Forgotten buildings: The Odeon Westbourne Grove Cinema

To start the new year, here is a post from my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez, fresh from her grueling magnum opus on the Natural History Museum, and onto a more personal topic.

 

The subject for my post this week is the Odeon Westbourne Grove cinema. I happened to find some photographs within our collection whilst looking for something else; one of those distracting moments when the original plan went out the window in favour of my newly found stash of local treasure. I thought it might be an interesting one to post about. Even if sadly, what I found were photographs of the cinema just prior to closure.

Local history is really a nostalgic trip inviting us to remember our past selves more than anything else. Places, like people, ingrain themselves in our memories. How many of us have incorporated the cinema as part of a date, for example? Many relationships/courtships may well have begun around these stalwart picture houses like no other place. It is probable that most of us will have set foot in a picture house over the course of our lives, so it is something we can all relate to. Once there were local cinemas everywhere in the UK. Hundreds, in fact. Now you would be hard-pressed to find many of them because they no longer exist.

I still remember the red brick cinema building. It wasn’t, in my opinion, the prettiest of creations, but it had character. A pleasant way of saying it was a good solid building that did what it said on the programme. Spacious and intrinsically functional, it was at the time of building, a modern spectacle for all to enjoy. Attractive in its own way. Not far from the ABC cinema in Queensway (also gone), it was one of quite a few purpose built cinemas in the area at the time of opening. And although it wasn’t one I frequented much, as perhaps I did the Kensington Odeon, or the ABC Queensway, it was a local building I was familiar with.

 

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The Odeon Westbourne Grove opened its doors to the public in 1955. It filled an otherwise unremarkable spot on the corner of Westbourne Grove and Chepstow Road and was a welcome social pastime addition for the Bayswater and Notting Hill population. Interestingly, the cinema was planned at a much earlier stage than when it was completed. The Odeon Theatre was the conception of the Oscar Deutsch Theatres Ltd chain in 1937. Oscar Deutsch was the cinema owner and film exhibitor who founded the Odeon franchise. The first five Odeons opened in 1933. By 1936 he had opened 142 cinemas.

 

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The initial plan was to build a 2,050 seat cinema to the design of architect Andrew Mather. But subsequently, it was decided to reduce that to 1,870 seats with some building work beginning in 1938. Although planning permission was granted in the spring of 1939 to complete the cinema, the outbreak of war in September halted the process.

Below you can see how the ODEON letter signage has already been removed. Signs generally, were often lit in neon at night. It was Oscar Deutsch’s desire that his cinemas be eye-catching and this use of lighting was particularly effective.

Ironically, the telephone boxes you see outside the entrance have also been relegated to the past. With the advent of more personal – though I use that word loosely – communication devices, the iconic red telephone box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, are few and far between now. I think some are still maintained in London, purely as British iconic designs, like the red post box, and London’s Routemaster buses.

 

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The interior of the Odeon Westbourne Grove was practical without many design frills. It was contemporary and simple. The space was enormous. At least it seemed that way to me. Initially only having one screen to entertain the potential 1,870 customers, it has to be said, functional, comes to mind again.

 

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The view towards the other end of the Foyer. At the time of closure, the cinema had three screens. The colour scheme you see here is probably not unfamiliar to cinema goers of the time. Deutsch’s wife Lily was usually a consultant on the colour schemes for a lot of his cinemas. The wooden doors and panelling were made from Sapeli mahogany. The colour palate used in the soft furnishings, such as the carpet, apparently were a combination of Indian-red, powder-blue and straw-pink. Carpet was standard for most cinemas and still is. Some even boasted settees and other decorative furniture in art deco designs – comfort away from home. During the ‘smoking allowed’ epoch (a number of decades), it wasn’t long before the stale smell of cigarette smoke clung to the furnishings. Ash-stands were not an uncommon part of the scenery.

 

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The programme for the opening of the Odeon Westbourne Grove on 29th August 1955 lists the following:

  • National Anthem
  • Opening ceremony by the Mayor of Paddington, Councillor Miss Catherine P. Rabagliati
  • Jack Hawkins on stage
  • Universal News
  • The film screening of “Doctor at Sea” starring Dirk Bogarde (incidentally, my mother-in-law’s favourite actor)

You can see below in the main auditorium the typical raked design of the seats. It was meant to obviously enhance an obstacle free view of the screen. A given for most large cinemas. The auditorium was quite plain, but much of it was panelled in special acoustic tiling to ensure a good sound quality that could be enjoyed throughout the theatre. At the time of building, the Odeon’s main and only screen was…

“of a revolutionary new type, and the widening of the proscenium arch to accommodate its 46ft width is one of the major changes made from the pre-war plans. This screen gives the most brilliant black and white pictures ever shown and sets a new standard of beauty and realism in colour film preservation. Its size and shape can be instantly altered by variable black ‘masking’ operated by press button control.”

The screen curtain had sewn sequins on it. With the right lighting they would twinkle. A small luxury for an otherwise practical, well-equipped cinema.

The best twinkles I think I ever saw were at the Empire, West End, before it was turned into a multi-screen.

 

 

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No cinema can function without its projectors. The first projector used at the Odeon Westbourne Grove, was the Gaumont Kalee 21 projector.

 

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I’m not sure what this is, or its function. I have very little knowledge of the technical terms for a lot of these interesting mechanisms, I’m hoping a cinema aficionado will perhaps enlighten me. It looks like an organ without the keys, but plausibly it looks more like a lighting or sound controlling device.

 

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How to rewind a film? Or at least that is what I think is happening in this next image. It reminds me in some small way of our microfilm readers, but on a massive scale. Macrofilm. Or is this really a long-play turntable?

 

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The scale of the projector is clearly posed here. When you consider how much smaller and more advanced our technology has become, this almost seems excessive. With the advent of digital cinema, we now look upon these remarkable instruments as museum pieces. Projectionists too were no longer required once automation came into play in cinema projection booths. It almost seems blasphemous.

 

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The projector again, this time with a 35mm film reel attached.

 

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Although initially the cinema boasted one large screen, it was temporarily closed in December 1978 for tripling. Something that nearly all cinemas succumbed to, to maximise profit. In March 1983 the Odeon itself was later taken over by Panton Films Ltd, and re-named Coronet Cinema. The same company that operated the Coronet, Notting Hill. However, this was short-lived. By June 1986 the cinema was closed for the last time.

Below you can just about make out the posters for the films last shown there: “Delta Force”, “To Live and Die in LA” and “Jewel in the Nile”.

 

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The beginning of the end.

When I consider the recent closure of the Odeon Kensington I am reminded that the cinemas of old are vulnerable. How many can be left? Unfortunately, these old theatres are gradually losing out to our ever inventive technology and the developers bulldozers. It would seem that video didn’t just kill the radio star, it also started a home cinema revolution. We can even watch films on our mobile phones now, that’s how fast technology moves.

By 1939, Oscar Deutsch had built and taken over many cinemas, including his flagship cinema in London’s West End, naming and renaming them Odeon. By this point they were equal to the Gaumont and ABC. Two of the longest established circuits in the country. In 1941 Oscar Deutsch died at the age of 48 from cancer. His ambition had been to take over the rival Gaumont chain and to expand abroad, but this was left to the man who succeeded him as chairman of Odeon Theatres, J. Arthur Rank; the man-with-the-gong symbolising the finest in screen entertainment.

 

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 A shadow of its former self. And yet you can almost imagine that opening night with the lights and the buzz of the excited crowd:

“Tonight the lights go up and the doors are opened at the latest theatre to join the J. Arthur Rank Organisation’s proud family of more than 550 ODEON and GAUMONT cinemas in Britain.”

It couldn’t be more different in this image.

 

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Of course, there were protests by the local residents. But it was to no avail. The site was sold for re-development and the building was demolished in October 1986. In its place is a block of flats with a few shops on the ground level.

Finally, I will conclude with this interesting acronym I found online:

ODEON = Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation

That he did, for many years.

 

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Postscript:

A few cinemas still exist, just about, so they are not confined to the past (yet); I would hope that we can at least preserve what is left. But is that realistic?

It seems to me that those that remain and survive are always undergoing ‘upgrades’. Much tweaking has been afoot in the last few years technologically. The multi-screen attempt to attract more customers is no longer enough to keep the customers visiting, forcing some cinemas to bump up their ticket prices. In some cases, extortionately. Large one screen auditoriums were soon done away with and divided up to keep up with the increasing demand for more variety and profit. Now, with the advent of the internet, streaming, and home cinema, we have opted for a more personal experience with regards to watching films. Our viewing habits have changed so much we barely recognise what it is to concentrate on one thing at a time. There’s so much choice now the mind boggles.

I don’t know whether it is missing buildings, people, or both that feeds that nostalgia for what was. One cannot stop things from changing and evolving. It would seem it is the natural order of things. But at what point do we need to think about striking a balance?

I realise that there are cine-files who have excellent knowledge regarding the history of these fascinating picture houses, so if I have made any errors I do apologise. I am really not a tech expert, so I have kept that aspect of film to a minimum. In a short post such as this I have simply provided a few facts obtained from several sources to compliment the photographs. Perhaps at some point I will also write about the Kensington Odeon. We have very few images unfortunately, so it would be a very, very short one.

Meanwhile, I will continue to visit the occasional cinema for old time’s sake, and try not to strangle the person behind me kicking the chair, or the one rustling with crisp packets, popcorn buckets, and slurping through straws as they shake the ice at the bottom of their plastic cups for the duration of the film. When you’ve been spoilt like we have with the home cinema experience, getting used to behaving around others in a cinema setting is probably not a consideration remotely within the sphere of social etiquette for some. But then, where would cinemas be if all we did was complain? Anyone fancy the IMAX Experience? They’ll throw in the 3D glasses as part of the deal. I draw the line at Smell-O-Vision though. 4D may be the latest craze, but I blame William Castle for the ideas. Ultimately, it all goes back to cinema’s heyday. Nostalgia, you see.

 

 


4 responses to “Forgotten buildings: The Odeon Westbourne Grove Cinema

  • Dave Hucker

    The hortizontal plates in Pic 9 that held the film were from a system called a Cakestand. This was for when Cinemas were doubled or tripled so that one projectionist could control two or three screens. Before Cakestands the projectionist had to make up the 2000 foot reels that the film was transported in (duration about 20min) and splice them together into a 6000 foot reel which obviously would last an hour on one projector while the balance of time of the film was on projector two.. And the projectionist needed to switch from one projector to another. With a Cakestand system the film came out of the centre of the spool and wound it’s way across the box and through the projector then back to the outside of the spool (remember 8 track cartridges they did the same) Unfortunately this caused horizontal scratches/tears on the film as it came out of the centre. This caused premature wear on the film which also coincided with the distributors cutting costs and using cheaper film stock, which wore out quicker. The projectionist would stick bits of metal tape to the film to activate switches to open/close the curtains. bring up/down re lights. So it was a early form of projection automation.

    • Michael Hollamby

      “The projectionist would stick bits of metal tape to the film to activate switches to open/close the curtains. bring up/down re lights.”..Sounds quite quaint and Heath Robinson-esque now Dave!

      • Dave Hucker

        Well Michael it did work and it was the only technology available at the time. Projection boxes have their own environment, the sound of the projector mechanism, the noise of film being dragged through at a foot a minute. On machines that need lubrication. The carbon arc light sources give off a acrid smell. Heat and oil a heady smell. But now all you get is a projection cupboard with a large beige suitcase case thing and a upright rack with the 10 channels of the surround sound and ancillary stuff. No projectionist really needed. But then in my opinion the old school projectionists were often pretty weird. Either little Ceasers, Alkies, loners, or just refugees from life. You are stuck up there in the gods and have no contact with the rest of humanity. Which for some people is a good thing.

  • Mrs Susan Condon ne e Brown

    Lovely memory s of say morning pictures

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