In my last post, I celebrated the surviving pre-war ODEONs that still operate as cinemas. It therefore seems appropriate, to follow it up with a short tribute to those less fortunate examples of the chain’s rapid 1930s expansion. As mentioned, over 80 of the 140 buildings, commissioned by the ODEON chain have since seen demolition. It would perhaps come as no surprise that many would close, given the onslaught of challenges all early cinemas faced in the second half of the century. The rise of television, video and other forms of home entertainment, combined with new technically superior multiplexes, rendered many pre-war cinemas obsolete by the 1970s. In addition to this, ODEON’s rapid, and at times apparently haphazard expansion, created unnecessary challenges from the word go. The visionary founder Oscar Deutsch was clearly a very astute and unbelievably driven businessman, but appeared to have a weakness for acquiring ‘bargain’ sites for construction. This ultimately led to a raft of ‘super cinemas’ opening in areas, either with an insufficient population to sustain such large enterprises, or where there was a saturation of cinemas already (in a handful of cases, even competing directly with his own!).
Nevertheless, many have been lost, and in the absence of a comprehensive series of blue plaques commemorating their sites (are there any?), it seems fitting to single out a few examples (I’ve chosen 8 personal favourites), give a brief overview, and show you what was built in their place.
On opening in March 1934, the Worthing ODEON was one of the largest and most expensive builds the chain had commissioned to date, costing double that of the smaller venues. Its appearance (like South Harrow the previous year), was a leap forward in British cinema design, pairing a prominent modernist tower with a curved streamline café wing, features, that would become regular elements of the ODEON circuit style going forward. The tower itself boasted an illuminated clock, 8ft across, spelling ODEON THEATRE.
Despite stiff competition from three earlier town centre theatres, in addition to the recently opened Plaza, and the nearby Lancing ODEON, Worthing was a huge success for many years. The 1970s saw multiplexing of the auditorium, splitting it into three. Despite sustained popularity, it was closed in 1986 for redevelopment, but was swiftly given grade II listed status by Historic England. A legal battle followed, with the developers eventually claiming victory. The building was demolished in late 1987 and Montague Shopping Centre erected on the site.
Tolworth was one of several early small venues (or village hall ODEONs as I like to call them), built to modest plans. Designed by Yates, Cook & Darbyshire, the cinema was built on a greenfield site, with no obvious demand for such a development. Allen Eyles’ book on the chain reports that, in these early years there were numerous jokes in circulation, ridiculing Oscar for throwing up cinemas in the most unconventional rural locations.
It only lasted until 1961, when it was demolished and replaced with Tolworth Tower, a 22 storey mixed use tower designed by Richard Seifert (completed in 1964). The area was clearly not so rural by this point!
The Surbiton ODEON, another example from 1934, was unlike anything else in the chain, and was almost certainly a ‘take over’ project. Built as a theatre, it featured a 12ft deep stage, several dressing rooms, a band room, and lift in the orchestra pit, none of which were standard cinema fare! Both architect, Joseph Hall, and interior designers Mollo & Egan, also had no previous connection with the chain, although they would go on to do further work for Oscar. It was a striking building, both externally and internally, with a curious blend of geometric patterns and semi-abstract vine murals in the foyer. In addition to the tall angular corner windows on either flank of the façade, the canopy sported a huge ODEON sign in a significantly different typeface to the usual octagonal lettering.
Built less than a mile from the Kingston ODEON (1933, also now gone), Surbiton was always going to prove challenging to remain viable in the long-term. Nevertheless, it stayed open until 1975, when it was reborn as a carpet showroom. B&Q took over custodianship in 1977, giving DIYers a dose of Art Deco style with every visit for 20 years. Sadly, in 1998 it was demolished and replaced with a Waitrose supermarket, built in a cinema-esque style. The flats either side, contemporary to the cinema, remain.
Of the many designs realised in this fruitful period, Andrew Mather’s concept for Chingford is surely one of the most unique. The almost cathedral-like exterior possessed a dramatic vertical emphasis, clad in grey & cream terracotta with stylised detailing. Two carved figures adorned the top of the tower, which for my money, looks to be heavily influenced by the Manhattan architecture of the period. Unfortunately, the interior was less inspiring, and far more ‘old fashioned’ than many of Mather’s other examples for the chain.
After being sold to Classic cinemas in 1967, it was ultimately closed in 1972 and demolished to make way for a mixed retail and residential block. Poundstretcher & PetHut currently occupy the site.
Opening on November 16th 1936, Bury ODEON was the only modern cinema in the Lancashire town, and was the chain’s first entirely new cinema in the Manchester area. Its boxy faience clad exterior may not have had the finesse of examples like Chingford, but its striking minimal nature must have caused quite a stir in this traditional industrial town.
After closing in 1981, the building was used as a nightclub for many years, before being left empty. It was eventually demolished in 2013. As of June 2016, the site was still undeveloped, but directly opposite is a new (2010) VUE multiplex and shopping centre, the exterior of which was clearly influenced by its grandparent.
Opening on 31st July 1937, just five days after, and 1 ½ miles from South Norwood ODEON, Penge was one of a number in the year to feature large quantities of opaque glass on the frontage. Two illuminated towers capped with flag poles stood at either end, adding a considerable dramatic effect.
Closing in 1976, it saw out the remainder of the 70s and 80s as a bingo hall before shutting for good in 1990. 1994 saw a Wetherspoon’s pub, ‘The Moon & Stars’ constructed on the site. It’s worth noting that whatever opinions you have of them, the J. D. Wetherspoon group have converted a number of former cinemas into public houses in recent years, serving as welcome custodians to these old hulks. It’s only a shame that this wasn’t the mind-set when Penge met the demolition ball.
The Canning Town ODEON has the dubious accolade of having the shortest lifespan of any of the chain’s pre-war constructions. Opening behind schedule in May 1939, Keith P. Roberts’ huge 2240 seater made excellent use of an awkwardly shaped island site, with a curved single height entrance leading to a huge foyer bathed in natural light. The exterior was clad predominantly in cream faience, with a tall ventilation fin capped with a flag pole, towering above the main structure.
Situated near the docks, as it was, Canning Town was subjected to a barrage of bombings during the Blitz. The cinema was no exception, being struck on May 11th 1941, and never reopening. The site wasn’t actually fully cleared until 1970, with a block of flats named ODEON Court going up in its place.
Opening just four days before the country went to war, Hendon was the last new ODEON to be completed until 1950. Designed by Robert Bullivant, the facing was done entirely in brick, a medium put to successful use in Chester & York, but still an unusual choice for the chain (in this case, it was to keep costs down). Smaller than most of the period, featuring a slab tower, curved entrance with splayed fins, and a streamline corner punctured with porthole windows, it was an undeniably pretty building. Unfortunately, the timing of launch was dreadful, with only a fraction of capacity attending the gala launch, buffet and speeches. Five days later, the government approved emergency measures to close every cinema in the country on safety grounds (although this was lifted a short time later).
Hendon survived unmodified and un-multiplexed until it closed in 1979. It was demolished in 1981 to make way for sheltered accommodation.
The information used to write this post was compiled using a combination of sources including Allen Eyles’ indispensable book ‘ODEON Cinemas 1: Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’, the excellent Cinema Treasures website, and as always, Google.
If you appreciate this architecture of this period (and are familiar with Worcestershire & the West Midlands), you might well enjoy my new book ‘Streamline Worcestershire’. More information at www.streamlineworcestershire.com