FILM / Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably). David Thomson shows you to your seat, while other film fans name their favourite picture palaces

David Thomson
Sunday 17 April 1994 00:02 BST

CENTENARIES are too rich to be eaten quickly, but the picture business is inclined to make a feast of anything. So we are in the middle of a centenary season, devoted to the many moments at which moving pictures began. The conscientious celebrant can party from 1992 until the end of 1995, acknowledging this or that debut. But the two most momentous moments (this has to be done in movie-speak) are the spring of 1994 and December 1995.

One hundred years ago, in New York - and then rapidly in every other competitive city - there opened kinetoscope parlours. Thomas Edison was the entrepreneur behind them, and they worked like this: an individual put his eyes to a viewer, turned a handle or pushed a button, and a short strip of moving images unwound. It was like a fairground 'What the Butler Saw' (and the contents were sometimes lewd), or like a Walkman movie - one person at a time, shut off in the privacy of the spectacle. The dark was not involved.

I like dark, and so I prefer to honour what happened on 28 December 1895, in a cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. That's when and where Louis and Auguste Lumiere invited an audience to sit down facing a large white rectangle. They then lowered the lights and turned on their projector - though they called it the cinematographe (the same machine served as their camera). They showed a few brief scenes from life, turning that blank screen into what Sartre, later, would call the frenzies on the wall.

One of these scenes showed a train coming into a station. When the Parisians saw the locomotive inching towards them, they screamed and ran out of the dark. The trick worked.

The ingredients of that trick are a crowd, a windowless room, a screen, with the audience placed between the light of the projector and the screen, and anything on the screen which seems capable of coming off the flat surface and into our lives and minds. Did I mention the dark?

In 100 years, film has been projected in many venues - on white walls in film students' lofts; on bed sheets, so that you get that odd stain the shape of Sri Lanka on Garbo's face; on snowy hillsides on moonless nights. One of the most magical sights driving on American summer nights is to see the ghostly action of a drive-in screen hovering over the highway.

But there was a great age, roughly from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second, when our cities built and filled enormous movie palaces. There are few of these crazy grottoes left now, and fewer still that function as cinemas. But in the 1940s, it was still possible to go from one to the other - the exquisite Astoria, Brixton; the Carlton, Haymarket; the Regal in Uxbridge; and for me, above all, the Granada in Tooting.

These were fabulously decorated places: they deserved to be the locations for movies, not just places where they were shown. I have not been in the Tooting Granada for close to 40 years: the last I heard it was a bingo abattoir. But I recall it as having elaborate arcades, staircases and side chapels as one approached the place itself, the auditorium, the big dark. It had maybe 1,500 seats and carpets as yielding as flesh. The sound was stereophonic and the screen was as big as an ocean liner.

We had a dark then, and theatres packed with strangers, so that once you were in you felt you couldn't get out. The fantasy worked because no one yet had properly explained that movies were a dream. The change came in the 1950s, as these extravagant theatres began to close, as TV took us back to the arid voyeurism of the kinetoscope and as Sunday papers and universities started to take 'film' seriously.

Today, in America and increasingly in Britain, there are clever multiplexes where many movies play in small boxes, bare of decoration. A 500-seater is counted large now. The rooms are designed to let a small crowd feel satisfactory. No one quite believes in the old dark - and that includes the people who make today's movies.

No designer now would have the nerve to compete with the Granada or any of those overwhelming interiors that once graced New York, Chicago or San Antonio, Texas (maybe the best city for romantic decor). Designs of that intensity would seem absurd or camp now, as well as uneconomical; audiences would feel embarrassed. For no one goes to the movies with as much confidence in fantasy any more. To judge by the modernist austerity of new churches, prayer faces the same problem.

The new bareness might suggest that we concentrate on the movies instead of their setting now, because the movies are better. The opposite is true. We watch in a more detached way; and most movies count on our distance, and our reluctance to follow complex narratives. Television prepared us for this with all of its handicaps - the image warped by the screen; the frame altered; the movie interrupted by commercials, by fond and boring company, by someone at the door, or the unexercised dog. There's a light on in the room with the TV, and the diminutive screen has the force of a night-light. No matter how many hours of TV we watch, we feel sheepish and guilty - for we know TV degrades the image. Who ever saw beauty on TV more than a couple of times in their life?

Whereas, once upon a time, to be going to the movies was an honorable adventure, the next-best thing to leaving home. But you had to leave early if you wanted to be sure of getting in. So many believed in going then, and trusted the ridiculous stories, and absorbed their reckless beauty, no wonder the theatre walls seemed to gather the sweat from harem dreams and haunted-house nightmares.

STEVE WOOLLEY: Producer, 'The Crying Game'; former manager, the Scala, King's Cross

I was fortunate to grow up in Islington when most of the cinemas were still running. I was mad about films. I'd go to the Odeon Angel and the Rex, which is now the Screen on the Green. My dad or uncles would take me to the ABC in the evenings. I became highly attuned to audiences and the environment a film was shown in. I rate it as highly as the movie itself. If you see Performance, as I did, at three in the morning at the Classic in Victoria, it's not the same as seeing it on the box. It was one of the strangest films I've ever seen, and coming out and walking from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate afterwards was extraordinary.

There are no character cinemas in London now. Places like the Biograph in Victoria. It was 28p to get in and a huge gay pick-up. It was great, like watching a film in a Baghdad market. The toilet door kept crashing into you. They showed films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then there was the Starlight, which just showed Thirties and Forties doubles. They used to serve cucumber sandwiches with the corners cut off - I'd never had them before.

At the Scala I strove to create an atmosphere, because that's how I saw films when I was young. People say the Scala wasn't great because not all the seats worked and the trains ran underneath, but who else would show Kenneth Anger films, or do proper late shows? It's because of videos. People don't seem to get it any more, they don't want to see a film on a big screen. There was hardly a ripple when the Scala closed. It's kind of sad.

The Screen on the Green has a really big place in my heart. I remember it as the Rex, a fleapit. I was forbidden by my parents to go there. Working as an usher there in 1976 was definitely the most exciting time. We put the Sex Pistols on - it was the summer of punk. And there were all-night Marx Brothers films. It would show Duck Soup at four in the morning. The first weekend I worked there the double bill was Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'I'm being paid to watch these films three nights a week, I must be the luckiest person alive'.

There was an atmosphere in London then rivalling France and New York - movies were suddenly hip. I was going to the cinema on my own, thinking I was mad. As I was about to enter my twenties, I realised that all these other people were obsessed too. It was a great time. It was pre-Channel 4 and before BBC 2 got its act together. You really had to search the films out.

ANTHONY LANE: Film critic, the 'New Yorker'

Growing up as an Army child, especially on foreign postings, one fell under the influence of three great institutions: the Naafi, the BFBS and the SKC. The first two provided food and radio, the third offered the chance to go to the movies. Of the three tantalising acronyms, the SKC held by far the most promise, largely because I never knew what it stood for. But it meant that I watched my most formative films in what was, essentially, an enlarged Nissen hut: round-roofed, cold and cavernous. There were probably scores of them all over Germany, from Rheindalen to Wolfenbuttel, but in my memory they are compacted into one solid image of stackable chairs, clattering projectors, butter-fingered reel-changes and cheering squaddies. The artistic diet was not rich, being sensibly grounded in the British military's endearing desire to watch nothing but films about other soldiers, or, at a pinch, airmen. Proper film critics always seem to be weaned on Jean Renoir or Bette Davis pictures; I grew up on Zeppelin and The Blue Max. There was even a skiing thriller, a genre that never really took off. Later on, the outfit grew broader and more professional - a pity, I think, although it did result in one sensational showing of Carrie. As the telekinetic Sissy Spacek pinned her mother to the wall with flying knives, excitement grew in the hut. Finally one sole knife remained; it hovered for a second, then whistled into the centre of Mom's heart. A soldier cried out: 'One hundred and eeeeeeiiiighty]' Only at the SKC.

ANTHONY BURGESS: Late novelist and polymath

On Queen's Road (Manchester, in the Twenties) there were two cinemas - the Rex and the Electric. They faced each other, like the Globe and the Rose playhouses on the Elizabethan South Bank, but not in true rivalry. Going to one on a Monday and a Thursday (the day the programme changed) did not prevent you going to the other on a Tuesday and a Friday, if you could afford it. The cinemagoer's criteria had more to do with hygiene than with the quality of the entertainment offered. The Rex was called a bughouse and the Electric not. The Electric used a superior disinfectant like a grudging perfume; the Rex smelt of its patrons and its lavatories. With the Rex, it was said, you went in in a blouse and came out with a jumper. So it was to the Electric that the children of Lodge Street went, clutching their pennies, on a Saturday afternoon . . .

The manager of the Electric did not wish too many even of his front rows to be defiled by children, and so we were jammed three to a seat, with a gaping black auditorium behind us clean for the evening's two houses. So I began a lifetime's devotion to the cinema, a one-sided love affair in which I was more bruised than caressed.

From 'Little Wilson and Big God', 1987.

PETER YORK: Style writer and marketing guru

Prince Charles opened the revamped Empire, Leicester Square, in 1989, according to a tablet in the foyer. This strikes me as unlikely on two levels. First, he must have had a paper bag over his head; anything less calculated to appeal to his design tastes cannot be conceived. Second, it's very difficult to imagine this lash-up being completed in the golden age of mass retail gentrification and added-value. The common parts - the entrance canopy, booking area, stairs, huge sales area and the pointless 40-screen video-wall - are all rendered in designs and finishes so tacky you could convince anyone that they were in a late-Seventies Leeds disco. But the refit isn't amusing; it's easily the ugliest entrance of the four Leicester Square mega-cinemas: the metalwork, the multi-coloured chevron carpeting, and the half-hearted pastel 'diner' neon really take some believing.

This is a pity because the main cinema, rebuilt in 1962 as a 1,330-seat stadium, is still lovely, huge, bland, red-seated and comfortable with banded coloured lighting-arches in Twilight Zone effects all round you. A proper big cinema, neither a mock theatre nor a mean-spirited box.

That's where, for instance, I saw the preview of Saturday Night Fever in 1978 and emerged elated, surrounded by the normally snide spoilt folk on whom the People's Choices are wasted in the PR process, and they were elated too. For that mood we had proper Big London People's Palace stairs, with proper dark plain carpet, brass rails and a lot of mirrors, rather than a design job that makes you feel you're actively slumming.

How different from my favourite country cinema, the Rex in Wareham, Dorset, converted from an Oddfellows Hall in 1928 - the same year the splendid original Empire was built - and very sensibly left untouched ever since, except for the introduction of a good cafe. In the warm fug from the wall-mounted gas-heaters, the Rex presents a surprising mix of material on the one screen, from blockbusters to art-house and cult. In January this particular Cinema Paradiso mounted an Alan Bates retrospective - some of the best British films of the Sixties and Seventies - and even managed to get Bates down for a late-night on- stage interview. More fun than the NFT - more local atmosphere and fewer fanciful questions - this could be the way to revive the rural cinema.

LYNDA MYLES: Producer, 'The Commitments'

The Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. I used to go over there a lot when I was 18 or 19. It's the home of cinema. The atmosphere is extraordinary. You could go and see the most obscure movies - like some obscure western from the Fifties - and feel such a bond with the audience. It's the best audience in the world. The building is very austere but it has a very big screen, and the seats are my favourite in the world. They're big armchairs which are tilted back slightly so your gaze is directed to the screen, which creates a slightly different relationship with the film. It's got the best sightlines in the world. And at the entrance are great displays of old posters and old cinematic equipment, zoetropes and things. It's a bit like a church. A hugely enjoyable cinema. It does make a huge difference where you see films.

GRAHAM GREENE: Late novelist and film critic

If I had known it, the whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets. The High Street was wide as many a market square, but its broad dignity was abused after the first great war by the New Cinema under a green Moorish dome, tiny enough but it seemed to us then the height of pretentious luxury and dubious taste. My father, who was by that time headmaster of Berkhamsted School, once allowed his senior boys to go there for a special performance of the first Tarzan movie, under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion.

From 'A Sort of Life', 1971.

MICHAEL PYE: Author of 'Maximum City: the Biography of New York'

I never found my favourite cinema until it closed, and then I found it going in crates to the smart salvage shops of New York's SoHo: a marble fountain, a statue of Poseidon, a bit of mosaic, a Mediterranean village, the flying stuffed ducks and artificial stars that crossed a man-made sunset as the main feature began. Such picture palaces used to be New York's style, a glorification of the movies, but we were quadruplexed and multiplexed until we could as well watch videos in a drawing room. It seemed only the pornographic theatres could stay big and sociable. Yet it turns out one of the palaces - between bodegas in the Nether Bronx - was 'plexed like all the others, but so cheaply the plasterboard still hid the original glories, and kept them safe. This month it's to be stripped efficiently and sold for its chic,

but until the last weeks, one New York cinema still had a plaster god unfurling bas-relief film across a wall, still offered grand illusions, a VistaVision show, even before the curtains opened on the movie itself. One cinema was everyone's palace - populist and glorious. One cinema was serious about the movies.

MELVYN BRAGG: Broadcaster and novelist

I have three. The greatest was Joe Cusack's in Wigton. It was down Meeting House Lane, where the Salvation Army met. I went there from the age of six, about three times a week. There were the 'four pennies' at the front. It had a balcony. Later I discovered it had a back row. I must have seen 100 films a year there. Then the Scala in Oxford, in Walton Street (now the Phoenix). That was wonderful. There were great seasons of Bergman and Truffaut and Antonioni. Every time you went you had a revelation. With both I just remember not being able to wait to get in to see the film. The third is the Everyman in London. When I first lived in London, my wife and I used

to queue up every Saturday night and see whatever was on. And whatever was on was usually good.

DAVID PUTTNAM: Producer, 'Chariots of Fire'

The Pictureville in Bradford, because the relationship between the screen size and all parts of the auditorium is perfect, and because it has a wonderful sound system.

MIKE LEIGH: Director, 'Life is Sweet', 'Naked'

The Tolmer, in Tolmers Square, close to Euston Station. It's been dead for some time. I suppose it lasted until the mid-Seventies. It was in fact an old church, which was apparently haunted. It was the cheapest cinema in London. The last time I went it was two shillings to get in. It was grotty. The seats were very tightly packed together. Certain sections you couldn't sit in because it was where the tramps sat. It smelt of urine. But for the film student it was a brilliant place. It was fantastically cheap and you could catch up on all sorts of films there. They'd grab anything and show it - epics, westerns, anything and everything. Architecturally it was early-to mid-19th-century. But the spire had been chopped off and it had been painted in gloss. It was horrid. It was an old shit-hole actually. It was a joy. There was and is nothing like it. In terms of movie-going, for a serious film-buff, it was brilliant.

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE: Late philosopher, etc

On rainy days, Anne-Marie (Sartre's mother) would ask what I wanted to do, and we would hesitate a long while between the circus, the Chatelet, the Maison Electrique and the Musee Grevin; at the last moment, with deliberate casualness, we would decide to go to a picture theatre. My grandfather would appear at the door of his study when we opened the door of the flat; he would ask: 'Where are you children off to?' 'To the cinema,' my mother would say. He would frown and she would add hastily: 'To the Pantheon cinema, it's very near, we only have to cross the rue Soufflot.'

The show would have begun. As we stumbled along behind the attendant, I felt I was there surreptiously; above our heads, a beam of white light would be shining across the hall, and dust and smoke would be dancing in it; a piano would be tinkling, violet light-bulbs would be glowing on the wall, and I would catch my breath at the varnish-like smell of a disinfectant. The smell and the fruits of that inhabited night mingled within me: I was eating the exit lights, filling myself with their acid taste. I would scrape my back against people's knees, sit on a creaking seat. My mother slipped a folded rug under my buttocks to raise me up; finally I would look at the screen and would see fluorescent chalk, and shimmering landscapes streaked with rain; it was always raining, even in bright sunshine, even inside a flat; sometimes a fiery planet would cross a baroness's drawing-room without her appearing to be surprised. I used to love that rain, that restless disquiet which tormented the wall. The pianist would strike up the overture to Fingal's Cave and everyone would know that the villain was about to appear: the baroness would be crazed with terror. But her handsome, dusky face would be replaced with a mauve notice: 'End of first part'. Then would come the abrupt sobering-up and the lights. Where was I? At school? In a government office? No ornaments of any kind: rows of tip-up seats which revealed their springs when pushed up, walls smeared with ochre, and a wooden floor littered with cigarette ends and spittle.

Muffled voices would fill the hall, words would exist once more; the attendant would offer boiled sweets for sale and my mother would buy me some; I would put them in my mouth and I was sucking the exit lights.

People would rub their eyes and everyone would realise he had neighbours. Soldiers, local servants; a bony old man would be chewing, hatless working-women would be laughing out loud: all these people were not of our world. Fortunately, dotted here and there in this parterre of heads, large bobbing hats brought reassurance.

From 'Words', 1964.

SALLY HIBBIN; Producer, 'Raining Stones', 'Riff Raff'

The Holloway Odeon is a mainstream local six-screen cinema with all the usual cracks on the screen. It's an old Odeon that's been carved up. It used to be a fleapit, but it's been refurbished and is now comfortable. Most films I see, I see there. I think it's great because of the audience - it's not like the West End, where everyone is very quiet. I saw Far and Away there. It was one of the worst films I've ever seen, but the audience made it an eminently enjoyable experience. They were really with it, going 'Oi, he's not gonna do that' and 'Oh, Gawd'. They turned it into something very funny. And when Saturday Night Fever was on people were dancing up the aisles.

But having discovered that the cinema won't admit people in wheelchairs, it's on the black-list. Wheelchairs can get into the building - though not upstairs, as I found when I broke my leg - but they won't allow them to stay in the aisles because it's a fire hazard. I think it's unbelievable. I will make a point of speaking to the manager next time I go. It's off, isn't it?

QUENTIN CURTIS: Film critic, 'Independent on Sunday'

The Electric Cinema in Portobello Road always seems to spring out at you, a splash of exuberance amid run-down boutiques and dowdy antique shops. When it doesn't reek of fish and chips, it reeks of history. Built in 1905, it's Britain's oldest surviving purpose-built cinema: a classic early design, with rectangular hall and barrel-vaulted roof. Five years ago its interior was restored by Simon Wedgwood, whose seal-grey-and-taupe colour scheme looks like something his forebear Josiah might have put on a pot, but was in fact inspired by turn-of-the-century West End theatres.

Some of us recall a seedier splendour. From the Sixties to the early Eighties, the walls were a mouldy blue and the ceiling a functional, light- absorbing black. Save the square, picture-frame proscenium, I remember the decor less well than the films.

With its broad repertory programme, the Electric was a ramshackle university of cinema. At the NFT tweedy young men pored over copies of Cahiers du Cinema; at the Electric you were poured over by the leaky roof. Were the three red buckets at the side heirlooms or life-savers?

The stories about the place would make movies in themselves. The German owner of the 1910s, stoned by crowds accusing him of signalling to Zeppelins, might be out of Fritz Lang's Fury. The rumour that mass-murderer Reginald Christie worked there as a relief projectionist is rather more plausible than 10 Rillington Place. The present projectionist says he's seen two ghosts.

The Electric is now London's only cinema run and owned by black people, with an imaginative programme of black-produced and art-house films. With its gilded fleur-de-lis mouldings and burgundy carpet, it seems redolent of an age that had higher expectations than the movies fulfilled.

JOHN WATERS: Director, 'Hairspray'

The art-deco movie palace, the Senator Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, where my last three films premiered. It has the fanciest bathrooms in town.

KHALID MOHAMED: Film critic, 'Times of India'

Every morning, the heart still twitches. En route to my workplace, the bus stops at the traffic-lights adjoining the Royal Opera House - the cinema- hall where, like thousands of movie-lovers, I laughed and wept in the dark hush of the auditorium. Its cast-iron gates were clanged shut in January 1991. The ancient ushers and ticket salesmen continue to hang around outside; they're jobless. Some hawk home-made sweets, others work part-time as newspaper vendors.

This grand sandstone structure, built in a mishmash of baroque and colonial styles, was inaugurated circa 1925. The British architect, Morris Bandman, supervised the minute details, from the rigging-up of the sculpted balustrades to touching up the semi-circular arches with a shade of salmon pink. Inside, a dozen mammoth chandeliers twinkled as the crowds noisily ensconced themselves in the foam-cushioned chairs. And there were the more pricey 'boxes' which were exclusive retreats for the aristocratic families which didn't want to rub shoulders with hoi polloi.

I remember arriving at the Royal Opera House in a horse-drawn carriage for a screening of a swashbuckling adventure, India's answer to Scaramouche as it were. My mother bought what seemed like a sack of salted pistachios, which were to be devoured only when the main feature commenced. No one in the hall ate before the picture started; it was a strange ritual but a delicious one. As soon as the intermission was announced, the stall serving iced lemonade was attacked; the drinks had to be tossed down before the swashbuckler leapt back into action.

I longed to escape from the vigilance of the elders to gaze at the portraits, done in vivid colours, in the foyer. A humourless face - which could have been either William Shakespeare or Sir Walter Raleigh - stared back reproachfully when I was in my teens, nervously sneaking my first cigarette at the cinema.

Conservationists and eminent citizens of Bombay have sporadically appealed to the city's administration to reopen the monument. But without any success, so far.

TANYA HARROD: Architecture critic

The Academy closed in 1986, its site in Oxford Street comprehensively obliterated, leaving nothing to jog the memory. But for anyone who loved film from the Fifties onwards it was like a university, the place where the great French films were premiered, to be followed by the best Italian, Russian and Japanese. I don't remember popcorn or ice creams. There were no Pearl & Dean advertisements and one's pleasure was tested by a quarter of an hour of recondite East European animation shorts. The Academy was the cinema to make for on that adolescent day-trip to London, entirely because, I now realise, of the bold taste of its directors, George Hoellering and Ivo Javosy. The building was no glittering picture palace. But the interior had its curious charm. By 1953 it had shed its austere hessian-dominated decor in favour of a refit dreamt up by the photographer Angus McBean. The foyer had pale goldish flock wallpaper, a huge sofa and, I think, a couple of invocatory gilded statues of goddesses, while the main cinema was hung with Regency red wallpaper from Coles.

The Academy eschewed distributors' publicity in favour of its own specially commissioned posters. These were designed by Peter Strausfeld, a gifted German artist whom George Hoellering had met in one of those crucibles of wartime creativity, an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Strausfeld's boldly executed linocuts, so redolent of continental modernism, always caught the eye on the Underground and seemed worlds away from the saccharine offerings of the main distributors. Perhaps his masterpiece was his poster for Les Enfants du Paradis which was screened at the Academy every summer for many years. It was certainly the first film I saw there - sometime in July 1968 - making in one evening the leap from innocent cinemagoer to cineaste.

DAVID ATWELL: Architectural writer and author of 'Cathedrals of the Movies'

Most cinema exteriors are short on invention, in contrast to the interiors. While nothing equalled the grandeur of the suburban Granadas in Tooting and Woolwich, one cinema does stand out, a work of architecture as important outside as in: the New Victoria opposite London's Victoria Station. Purely as architecture, the New Victoria is the most significant British cinema building. Even the architectural critics of the time admired it.

It's a miracle of compact planning on a very awkward site. The two long, almost identical frontages to Vauxhall Bridge Road and Wilton Road are quite unlike those of any other British cinema, with their strongly contrasted elements of horizontal banding with vertical entrance bays. For 1929 it was a daring and unique expression of the International Modern Movement.

Inside, the intention was to create the impression of a fairytale undersea Mermaid's Palace. It was a dazzling success, using stalactite light-fittings, fibrous plaster shells and art-deco motifs. Again, there was European influence: Hans Poelzig's Grosses Schauspielhaus in Berlin of 1919.

Alas, it is a Mermaid's Palace no longer. Intact and mainly in cinema use until the early Eighties, it was scandalously mutilated in 1983 in order to create the blacked-out setting for Starlight Express. Consent for this desecration should have been refused; instead a ludicrous condition was attached requiring restoration at the end of the production. Ten years later, the musical rollercoasters on, shaking the plasterwork to bits.

Interviews and research by Rosanna de Lisle. Additional reporting: Tania Hershman.

(Photographs omitted)

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