Obituary: George Singleton
Friday 05 May 1995
George Singleton was one of the great characters of the cinema business. He had the style of the showman but also much more.
He was born in Main Street, Bridgeton, in Glasgow, on the morning of New Year's Day 1900. His introduction to the cinema trade came when his father, who played the piano for silent films as a hobby, gave up his printing business in favour of the new entertainment. The young Singleton learnt every aspect of operating a cinema to the point that he could do every job in the place, including covering for absent pianists (using a repertoire of three tunes).
His first venture on his own was in what had been a United Free Church in the Gorbals. By 1924, he had, as he said, "two Empires - Napoleon had nothing on me!" They were cinemas in Coatbridge and Dundee and formed part of a group made up of 14 halls throughout Scotland.
In 1937, Oscar Deutsch (founder of the Odeon chain) acquired the Singleton circuit, whereupon George Singleton started again by building the huge and stylish Vogue cinema in Govan, which had a capacity of two and a half thousand and was famous for its neon lighting. But the cinema with which his name will always be associated was the Cosmo, in Rose Street. An admirer of the Curzon, in London, he built his own art-house to show the best of "continental" films - "Cosmo" being short for "cosmopolitan". It opened in May 1939 with Un Carnet de Bal and generations of cinemagoers have been the beneficiaries.
It was the strength of the Cosmo that, although its speciality was foreign- language films, it was never regarded as litist. The atmosphere was always entirely friendly and never exclusive. It was even referred to as "the working man's education".
Its greatest days were after the Second World War and it flourished for three decades until economic circumstances dictated that it could not survive in its original form. However, thanks to its sale to the Scottish Film Council in 1972 - a move that pleased Singleton greatly as it ensured that the audience he had developed and cherished would still see films beyond the commercial mainstream - the building still operates as the Glasgow Film Theatre, one of the most successful regional film theatres in the UK.
Early on, the late Charles Oakley (another Glasgow nonagenarian) drew a cartoon figure of Singleton as "Mr Cosmo", dapper and bowler-hatted, the symbol and presiding genius of his cinema. It was a felicitous idea that reflected the spirit of the place and, indeed, Singleton's deserved reputation as an extremely smart dresser. Only two weeks before he died he bought a new Armani suit.
Although cinema was his business, and his love (his favourite film was Jour de Fte), Singleton had a wide interest in the arts. He was a member of the Lloyd Committee (1965-67) which led to the setting up of the National Film School, and was prominent on the Scottish Film Council, the Films of Scotland Committee and the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association (of which he was UK President in 1957-58). He was on the board of the Scottish National Orchestra and one of the founders of the Citizens' Theatre.
A committed socialist, but also a successful capitalist, Singleton was completely at ease with all manner of people. He was extremely courteous and gregarious and was the central figure in what he called a "mob" based at the Glasgow Art Club. Known as the "Tuscany Boys" (average age, over 80), they made expeditions to see works of art in other countries. Last year, at 94, George Singleton revisited some of his favourite French Impressionists in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
His contribution to cinema as culture as well as commerce, and his special feel for what audiences wanted, and how best to present it to them, was greatly admired. But above all, he was one of the most genuine of men.
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