance to the car park.
2. The Palladium. 1914. Market Street.
The town’s first purpose-built cinema, ‘The Palladium Picture House and Café Rendez-Vous’, with a dance café upstairs. I saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers there, having missed it on its circuit release. Loved it – MGM colour! The barn-raising scene!! Julie Newmar, the future Cat Woman!!! But how did they find seven actors with red hair? I didn’t understand these things. The crippled man who sold The Lancashire Evening Post outside gave me a bread roll from inside his shirt, I said, ‘thank you very much’, went round the corner and threw it away, and felt guilty without knowing why. Closed in 1960, it became the Rio Bingo Club. In 1980 it was gutted for WH Smith’s, and now includes the Post Office.
3. The Hippodrome/County. 1923. Dalton Square.
Built in 1798 as a Catholic church, converted to the Palatine Hall by the Abstinence Society in 1859, in 1906 became ‘The Hippodrome and Opera House’, with live acts and short films. In 1923 it became a full-time cinema, ‘The County’. Sound was installed in 1930. What film was showing, what soundtrack was audible through the wall on 16 September 1935, as Dr Ruxton dismembered his wife and maid next door? His house was empty for years. The cinema closed in 1956. It is now Council offices, once more The Palatine Hall.
4. The Palace. 1929. Dalton Square.
It opened as ‘The Palace Theatre’, but with no fly tower it was pure cinema. The first in town with sound. In 1937 it became an ABC cinema, one of the national chains. It had the ABC Minors on Saturday mornings, but it was too rough for us. I remember waiting outside trying to get into an ‘A’ picture – ‘Will you take us in, Mister?’ ‘Aye, if you pay for yourself, and don’t sit anywhere near me.’ We’d smuggle in bottles of squash, because cartons of Kia-Ora was too expensive; once I dropped the glass bottle, it smashed, and I ran and ran. It closed in 1974, became a disco, a bar, a children’s play area. It is now empty.
5. The Odeon. 1936. King Street.
One of Oscar Deutsch’s large, opulent, art deco cinemas (its name: ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’; in fact the name for a Greek theatre, and a common name for cinemas in Italy and France), designed to attract the middle class. My parents would go to no other cinema in town, for years they went every week, regardless of the film. Taken over in 1941 by J Arthur Rank, he of the gong and the rhyming slang. I saw all the Cecil B de Mille epics on its vast Cinemascope screen – the screen widening before my eyes – and some 3D films, dodging the arrows. I went every week to Saturday Morning Pictures. (My two regrets on going to the grammar school: no soccer; and no Saturday Morning Pictures, because we had classes then. Both part of the project, I realise now, to separate ‘intelligent’ working-class kids from our roots, to co-opt us. But that’s another story.) Afterwards, riding home on Trigger, suddenly realising that the world I was galloping through was more real but less meaningful than the world in the film, unsure what that meant, but sure that it was important. In 1971 the stalls became a bingo hall, the circle was converted into two screens. Closed in 2004 when the multiplex opened. Demolished in 2010, replaced with a Travelodge hotel.
For all the decline in cinema-going, there are more films shown each week in Lancaster (15 this week at the Vue multiplex and Dukes Theatre) than ever before. What has gone is cinema as event.
Acknowledgement: much of this comes from C Stansfield ‘The Earliest Cinemas in Lancaster’, Contrebis, 2017, v35.