Tag Archives: Westbourne Grove

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.

 

 

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Westbourne Grove to Pembridge Road: another short walk

This is where we finished last week, minus 70 or 80 years or so:

Westbourne Grove

The street is busy but pedestrians are still free to amble across it.The building in the centre was as I suggested last week at this time a bank, the London and Westminster Bank (much later merged into the NatWest). If you look carefully into the distance on the right the spires of the Baptist Chapel are visible. But I promised you another walk in a southward direction. So let’s take the other fork, Pembridge Villas.

Pembridge Villas PC324 nAs you can see it’s a quiet residential street full of what might be called suburban villas.

“There are some grand parts to Notting Hill; everybody knows that.The streets between Westbourne Grove and Pembridge Square for example have a reputaion for being awfully desireable. ” as Sugar, the heroine of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White  says to William Rackham. “But that is precisely where I live!” is his reply. For these characters the area was clean and pleasant and not quite in London.

The buses were another useful amenity for residents.

Pembridge Villas PC324 n (2)

A close up shows that these are horse buses which perhaps puts us in the 1890s. It would only be a short ride up Pembridge Villas to Pembridge Road. Here there is a junction with Pembridge Crescent and Pembridge Square, and a little further on Portobello Road.

Pembridge Road Sun in SplendourHere is the familiar curved front of the Sun in Splendour, a pub which is still a starting point for any walk down the Portobello Road. I often pose the question what would it be like to enter these everyday scenes of a century or so ago, but what if it were the other way round, and the people in these pictures could see our streets?

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I took this picture, which shows the other half of the pub’s front in 2008 when I went to look at some pictures in Notting Hill Library. (Is it really five years ago?)

This is the point where the street changes back to the retail environment we left back in Westbourne Grove.

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The buildings are two storey affairs with shops on the ground floor and some living space above. Shoppers stroll by heading towards the High Street (as Notting Hill Gate would have been known then.)

Pembridge Road 1905 35-39 fp detail

Look past the boy looking at the camera and the woman in short sleeves. Can you see the sign: “Best prices paid for old artificial teeth” Dentistry was a growth business in this period.

Back in 2008 when I was there foot traffic was going in both directions.

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The colours have probably changed, and the shop fronts are more flamboyant.

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All fascinating shops as you can see but a brief acknowledgement from me to Mimi Fifi, at the centre of the picture,  which I have visited many times and is devoted to toys and memorabilia and contains thousands of such items.

Imagine those late Victorian / Edwardian shoppers, already veterans of the 19th century retail revolution finding even more stuff to buy.

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At the end of this short stretch the narrow road widens out again as it meets the junction with the start of Kensington Park Road and last section before Notting Hill Gate.

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This view looks north, back the way we came. The buildings on the eastern side of the road are still with us, as you can see in this northward view:

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Outside Hart’s Noted Furniture Stores two women seem to be waiting for something. A gap in the traffic?

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Across the road the Prince Albert public house, which still goes by that name.

Pembridge Road PC329

Behind it was a group of tiny streets, now mostly gone.

Further along the road at the junction with the high street the buildings have all been replaced by a huge development (relative to the street) combining retail and housing.

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This view from 1963 shows the scale of the change.

Notting Hill Gate north side 92-164 1963 K63-1077

At the right of the picture you can see the older buildings on the east side of Pembridge Road and across the road the retail /office block that replaced the original buildings. For me, and millions of others of course this is the Notting Hill Gate we know. The wide pavements and shops seem like just another familiar part of of the Kensington landscape.

We’ve walked ourselves back and forth through time while making that short journey from Westbourne Grove to Notting Hill Gate. Time to take a rest.

Postscript

I took the pictures in 2008 using an Olympus compact camera which seems tiny now compared with the Nikon I’m using now.


A short stroll down Westbourne Grove 1971-2

1971. A bright day, in November possibly. On the right of the picture 120 Kensington Park Road,a branch of Finch’s Wine. The start of our little walk.

Westbourne Grove looking east Nov Dec 1971 KS2297

These are the high numbers of Westbourne Grove. The street begins over the border in Westminster but we won’t go there today.

Westbourne Grove north side 304-306 nov 1971 KS2298

The restaurant on the corner was called L’Artiste Assoiffe. We looked quite closely at the building one day at the Library and concluded that it was larger than the ones beside it because it may have been the developer’s own house. It has always stuck in my mind because my friend Tony did some temporary work there one day in the 1970s and was given four LPs by the German band Faust who had eaten there. The music meant nothing to the proprietors and not much more to Tony but I was a bit of a fan so they ended up with me, and I still have them. (I saw Faust at the Rainbow about 1974 although saying saw is stretching it as the stage was in near total darkness, a complete contrast to the support band Henry Cow who practically brought a whole circus with them including jugglers, dancers and a man who ironed clothes throughout the performance.I digress)

Kelly’s Directory of 1972 conforms the identity of the shops – the Catherine Buckley boutique, an Express Dairy and several antique shops. (Portobello Road is just up the road.) I think the pancake restaurant Obelix was later on this part of the street. That was more in my price range at the time – I remember going there a lot in the early 80s. (I’ll look it up when I get back to the Library.)[Update – it was at 294, so probably in the right block  just out of the picture]

Westbourne Grove south side 295-287 Dec 1971 KS2487

The south side also had many antique shops. The picture is dated December 1971 although that group of girls on the left don’t look like they’re dressed for winter. The photographer John Rogers was also in the street in June 1972 so there may be room for confusion. I’ll ask him next time I see him.

Number 291, an antiques warehouse, the building with the classical arch in the centre of the picture had been the home of the Twentieth Century Theatre used by the Rudolf Steiner Association. Before that it was a cinema and the headquarters of the Lena Ashwell Players. If you remember we encountered Miss Ashwell a couple of weeks ago having dinner with Yoshio Markino. A closer look:

Westbourne Grove south side 291-293 Dec 1971 KS2489

Past Portobello Road comes our friend from last week, Portobello Court.

Westbourne Grove Portobello Court Dec 1971 KS2470

It has settled into the local  landscape and become a familiar feature.

Westbourne Grove south side Longlands Court DEc 1971 KS2485

Across the road was Longlands Court.

At the intersection with Denbigh Road, Westbourne Grove widens out.

Westbourne Grove looking east from Denbigh Road Dec 1971 KS2472

The shops continue on both sides of the road, north:

Westbourne Grove north side 224-228 Dec 1971 KS2473

And south:Westbourne Grove south side 241-243 Dec 1971 KS2484

The retail ground floors all jut out from the solid mid-19th century houses above.

This has also become a walk for my car identifying readers.

Westbourne Grove north side 194-196 Dec 1971 KS2476

Look at the vintage item in the foreground and the Jaguar / Daimler on the other side.  What does it tell us about the residents and visitors to this semi-Bohemian quarter? Look closely at the twin towered building in the distance, the former Baptist Chapel. Modern residents will note that it lacks the spires it has now and did once before. What befell the original structures?

Westbourne Grove south side 187-189 Jun 1972 KS3568

In the centre of the picture a shop called Dodo Designs, wholesalers of fancy goods. We’re moving away from the antique district now. Is that an MG in the foreground?

Westbourne Grove south side 155-157 Jun 1972 KS3563

Further along another sports car, in front of a Fiat 500. Opposite, the Star of Bombay restaurant, still there today.

Below, a motorbike to be identified.

Westbourne Grove south side 141-143 Jun 1972 KS3562

Over the road the Jimmy James grocers (one of two shops Jimmy James had in the street at the time), next door to Chipstead Productions, film editors and cutters, and further along a little shop called Bon Bon (confectioners – not many shops these days are exclusively devoted to confectionery. Even Hotel Chocolat serves coffee.)

Westbourne Grove south side 113-135 Jun 1972 KS3561 You can also see Bon Bon in the final picture in the shadow of the tall building with an ornate tower at the intersection of Pembridge Villas and Chepstow Place. In its glory days it had been a bank but at the time of this photo (dated June 1972, as are all the pictures from this end of the street) it was another antique dealer’s premises.

Westbourne Grove goes on into the City of Westminster, but John had reached the end of his mission so we don’t have the resources to step over the border. Our walk comes to an end with the sun shining brightly on 1970s Westbourne Grove. I came to London in 1973 so these pictures come from an era when it was all new and exciting for me. So I never tire of going back there

Postscript

Just as this week’s post was suggested by last weeks I’m now thinking of turning south and heading towards Pembridge Road for another Secret Life of Postcards special. We’ll see if that works out.


Portobello Court: new housing 1949-50

Portobello Street Feb 1945This is Portobello Street (formerly called Bolton Street) in February 1945. You won’t find it on maps today.

Your eye is drawn to the horse and cart, still commonplace in London at that time. But look up from the cart at the almost entirely torn down political poster on the wall where the big caption “Labour gets things done” survives. This was of course months before the election of 1945 which resulted in a landslide victory for the Labour party.

Housing developments in Kensington were not a direct result of the election. There was a huge impetus for new housing after the damage and dereliction left by the war. One typical development was the plan to demolish the whole of Portobello Street to make way for a new housing estate.

Portobello Street

This map, overlaid with the new buildings shows the extent of the new estate.

Portobello Street 1945This photograph has been marked up by someone in the planning office. It was another four years before the site was cleared and looked like this, in1949:

Portobello Court site 12.5.49

Below is the view looking roughly west with Lonsdale Road at the right of the picture :

Portobello Court site 12.11.49

The building work has only just begun and just like with modern  projects the builder’s hut is the first thing to be constructed. This one looks rather more substantial than the prefab units of today.

Looking at the site from another angle you can see the tower of the Convent of Our Lady of Sion, now converted for residential use and known as Thornberry Court, and nearer to the building site the classical front of the Methodist Chapel, now demolished. The buildings on the other side of Westbourne Grove  have also been demolished. This section of Westbourne Grove was originally called Archer Street.

Portobello Court site 08.07.49

In the picture below you can see more of Lonsdale Road and Colville School. That section of street used to be called Buckingham Terrace (and before that Western Terrace), and the school known as Buckingham Terrace School.

Portobello Court site 13.6.50 02

Here is a slightly different view of the same side of the new estate, showing the entrance to the school and what looks like a removals van.

Portobello Court site 13.6.50 03

The tower of All Saint’s Church in Talbot Road is in the distance.

This picture shows the east side of the development.

Portobello Court site 13.6.50 04

The path running up to the gates is all that remains of the line of Portobello Street. Colville Street goes from left to right

Tricky isn’t it? Let’s try this one:

Portobello Court site 16.5.50 03

You can see the estate taking shape. The street in the foreground is Denbigh Street. The bus is parked at the corner of Westbourne Grove. (Not to mention the bowler hatted Man from the Ministry standing there). Colville Street carries on from Denbigh Street and Lonsdale Road can be seen in the background.

To complete the rectangle of streets we need one more view:

Portobello Court site 20.6.50Portobello Road itself, running across the back of the picture with the tower of St Peter’s Church, Kensington Park Road just visible, thankfully for the modern viewer.

The previous pictures of the site were taken in May and June of 1950. The last three are all from July of that year.

Portobello Court site 14.7.50 02

The housing blocks get taller.

Portobello Court site 14.7.50 01

A number 15 bus can be seen on Westbourne Grove.

Portobello Court site 14.7.50 03

Here is another view of that corner. The estate is almost finished.

If this selection of camera angles, street name changes , demolished and still existing buildings has left you confused let’s take a final look back at 1945. Below is a view looking down Portobello Road in 1945.

Portobello Road Feb 1945

Once again the planner’s pen is at work marking the end of Portobello Street.

A woman stands on the corner looking down the street perhaps unaware that everything behind her is marked for destruction, and new housing.

 

Postscript

As you can imagine although this post is economical in terms of words it had a high level of difficulty as far as accurate captions were concerned. Local resident and historian Maggie Tyler helped me with orientation and identification of streets and churches but any errors are my own. Current and former residents of Portobello Court may spot things I’ve missed. Corrections and comments are welcome.

I had intended to include a 1970s picture from our photo survey to show the completed building but when I looked at the set of John Rogers photos of the Kensington part of Westbourne Grove I decided they deserve a post of their own, which will be coming soon.


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