A Personal History of Cinemas in the Chesterfield Area
By Kenneth Bishton
The text relating specifically to the early history of Chesterfield’s cinemas is largely the work and research of its original author, Brian Hornsey, though it has been extensively re-written and updated where relevant accurate new information has become available. I am indebted to Mr Hornsey, and, by extension, to his sources: Derbyshire County Council Library Service, Mr G. Lennox, Mr. R. Rippingale, Mr L. Greaves, Mr G. Sadler, staff at Chesterfield Library and Local Studies, writers at The Derbyshire Times, W. Beach and staff at THE REGAL and ODEON Cinemas, for providing the groundwork for this section. Full credit must go to Mr Hornsey and his booklet Ninety Years of Cinemas in Chesterfield for opening the door, thus allowing me to follow in his shadow.
“This personal study was first presented to the Local Studies department of Chesterfield Library two years ago. The opening section of the text, subtitled “The Wonder Of The Age”, is actually a potted history of the cinema as a mass medium. For those who want to skip this (either because they know it all or are not interested) and just want to get to the nitty-gritty, simply scroll to about one-fifth down the ‘page’ for the ‘local’ juicy bits.
Similarly, the printed version ends with details of all the cinema programmes exhibited in the area during a specific period (1964 to 1969). If you would like to wade your way through these, your best bet is to ask to see the printed copy available in Chesterfield Library.”
All photographs are my own except:
This page, above and below: Projection equipment old and new at The Regal, Staveley, both pictures courtesy of Trevor Harris (tonyspics)
P.13, Proctor’s Bioscope sideshow, courtesy of C.H. Nadin, © North East Midland Photographic Record
P.14, The Hippodrome, courtesy of Ken Roe
P.15, The Coliseum (black-and-white), courtesy of Ken Roe & Andrew Hewkin,
© North East Midland Photographic Record
P.22, The Picture House (1937), courtesy of Ken Roe
P.22, Odeon projectionist, courtesy of Trevor Harris (tonyspics)
P.23, The Odeon (late 60s), courtesy of Mawgrim’s Worlds
P.26, The ABC auditorium, courtesy of Ian Grundy
P.26, The ABC (black-and-white), courtesy of Dusashenka, © All rights reserved
P.27, The ABC (1974), courtesy of Lady Wulfrun, © All rights reserved
P.27, The ABC (1988) © Ian Grundy
P.28, The ABC as ‘Escapade’, courtesy of Les Veuves
P.28, The Regal, Staveley, courtesy of Trevor Harris (tonyspics)
P.29, The Regal, Staveley (auditorium), courtesy of Trevor Harris (tonyspics)
P.29, The Regal, Staveley (screen), courtesy of Trevor Harris (tonyspics)
P.29, Trevor and Tony Harris, © The Derbyshire Times
P.29, The Regal, Staveley closed, courtesy of Tony Mettam
P.30 The Empire projectionist, courtesy of Trevor Harris (tonyspics)
P.30, The Cinema House © Ken Smith
P.30, The Ritz, courtesy of Shaun Green and Ken Roe
All other images are believed to be within the public domain and are used under Creative Commons Licence. They have no currently known copyright holder. Acknowledgements and thanks are extended to anyone who claims ownership of any such images.
Kenneth Bishton, 2013
The Wonder of the Age
The Cinema has often been described as the 20th century’s principal mass art form. It was certainly the most popular and populist form of commercial entertainment – at least until television came along. Throughout its 100-plus years it has been a powerful social tool, an instrument of propaganda, a source of comfort and information at times of national and global crisis and, most revealingly, it has provided a window on the lifestyles and behaviours of people from all parts of the social and geographical spectrum. Its sociological impact is therefore of far greater significance than its sometimes over-egged artistic merit. It has been the backdrop to the life and times of countless individuals who have grown up in darkened theatres, having the movies reflect their own experiences while in turn they, the audience, have mirrored the conventions and customs portrayed on the screen. In this way, life has been seen to imitate art and vice versa – ad inifinitum.
In 1995 the Cinema celebrated its centenary and countless studies have been undertaken, analysing its history and development, its own specific forms and structures, its impact on global cultures and its importance to national identities. Above all, though, the Cinema was and remains a business. Its impact on local and world economies is probably much more important than its message, despite the claims of the cine-artist and intellectual, and the medium is unequivocally wedded to its commercial roots. It costs money to make films, to distribute and exhibit them. Therefore people have to pay to see them. If the latter doesn’t happen, neither will the former, a point seemingly lost on the contemporary generation of illegal downloaders.
There is little purpose in this overview of the history of the Cinema in repeating what has already been documented in great detail elsewhere. My prime intent here is to present a memoir of the cinema as it has affected me, and to that end I have looked at the actual cinemas that I visited in the Chesterfield area, reflecting upon what I went to see and how significantly the language of film and the whole concept of moviemaking have shaped my wider interests. This may justify the charge of a wasted youth; some may regard the whole issue of little consequence; others may wonder why it was, given my juvenile pre-occupation, I didn’t pursue this interest and immerse myself professionally into the business. It is true that I once believed that being a cinema manager, or even a humble projectionist, was an ideal job for a film fan but, as for actual film-making, I soon realised that life both before and behind the camera was far less glamorous than most people suppose. At the very least, real film-making requires far more patience than I could muster, and at worst it can be a positively dangerous occupation, both figuratively and physically. Even the relatively mundane world of cinema exhibition is probably more prosaic than it is exciting as, in most cases, a manager has little or no say in what films he has to screen. Far better to remain an enthusiast, a cinemagoer, to enjoy the fantasy of it all, even if that fantasy extended to ‘playing’ at cinemas at home.
The last sentence may require some explanation – which will be forthcoming – but there is first the need to establish some points of reference in order to understand that something of great personal significance happened on that initial occasion, probably in 1955, when I first experienced the magic of the silver screen, the effect of which, it seems, has never quite worn off. To provide some context for this personal and local history I offer a digest of the principal elements in that 100-year history of motion pictures.
Cinematography began basically where Magic Lantern shows ceased and became the natural development from them. ‘Limelight’ or ‘son et lumière’ shows were used to illustrate lectures of a ‘travel, religious or instructive nature’, and comprised slides shown onto a screen, or sometimes a wall, by the ‘lantern’, an adapted light source with a series of lenses and a slide carrier in a specially constructed framework. The slides were eventually developed to include an illusion of movement by the use of gears, wires, double slides and the like. So when animated pictures based on photography were invented, it was a natural evolution towards the ‘Kinema’ as we eventually came to know it.
In most histories, 1895 is cited as the year in which the first proper moving films were created and demonstrated, exploiting the phenomenon whereby the eye is presented with a rapid succession of still images, each capturing a separate moment in time as in conventional photography but together forming a sequence of such moments during the performance of a movement. When viewed in quick succession, our brains do not register the separate images but will blend them together as one picture with – hey presto! – the incorporation of motion. Although only conceived as a child’s toy, the zoetrope was one of the first applications of the principle of ‘persistence of vision’.
It was this illusory nature that first brought magicians such as Frenchman Georges Meliès into the frame. It was his compatriots, the brothers Lumière, who had first astounded Parisian society with their ‘views’ of workers leaving a factory or a train arriving at a station. These moving images were sensational indeed and the apparent realism of them was sufficient to startle some viewers, but when Meliès was inventive enough to incorporate this new optical science into his stage routines audiences really did think that people had disappeared or that their bodies had turned into skeletons. Most of the devices of the cinema that are still used today – jump-cuts, stop-frame animation, dissolves, wipes, forced perspective and so on – were pioneered by Meliès and his followers.
There were many who recognised the commercial aspects of this novelty and in France, Germany, Britain and ultimately America they realised that, with a modicum of investment of money and time, they too could produce a reel of film, maybe only a few minutes in length, that would make audiences gasp and could be repeated over and over until the film wore out. Little evidence remains of the monetary gains incurred by these movie pioneers, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that then, as now for a successful film, the gross returns would far outweigh the original production costs. Films became big business right from the start!
As word spread of this wonder of the age, most cosmopolitan curiosity-seekers would eventually find themselves at a presentation of the ‘animated pictures’. Such shows would be given in halls and meeting-places, anywhere large enough for a few rows of seats to be arranged and the facility to darken the room for optimum viewing. Audiences were impressed but many assumed that, like most novelties, it would be a nine-day wonder. The higher echelons of society tended to disdain the first picture shows as being somehow beneath them and no substitute for a night at the theatre, opera or ballet.
But the real beauty of a film show is that it could be held cheaply almost anywhere. All you needed was a projector, a screen, some seats, some black-out curtains and the punters would begin queuing. Almost inexorably, as the new medium grew in popularity, any content of intellectual appeal was rendered less sophisticated to attract the undiscerning masses, a process we would today call ‘dumbing down’. The showmen of the travelling fairs were quick to realise that a film show, set up in a large booth or marquee, would soon become a popular attraction along with the rides, fortune-tellers and other treats on offer for the poorer classes, many of whom had nothing in the way of entertainment or enlightenment. Most disposable income, of which there was really very little, would go on drink, and the related problems of alcoholism were rife as the 19th century moved into the 20th. How much better, it seemed, to some, to spend a couple of pence on a film show, which everyone could enjoy, than allowing Dad simply to anaesthetise himself with booze. The movies, largely comedies and travelogues, could take the whole family out of itself, transporting it, if only briefly, to other magical times and places.
In reality, as the whole initiative was an unregulated enterprise, many films of a dubious nature began to be produced, appealing to the baser instincts of the audience, and the travelling film marquees became sleazy and insalubrious places where respectable people, particularly young females, would not be seen. Added to which, little thought was given to public safety and there were many instances of fires and other mishaps. The nitrate film stock of the time was highly flammable, the projection equipment often used oil-burning lamps, and the venues were usually over-filled with customers. Accidents were foreseeable and inevitable.
The British Government moved to bring in the Kinematograph Act of 1910 which, at a stroke, put film exhibition beyond the reach of itinerant showmen since films could only now be presented under strict conditions in fixed venues with licensed facilities, programmes to be properly vetted for content and the whole business to be rendered legitimate. It was exactly what the film business needed if it was to progress and now, along with the existing vaudeville theatres and variety palaces that had been incorporating film shows into their programmes for some while, new buildings could be constructed for the sole purpose of offering movies and only movies to a growing and enthusiastic public.
The first of these new purpose-built cinemas were being erected within months of the passing of the new Act. Of course, many of them would still offer live entertainment from time to time and most would employ live musicians, sometimes whole orchestras, to provide a musical accompaniment to the silent images on the screen. Narrative cinema had now been well established and, as the 1920s dawned, the business of film-making moved into a new age. A rural suburb in California named Hollywood soon became the regular production location – all that sunshine and space – for American films, and the beginnings of the U.S. studio system was marked by the appearance of moguls, ambitious directors and the first superstars of the new art form.
The parallels with live theatre were obvious and many out-of-work stage actors were all too willing to step before a movie camera simply to stay in employment. Some found it a preferable medium, the camera ‘loved’ them, and they could establish an audience base of many millions overseas instead of just a few thousand in one city. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Lilian Gish became iconic figures around the world. Film fans would seek out their newest pictures and a support industry of magazines and other media promotions arose to fuel the public’s appetites.
From then on, the history of the cinema is a story of constant cultural growth, technical development and commercial incorporation. The nature of the beast was such that its main attribute was novelty, and as each new gimmick became passé so the next big thing would be waiting just around the corner. Directors of the calibre of Griffiths and De Mille developed the form, extending their subjects for up to three or four hours in length, thereby establishing the practical limits of endurance for the viewing public.
A major innovation, resisted by many but inevitable in the circumstances, was the coming of sound. Movie theatres had never been silent anyway, but now the film-maker could design and control exactly what you were supposed to hear instead of relying on interpretative local musicians who quite often got the mood completely wrong. The technology for sound films had been in the trial-and-error stage for some while until Warner Brothers introduced Vitaphone, a development of the synchronised disc system, and set the standard for others to follow. Warners had pioneered a synchronised music score for their earlier film of Don Juan and many other techniques, including a primitive sound-on-film system called Phonofilm, developed by Fox for their Movietone shorts, appeared, all vying for supremacy in what was still an unproven aspect of movies themselves. Neither Garbo nor Chaplin were convinced that the future lay in “the talkies” and many of the first examples had only partial sound tracks, but from Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer with its mere 354 words of spoken dialogue to a classic like King Kong, where the soundtrack matched its extraordinary visuals with layered sound effects, montage recordings and dedicated musical score, was a matter of just six years. Although the industry had many more lessons to learn, it was quick to learn them and then to adapt. Overall, the story of the cinema has been one of survival.
In the U.S. there were the strictures of the Production Code, brought in by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Better known as The Hays Office, after the Postmaster General Will H. Hays who led it, the Code was designed to curb the excesses of the more liberal-minded film studios and directors thereby avoiding offence to the morally and politically sensitive. Against this background, the giant film conglomerates were competing not only with each other but with the smaller independents and Poverty Row studios to get their products on to the nation’s initially small number of screens. Some studios, such as Universal, got round this by setting up their own distribution networks to their own theatres; others went for studio branding by specialising in successful genres so that a musical spectacular was more than likely to come from M-G-M while a hard-nosed crime thriller or film noir would, as often as not, carry the Warner Brothers logo.
European and British cinema was equally active and vibrant during these early decades even if the total output was smaller. In Great Britain the Quota Act, to stipulate that a fixed proportion of all films screened must come from British studios, had been established as early as 1928. However, the outbreak of global conflict in 1939 brought to an end most domestic film production unless it could be harnessed as propaganda for the war effort. Probably, the Second World War’s most dramatic impact on world film culture was in Nazi Germany itself where the major studios were appropriated and most of the cultural and creative minds fled, many to the United States, taking their particularly European sensibilities with them. In Hollywood the studios remained in business throughout the war but found that their distribution empires were changing along with audience tastes and expectations.
The years following World War Two saw the cinema regain its place as the principal leisure activity for the masses. Indeed, the number of people going to the pictures in the decade from 1946 to 1956 was so great that studios, at home and abroad, could not keep pace. Films were churned out, conveyor-belt style, and almost anything would do as long as the audience could get a laugh, a thrill or a good song out of it. Yet there came a threat bigger than Hitler which the film business tried to ignore but eventually had to face head on – television.
The fledgling medium had been put on hold during the war years but, with the cessation of hostilities, the new technology was rapidly developed to become, by the time of the British Coronation in 1953, more than just a passing curiosity. Limited to a few households at first, it soon became the commonplace box-in-the-corner, bringing immediate coverage of news, sports, variety and, most damagingly for the film business, movies. No longer did audiences need to drag themselves out in all weathers, be it to a plush picture palace or the local flea pit, to queue for their movie entertainment. They could stay in, keep warm, make a nice cup of tea and see if there was a good film on the telly.
Naturally, true film enthusiasts never deserted the cinemas, but for casual audiences who simply wanted to watch a good story, or see a few film stars, the small screen at home was just as good as the large one at the cinema round the corner and audiences rapidly dwindled to the point where the cinema round the corner no longer remained viable. The larger city and town centre cinemas survived, aided by innovations in film-making offered to a sophisticated but demanding clientele. If the cinema was to exist alongside the new upstart, it had to offer what television could not, to make itself more ‘cinematic’ and less small-screen. Size and spectacle were the immediate response and the era of the widescreen epic was born.
Stereo sound and 3-D processes were also tried, the former becoming standard after a couple of decades, the latter being something of a flop at the time, and both requiring investments in special equipment and perseverance. However, everything the cinema did television copied eventually, albeit on a smaller scale. By the end of the 1970s the only thing the cinema could offer exclusively was very frank and liberal content now that the requirements of the censor boards were being eased. In time, even that became commonplace in the home.
The final piece in the story came as the 1970s moved into the 1980s. With the introduction of the first domestic video cassette recorders people could now watch anything at home, when they liked, as often as they liked, and, until the passing of new legislation requiring the classification of all video material, what they liked. Audiences for the new video technologies were enthusiastic, particularly in the U.K. where per capita ownership of VCRs outstripped everywhere else in Europe. The floodgates were open, the video dam burst, and the cinemas could only stand back and watch in dismay.
1974 is seen to represent some kind of watershed in the international film business. Most of the older cinemas had closed, some for bingo and some for demolition, and movies were actually being made for television rather than for cinema exhibition. It looked like the enemy had won. But films continued to be made, even a few good ones, and slowly, by the usual process of adaptation and incorporation, the movie theatres survived. The two biggest changes were the concept of the blockbuster and the multiplex.
The former involved a new approach to film exhibition with a ‘big’ film, on average thirty minutes longer than conventional movies, packed with top stars and special effects, being booked in for limited but longer runs at a huge swathe of cinemas across an area. The number of screens showing these films was important – while limiting choice it meant that audiences were forced to see these movies and, with a blitzkrieg approach to promotion, it meant that audiences wanted to see these movies. Even though there had been the Cinemascope epics of the 1960s such as Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, audiences had seen nothing like the Star Wars films or Indiana Jones and E.T. with their attendant all-encompassing marketing techniques. Previously, you might have been able to buy a soundtrack album or the book of the film, but now there was the T-shirt, the toys, the collectables, posters, novelizations, later the video and the CD, all conspiring to hook you into the concept. There was no way you could avoid these movie juggernauts, even if you wanted to.
The first summer blockbuster is generally held to be Jaws. In the United States, the larger audiences could often be achieved in the summer months, not only because of the longer holiday season enjoyed there but also because patrons will seek out the relative comfort of an air-conditioned auditorium to escape the sweltering heat of an American summer. Delivering a film that tied in so closely to the business of the family vacation, Jaws tapped in perfectly to the needs of a younger audience craving new thrills and excitements. In fact, its director Steven Spielberg can be credited largely with the single greatest contribution to the rejuvenation of the ailing film business. Together with his contemporary George Lucas, a new approach to the businesses of film-making, distribution and exhibition was established, and others had no option but to follow.
There would still be smaller pictures made by ideologues for specific minority audiences, but the template had changed and with it the very fabric and design of the cinemas themselves. In place of a number of separate theatres scattered across town, you would now go, generally out of town, to the purpose-built multiplex and theoretically face a vast array of filmic choice all within the one building. The first British multiplex was established by AMC – American Multi Cinemas, later to become UCI – in Milton Keynes in 1985. A second followed at Salford Quays, and soon the pattern repeated itself across the land. My home-town of Chesterfield was no exception but had to wait until 1998 before it got its own 10-screen cinema after five years of languishing with no cinema at all, but by then the sheen had gone.
Ten screens no longer meant ten separate programmes to choose from. A really big blockbuster – a Harry Potter film, say – could dominate a cinema by being shown simultaneously over half of its available screens. Even multiplexes with 20 or more screens would not necessarily show a vast range of films. The choices would still be limited to current releases from the major, mostly American, studios. Some cinemas would show ‘Bollywood’ titles if the local audience wanted them, but other foreign language releases, vintage and classic films, the more experimental and challenging movies would rarely get a look in, being consigned to the smaller independent chains such as Showcase.
Perhaps it was ever thus, as can be seen from the lists of screenings in my home-town during the 1960s. Most films on exhibition then were the obvious commercial properties – there was very little room for vintage titles, classic or otherwise, as even the movies on the Sunday re-runs would only be two or three years old – and there is much of significance to the history of world cinema – for example, the renowned films of Ingmar Bergman – that would have received no exposure on provincial British screens at the time. An occasional classic such as Gone With The Wind might get an anniversary re-release, but the smaller older pictures would be relegated to television. This, then, is the background to my own experience of the movies in my youth. I would discover the heritage of the cinema only through books and television much later on. By then it was too late to recapture the magic that had prevailed during the golden years of movies. But of course at the time I knew nothing about that.
The Cinema and Me
I first experienced the magic of ‘the pictures’ sometime in the mid-1950s. Extensive research has failed to come up with the exact time and details but the following facts are known. The cinema was the BRAMPTON COLISEUM. I was in all likelihood taken by some friends of the family. They had two daughters, the younger one being about my age, and in their kindness they would often invite me with them to various places. They even took me on vacation to a holiday camp. This first cinema visit may have been to a children’s matinee although it could have been a regular evening show.
THE COLISEUM ran its own special Saturday programmes for children. Some of these were advertised by title in the local press, but not all were. It may be that the cinema itself was not informed of the particular film being sent to it in time for each week’s press deadline. On those occasions, their notice would simply say: ‘Weekly change of programme’. I cannot remember much in the way of supporting material – no trailers, no advertisements, and no obvious short feature. I simply remember ‘Hansel and Gretel’. That’s what I was taken to see. That’s all that I remember.
This Hansel and Gretel, which I’ve failed to track down even on The International Movie Data Base, was a puppet animation film. I don’t recall dialogue, but I think there must have been a commentary. This makes me wonder if the film was foreign, possibly east European. Czechoslovakia, I believe, turned out a lot of these stop-frame animation films of children’s stories. I’m sure I saw some of them later on TV. However, the only version I have found from that period (early 50s) which is definitely stop-frame animation is a nine-minute short, filmed on 16mm, by the legendary and now late Ray Harryhausen. Could it have been this? It seems unlikely, as cinemas wouldn’t normally show 16mm reels which generally were screened in schools or on television. And at a mere nine minutes running time, there would have to be something else on the programme. And I remember nothing else.
I have found a listing for Hansel and Gretel as a supporting feature at the nearby town centre cinema THE GAUMONT sometime in 1956.
This could well be the same film. It appears to have had a regular advertised screening time (two showings daily between the three showings of the main feature) but no details are given, a fact which is consistent for a film without live actors. The screening at THE COLISEUM is likely to have been after this date as it was mainly a second run cinema, often limited in its availability of programmes by the process known in the cinema exhibitors’ trade as ‘barring’.
All this leads to the conclusion that I was about five years old at the time of this life-changing experience. I was taken again to THE COLISEUM, this time by my mother, to sit through John Huston’s quite wordy version of Moby Dick and I was still only five as my parents had not yet acquired their new council house to which we moved just before my sixth birthday in May 1957. THE COLISEUM itself closed for good in October of that year.
Over the next few years I became a regular at the two town centre cinemas still running children’s matinees. THE ABC seemed to offer the best package with its ABC Minors Club. Even for such a large cinema, it seemed to be bursting on most Saturday mornings with youngsters of all ages just waiting to sing the Club song (to the tune of Blaze Away, see below) and to wish a Happy Birthday to any brave soul willing to get up on the stage in their anniversary week. I remember the thrill of doing this myself when I turned nine or possibly ten, thinking how big the stage seemed and how far back the grinning faces were. I couldn’t imagine that within a few years I would be watching no less a legendary figure than Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar on that very same stage, still less that I would be up there myself on the occasion of the awarding of my one and only Speech Day prize, a meagre return for my seven years as a pupil at the local grammar school.
But back then the Saturday matinees were the highlight of the week. They got you out of the house, away from your parents and into the surreal and exciting worlds of Sylvester and Tweety Pie, Laurel and Hardy, the East Side Kids and Captain Video:
The ABC Minor’s Song
We are the boys and girls well known as
Minors of the ABC,
And every Saturday we line up
To see the films we like
and shout aloud with glee,
We like to laugh and have a sing-song.
Such a happy crowd are we-e-e-e,
We’re all pals together,
The minors of the A.B.C.! (very loud)
Staff and older children appointed as ‘monitors’ (with their own badges, no less) would patrol the aisles, trying to keep order (“Put your feet down!), an impossible task with several hundred raucous youngsters, all feeling de-mob happy after a week at school, but the pre-show clamour would cease the moment the screen lit up with the classic Warner Bothers logo for Merrie Melodies. (‘That’s all, folks!’) There would be a break for a Lyons Maid Zoom ice-lolly but not until we’d gasped through the latest instalment of the cliffhanger serial. It was this that kept us returning week after week and the death-defying scenarios would be played out on Saturday afternoon with friends in the local fields or on go-karts (we called them trolleys) in the streets which were much safer to play in back then. When the final instalment of the serial was shown it was often immediately followed by Episode One of the next ‘chapter play’, but this could possibly be a western or something soppy involving children and animals, so we would then troop over to THE ODEON and try their serial instead. Whichever cinema was showing the action adventure, the science-fiction thriller or the futuristic fantasy would thus get our admission money for the next few weeks. THE ODEON had its own sing-along song but things always seemed a little more restrained and less well attended. Nevertheless, even a few kids could make a lot of noise when they really tried.
Most children went to these Saturday morning shows in family groups or with friends. I would go with anyone who cared to accompany me, and I was even willing to go alone when there was no one available to go with me.
This went on for several years until the day I looked around and noticed that most of the other children seemed now to be younger than me. I don’t know if the cinemas had an upper age limit for attendance at these matinees. It’s possible that adults or big brothers and sisters acting in loco parentis could watch the shows, but that wasn’t the point. I just suddenly felt, aged 11, that I was getting too old for kids’ shows! Besides, I was now starting to develop an interest in the regular programmes showing later in the day.
Naturally, I could still only attend the ‘U’ certificate films, but some of these began to have more appeal than cartoons and serials. So I switched my cinemagoing from Saturday mornings to Saturday afternoons. I also switched my patronage to THE GAUMONT, formerly THE VICTORIA, just around the corner. For a start, admission prices were lower which, on a weekly allowance of five shillings, was an important factor, and also they seemed to show some really weird stuff. I sat agog through the likes of Perseus Against The Monsters. There were many unbelievable films like this, most of them dubbed from Italian to English, often starring legendary muscleman Steve Reeves. These sword-and-sandal ‘peplums’ really got me into the habit of watching films more critically and, with continuous screenings, it was possible sometimes to stay on and sit through the whole programme again! In this way I started to understand the language of film and to consider the techniques used by directors in their craft. Also, what great value for money, I thought, and how much warmer it was to spend the cold winter afternoons ‘at the pictures’ than with my peers who were playing or watching football. I never gave any thought to my parents’ possible anxiety over me. After all, they knew where I was, and they soon learned the pattern of my picture-going. (‘You’re home very late again. Have you sat through it all twice?’)
Only once was there an occasion for some alarm while at a GAUMONT matinee even though the implications of this were lost on me at the time. This minor incident took place on the afternoon of March 28, 1964, while I was watching Summer Magic, an undistinguished Hayley Mills film. The young Miss Mills was then a bit of a juvenile crush for me and I was immersed in the story on the screen when another patron, a rather grubby individual, chose to sit beside me in an auditorium with many empty seats. I was still only 12 and completely ignorant of paedophiles and the like, but I still sensed that his behaviour was a bit odd. The man was a complete stranger to me, so why, I wondered, with literally dozens of other available seats, did he come to invade my personal space by sitting in the seat immediately on my left? I was contemplating moving elsewhere, a little nervous at the prospects of his following, when he laid his hand upon my knee. That’s all he did. I can’t pretend there was anything else but I felt irked, distracted and, I suppose, uncomfortable. I didn’t want to wait around for his next move. I couldn’t say why, but I was sure that strangers weren’t supposed to do such things. I wanted him to move, but I didn’t dare say anything to him directly.
Instead, I left my seat, found an usherette and quietly told her what had happened. I then expected her simply to go to the man and order him to sit elsewhere. Instead, a ‘small bomb’ went off. I was whisked upstairs to the manager’s office to repeat my story. Now I had several adults around me, each trying to calm me down (I was calm) and offering me anything I wanted from the ice-cream cabinet while we all waited for the police to come. The police! I started to get upset. They re-assured me that I had done nothing wrong, that I had been correct to tell them about this man, and I must repeat everything carefully to the officers when they arrived. I think a policeman and a policewoman, both in uniform, arrived and asked me again what the man had said and done. It didn’t seem so very much of an issue to me. In essence, he had simply been ‘bothering’ me, but that word seemed to mean something else to these unquestionably very kind adults. All I really wanted was to get back to Hayley Mills. By this time so much of the film had elapsed I was concerned that I would have completely lost the plot – literally.
Well, I accepted the manager’s hospitality – just a plain ice cream although they really urged me to have an expensive luxury dessert – and I gave what I suppose is a juvenile statement to the officers. All this must have taken 30 to 40 minutes, but eventually they said, after checking that I felt OK, that I could go back to my seat and watch the rest of the film. Funnily enough, I don’t think I was able to relax and get back into the story after all this. I felt anxious. Were they officially going to inform my parents? (I rather hoped they would, as it would make it easier for me.) Anyway, I had to tell them myself when I got home. They didn’t seem unduly troubled since I clearly seemed to be unaffected by it all. There was no rushing off in outrage to ‘get something done about it’ as would probably happen today. It was allowed to pass as ‘one of those things’, but I must admit to being rather concerned at the prospect of seeing, or being seen by, this perpetrator in the future. For a while I feared some sort of comeback from him, but of course nothing happened.
More importantly, it did not put me off going to the pictures. In fact, a month later, I actually solicited a total stranger to accompany me into THE ODEON so that I could see an ‘A’ certificate picture – Lawrence of Arabia. He was quite happy to do this and, once admitted, I went off to sit by myself with the satisfaction of knowing that I’d got in for half price!
So, what else did I pay to see through those formative years? I have included a few memories specific to local cinemas in the next section. I had intended to compile a list of every title I can recall viewing, particularly during my own cinemagoing heyday in the 1960s. The trouble is that I simply can’t remember everything, nor more accurately when I went to see them. There are many titles in the listings in the final section that I did see eventually but not necessarily during their first run in the town, mainly because up to 1965 I wouldn’t have considered myself old enough. I had already developed an unhealthy interest in the macabre and the weird. I bought a ticket for almost every science fiction and fantasy film on offer in my early years and would dearly have loved to see the new crop of horror titles. I would view the lobby cards and publicity pictures in the showcases outside the cinemas and once, in January 1964, I recall loitering outside THE ODEON while Hitchcock’s newest shocker, The Birds was playing, just to catch an illicit glimpse of the screen each time someone passed through the main rear auditorium doors. If you stood in just a certain spot on the outer pavement, you could actually see the screen for a few seconds, and I’m certain I saw some action that matched the tantalising images in the display. This would have been my first sampled taste of a bona fide horror picture.
It was nearly another two years before I plucked up the courage to pass myself off as an adult, even though I was still only 14, in order to see my first ‘X’ certificate title. You were supposed to be 16 or over, but I imagine that simply offering to pay the full adult admission was considered proof enough to the individual at the ticket booth. The film was a bit of a pot-boiler involving Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. Called A Study In Terror, it all looks a bit tame these days, but back then I psyched myself up to be shocked and I was shocked. First, I sat through an unremarkable support film called No Survivors Please about which I can recall nothing save that it was merely an ‘A’ certificate film, and I’d already seen plenty of those. Next up, after the intermission, were the adverts, the trailers, and eventually the British Board of Film Censors certificate card. I felt quite illegal and didn’t dare turn my head in case I drew attention to myself and gave away the fact that I was as nervous as anything. For my pains I was rewarded with the sight of Barbara Windsor having her throat cut and then being dumped in a horse trough. There was an innovative shot from within the trough where you saw her goggling face and the blood mixing with the water. Of course, the colour of the blood wasn’t correct – too red as always – but I realised in that moment I had just grown up a bit more.
This was a far cry from that day in my early childhood when I was leaving THE GAUMONT with my mother and I asked her why all those other people were just going in to the cinema as we were exiting. She told me that they were going to see the film we had just watched. I had to think about this. I hadn’t considered a film has just a mechanical playback, capable of multiple presentations. I had taken it to be more in the way of a live performance, or rather one in which several characters had just lost their lives! We had been watching a typical blood-and-thunder western with many arrow-pierced extras “biting the dust”. When I was told that the same story was going to be shown all over again to the incoming audience, I genuinely believed that an entirely new cast was now being assembled backstage as most of the previous lot were already attracting flies in the desert sands of Arizona!
From that time on, I assumed an increasing level of sophistication about movies that is probably present from birth in today’s young people, raised on television and computer games. Is there still a suspension of disbelief from younger viewers or are they all cynically aware that everything is computer generated, and their expectation of interactivity with contemporary media means they have the power to dispose of ‘the monster’ as they choose? For me, there was only the option of covering one’s eyes through the scary bits, or possibly turning to face the seats behind me. Mum would say: ‘Don’t look if you’re frightened, and remember, it’s only acting.’ By turning to look behind me, I soon realised that it was more than that. It was in fact a beam of flickering bands of light, dancing above our heads from the projection booth way up at the back of the auditorium. Knowing this seemed to dispel the anxiety but it also re-inforced my fascination with the magic of the cinema. To think that these patterns of light could travel visibly through the air, more tangibly than radio waves, and create on the screen images that could excite us, make us laugh, stir our deeper emotions and take us out of ourselves for a few hours, well, this really was the stuff that dreams are made on.
Funnily enough, I rarely actually dreamed about things I had seen in films, even as a child, and although I loved being scared witless I can recall few actual occasions of being made uneasy by something on the screen. One rare example was, surprisingly, at a children’s Saturday morning matinee at The ABC when the three spirits in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol were visiting Alistair Sim. The children around me all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Most of them were laughing, yes, actually laughing, at Scrooge and his dilemma, but I was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread at the imminent arrival of each ghost. What would it look like? Did I dare to see it? I don’t think I experienced any sense of anticipatory fright on this scale until I saw The Exorcist in 1974!
Once I had been exposed to the genuine article I sought out most of the horror films that came to Chesterfield, the titles and lurid posters being very much a part of their appeal. I soon became rather blasé about some of the more timid efforts but I do remember being genuinely spooked by Robert Wise’s very effective film, The Haunting, which I saw on a Sunday-only programme at The ABC in October 1966. Earlier, also at the ABC, I saw one of the best ever Hammer Film double bills on the afternoon of Saturday 19 February 1966 when I sat through a screening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness followed by The Plague of the Zombies in the company of a slightly younger neighbourhood friend who, judging by his nervous discomposure, had seen nothing like this before!
My picture-going was not confined to the macabre and the horrific. In fact, I would watch just about anything and, with some shame, can recall sitting through several execrable pieces of tosh. There would still be occasional visits with family members, mostly my mother, and these films were not always of my choosing. How else can I explain travelling over to Sheffield to see The Sound of Music at the prestigious GAUMONT CINEMA there? I also sat through the whole of Ben-Hur for a second time on a family visit to the Capitol Cinema in Scarborough. I had seen the Charlton Heston epic a few weeks earlier at home. However, the endurance record was set a year or so before when my mother took me out to the still-operating LYCEUM at Whittington Moor one Saturday afternoon when I was about 9 or 10 years old to see Charlton Heston (a busy man) in The Ten Commandments. We reached the cinema too late to catch the first screening – it had been on for about 15 minutes – and my mother wanted me to see it from the beginning (baby Moses in the bulrushes and all that) so we hung around the neighbourhood park, enjoying the sunshine and killing time for what seemed an eternity but which was really about four hours before spending another four in front of the de Mille epic. What a long afternoon that was!
During these formative years, the local cinemas were almost like a second home to me. I knew the manager of the ABC by name (Mr John Dixon) and could even recite the box office telephone number (3333, later to become 73333) even though I don’t think I ever dialled it.
A significant part of a visit to the pictures was the refreshments available during the intermission. My favourite was a small packet of KP salted peanuts (cashew nuts were available but I never fancied those). Alternatively, a bag of sweet Butterkist popcorn would be eminently munchable. If, however, one was hot and dry a Lyons Maid orange lolly hit the spot. Cartons of chilled Kia-Ora orange drink were pleasant but quite expensive and too quickly consumed. The name Kia-Ora was apparently a Maori greeting (literally “Be well” but taken to mean “G’day”) while the on-screen advertisement stated bizarrely that the drink was “too orangey for crows”! (That gurgling noise as drinkers slurped the last few drops through their paper straws is indelibly associated in my memory with a cheap seat in the stalls.)
Occasionally, if funds permitted, I would treat myself to a Wall’s hot dog with English mustard. These were fine, but never satisfying. They simply whet the appetite to want about six more and their downside was that their aroma seemed to percolate through the entire auditorium – not good, if you didn’t like them or couldn’t afford one! Of course, if it was my mother’s ‘treat’ it always had to be a tub of ice cream. I wasn’t one to look any gift horse in the mouth, but these were not my refreshment of choice as the ice-cream was hard and tasteless and you had to eat it with one of those wooden spatulate spoons that doctors use to hold down your tongue! The important difference between refreshments back in the 1960s from those sold today are the portion sizes – they were merely snacks and often left you wanting more (especially the hot dogs) whereas today they could pass for entire meals with popcorn sold in buckets and drinks sold by the quart!
Another element of picturegoing, at least at The ABC, was a purchase of their monthly Film Review magazine. These were glossy and mostly pictorial promotions for the upcoming film releases. There was no in-depth discussion of cinema as an art form or critical analyses of anything. You had to go to Sight And Sound, Films & Filming or the BFI Monthly Bulletin for that. However, the ABC Film Review seemed to sell quite well and I had quite a stack of them until they were inevitably cleared out with so much other juvenile memorabilia. However, I kept my ABC Minors badge for several years. I wonder what became of it. Given the amount of excitement and awe inspired by my weekly visits it is not surprising that those hours spent in front of the silver screen have remained dear to me ever since.
At Chesterfield, the earliest Bioscopes, as these first movie shows were popularly called, travelled with the fairs that visited the town around the years from 1897 until about 1908.
The showmen would buy their films at the beginning of the season from the likes of Cecil Hepworth from Walton-on-Thames. At the turn of the century, variety shows at the THEATRE ROYAL included some film shorts of 3 to 4 minutes each. Some, but by no means all, of these shows were advertised in the local papers. Moving Pictures were also exhibited at the STEPHENSON MEMORIAL HALL. Early shows were often held at other venues such as meeting halls; and the upstairs club room of the Queens Hotel, Whittington Moor, held Saturday shows for children for 1d and afterwards they received a gift of a comic or fruit. Adults paid 2d or 3d – with no gift!
In cinematic circles, it is well recorded that the Brampton COLISEUM, then known as THE CENTRAL HALL, was one of the earliest permanent buildings converted to cinema use in 1907, adding to the controversy over which was the earliest of all in the Midlands. Definitely among the first, it was also sadly one of the first casualties, after a chequered life, of the decline in cinemagoing in the 1950s, although the basic outer fabric was still there into the 1980s. (The building remains as a car dealership to this day.)
Sunday cinema openings, though not a normal practice in those early days, were allowed by special licence but only for charity screenings or religious films in a limited number per year until the years of the Second World War. By 1941, the exhibition of films on a Sunday was allowed by a Parliamentary Act, at the discretion of the Magistrates, and this remains to the present day.
However, it is not at Brampton that we begin this review of Chesterfield’s cinemas since chronologically we must first consider the THEATRE ROYAL, later known as THE HIPPODROME.
THE THEATRE ROYAL /THE HIPPODROME
The THEATRE ROYAL was built in 1886 as a basic hut-type of building. It was used as a Music Hall, and some plays and light classics were staged. It was demolished in May 1896 and replaced by a permanent structure, playing similar fare. By 1905 it was owned by the North of England Theatre Corporation, whose Managing Director was Frank Machnachten, and was at times known as the Machnachten Vaudeville Circuit. In 1908 the Manager was Hyram Armstrong.
It was during the period from 1905 to 1908 that the Vaudeville Circuit began to include films as part of the ten or so acts which comprised a programme. By 1908, however, some whole weeks were devoted to a film programme given by travelling shows such as “The Great London Animated Picture Co.” which visited in January that year and, additional to the weekly programme, presented the sacred Ober Ammergau (sic) Passion Play film on Sunday 5th for a silver collection. Others, such as ‘The Imperial Animated Picture Company’, followed (six days from August 22nd 1910), using variety acts to fill in while reels were changed. (Very few theatres installed two projection machines in the early days.) Although no actual record has been found, it is said, in common with most theatres of this type, that the projector was at the back of the stage, in a box-like enclosure, giving rear projection.
The THEATRE ROYAL closed on 9th November 1912, and the building re-opened under the name HIPPODROME with a new company, Hippodrome Ltd., in control, just two days later. By January 1913, films were being billed regularly as ‘the latest pictures on the Bioscope’, this system being advertised from April as ‘Hipposcope’.
In 1922 a new company was formed and a prospectus issued in October to finance a new building programme. Bertie Crewe was the architect engaged to design a new theatre to hold 2,000. From thereon it does seem rather vague as to what was actually done, but it was definitely redesigned internally, with further alterations over a period, although there were no significant changes to the frontage. It closed mid-year 1923 and, on Monday September 3rd, the HIPPODROME had a Grand Re-opening with the proclamation ‘Redecorated throughout’ and a revue, ‘The Pin Wheel’, live on stage. The proscenium arch is listed as being 30 feet wide.
By 1930, ‘talkies’ had arrived in Chesterfield and the HIPPODROME became interested in installing sound. The last show of the ‘silent’ era was a live variety programme, ‘Joe Moss and the Singing Clown’, on 4th August 1930. The theatre then closed again to allow the installation of the necessary equipment.
On Monday 8th September, the HIPPODROME re-opened with the film The Hollywood Revue (of 1929), which was partly in Technicolor, and starred Jack Benny, Buster Keaton and Joan Crawford. Stall seats were priced at 1/- and balcony seats at 6d as in the old theatre style of pricing though this was soon to change. Some use was still made of the 28ft. stage and the eight dressing rooms; the theatre had also been refurbished during its month of closure and thus, with B.T.H. sound installed, was well equipped for the new era. (B.T.H. was The British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd., an electrical components firm based in Coventry who manufactured, among other things, cinema projectors, and who began the manufacture of sound equipment for the ‘talkies’ in 1929, completing their first installation at the Globe Picture Theatre at Primrose Hill Street in Hillfields, a district of Coventry.)
By at least 1938, The Hippodrome (Chesterfield) Ltd. Company had leased the theatre to Terence Byrom Ltd. who presented mostly live shows up until the 1940s. The HIPPODROME was sold to them in August 1950 on the voluntary liquidation of the Hippodrome Company but was fully closed down in 1954, later being demolished. The bulk of the site of the HIPPODROME is now taken up by the underpass later built across the site of the Station end of Corporation Street.
Thus passed Chesterfield’s HIPPODROME, derelict at the end, suffering vandalism and fires, a building which, at one time, was advertised as ‘the prettiest theatre in Derbyshire’ or ‘the cosiest in town’. Sadly, it was superseded by other theatres and more modern cinemas.
STEPHENSON MEMORIAL HALL /CORPORATION THEATRE /POMEGRANATE THEATRE
Built in 1879, to designs by the architects Smith and Woodhouse, at a cost of £13,000, and reconstructed and extended in 1898 by W.H. Wagstaffe to include a full-sized stage plus Council Chamber, Mayor’s Parlour, Committee Room, Public Library and Reading Room, the Hall was used for various lectures and entertainments including, like the THEATRE ROYAL, Lantern Slide shows and, in its turn, ‘Animated Pictures’.
Interesting illustrated lectures, such as that of 21st February 1910, given by S.F. Cody on ‘Flying’ complete with models and lantern slides, were typical of the regular programming. The CORPORATION THEATRE closed again in July 1910 for drastic re-modelling, costing £2,000, providing a new raked floor 4ft 3in. higher at the rear, the Orchestra placed in its own well, completely new décor and, for films, a better projection box constructed at the rear of the stage. The theatre was leased to Messrs. Henson and Davis. It appears that the proscenium was widened from 26 feet to 30 feet around this time, but the dimensions of the stage remained at 48ft 6in. wide to 35ft from front to rear wall.
A Grand Re-opening is recorded for Monday 5th September 1910 with ‘Mr George Alexander’s Great London Success The Thief’. By 1913, feature films such as Tigris formed a great part of the programme, as well as the usual lectures, shows and live performances. In January 1923 a lecture entitled ‘Romance of Wireless’, with experiments, films, slides and ‘listening in’ must have proved quite enlightening, for broadcasting had begun only the previous year, introducing the nation to this new form of entertainment.
When all the other theatres were clamouring for sound, the CORPORATION THEATRE / CINEMA, carried on with its mixed fare, often denoting its ‘Silence’ with Orchestral Accompaniment, of course.
The CORPORATION THEATRE closed for about a week in late October 1931, in order to install a B.T.H. Sound system, re-opening on Monday 9th November 1931 with the film Dance Fools Dance, starring Joan Crawford and Lester Vail, a gangster thriller, new that year from M-G-M. Seat prices were 7d, 9d, 1/- with 1/3d for balcony seats. Special prices applied for matinees at 4d and 8d in the stalls, with 1/- in the balcony.
The CORPORATION CINEMA continued throughout the early years of the Second World War but, by the end of hostilities, it was necessary to re-think its use, and thus it reverted to plays and other live entertainments. It was proposed in 1948 to convert it to a Civic Theatre and was re-designed as such by C. Bond. Rear projection still existed up to this date. By the 1980s it was renamed the
POMEGRANATE THEATRE, undergoing alteration in 1989-90, being re-roofed and internally refurbished, the auditorium re-equipped and a lighting gallery installed. It is thought that part of the projection suite is now bricked up, but the auditorium remains in a similar design as in the 1950s although repainted and redressed with new gilding to the décor. It is still a popular venue although it long since ceased to be a repertory theatre.
THE CENTRAL HALL / COLISEUM
Brampton, Chatsworth Road
Originally the Mount Zion Methodist Chapel building of around 1870, this was converted by Charles Senior and his family into a cinema in late 1907. It appears from deposited writings that they left the chapel’s iron railings in situ along the front exterior and converted a ‘good hut’ (probably a watchman’s hut) into a paybox. Mr Norman Grey was the pianist while Mrs Senior gave violin recitals between reels. Other acts are said to have appeared too. The cinema was still listed in 1915 as THE CENTRAL HALL but owned then by Whitham, Blank and Co. It is said that the ‘Animatophone’ appeared here in those days – this was a gramophone manually synchronised to the picture so that a careful, attentive operator was able to achieve some lifelike effects. By 1916, Mr A.P. Blackham was manager, and the building had undergone a refurbishment and was now known as THE BRAMPTON COLISEUM PICTURE PALACE. Mr Blackham later became proprietor and by 1920 he had engaged a resident manager Mr R.G. Bales. At the time there were 900 seats at prices ranging from 4d to 1/-.
THE COLISEUM changed hands again around the mid-1920s to a company, Entertainments (Chesterfield) Ltd., with Manager W.S. Fisher, and by 1928 the lower prices had increased from 4d to 9d.
The cinema then seems to have had a varied life. Some advertising appeared in the press but it was said that the cinema was often closed for short periods. A sound system by B.T.H. came a little later than in the town centre and it seems that, when the new luxury central cinemas were built, some limits were placed on the booking policy (a system known as ‘barring’) which must have affected THE COLISEUM seriously. A major fire in 1939 destroyed part of the building, but it re-opened with the latest B.T.H. equipment on 30th October 1939 with the film Boys Town starring Spencer Tracey and Mickey Rooney. This rebuilding left THE COLISEUM with 600 seats listed (possibly the original 900 as listed in 1916 included some old benches and chapel pews that were eventually replaced with better spaced tip-up seats) and a 20-foot wide proscenium. Seat prices remained at reasonable levels during the War years, and from the advertising it seems that films were played some six months behind the ‘circuit cinemas’ in the town (unless the manager could get hold of a title that the main cinemas would not show). ‘Cowboy films’ seem to have run well here.
In 1950 seats were priced from 10d to 1/9, and by January 1955 THE COLISEUM was advertising ‘The new curved PANORAMIC screen’ for the films Desert Song and Calamity Jane, but by 1957, with declining business and a high Entertainment Tax, THE COLISEUM closed on Wednesday October 30th 1957 with its last film, High Society starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra (a really classic ending to an era). The directors of the cinema and the Notts. & Derbys. Branch of the Cinema Exhibitors Association made representations and complaints to the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding the Entertainment Tax that was crippling cinema owners. Also it was felt that ‘barring’ contributed to the decline in many suburban cinemas nationwide.
THE COLISEUM building then fell into disuse and later became a store and warehouse. In the late 1970s it became part of a car showroom, but its basic structure remains and is a permanent reminder of its former dual purpose as a place of worship and entertainment!
THE VICTORIA HALL /THE VICTORIA PICTURE HOUSE /THE VICTORIA / THE GAUMONT
It is difficult to ascertain just when the first films were shown at the original VICTORIA HALL in Knifesmithgate. This hall was not the one which many of a later generation will remember. As with other parts of Chesterfield, Knifesmithgate was vastly altered from small two-storey buildings, shops and public houses in the 1920s. The first hall on the site, known simply as THE VICTORIA HALL, was entered down a side passage just beyond the Mallet and Tool inn, behind and above adjoining shops. The posters for the cinema were set on the street by the doorway of the public house. Possibly the publican received free passes for allowing this.
In Kelly’s Directory for 1908 the shows are listed as being run by the Brydon Picture Palace Co. with Mr E. Holdsworth as manager. The Victoria presented films until the winter of 1913 when the building closed. New management then took over and THE VICTORIA PICTURE PALACE was opened on Monday 14th April 1913 with the manager Mr Edwin Hesselton, the opening film being Dante’s Inferno, seats priced at 2d, 3d, 4d, 6d and 1/-.
By 1915, advertising showed the cinema now as THE VICTORIA PICTURE HOUSE although it had similar seat prices and most of the trade references were still calling it THE VICTORIA PICTURE PALACE, its owner listed as Brighton Theatre Co. This state of affairs remained until the early years of the 1920s when a new company was formed, Victoria Enterprises Ltd. Mr Hesselton remained as manager. In 1922 there were three shows daily with two changes weekly and prices had risen from 4d to 1/3d.
During 1923 the company commenced work on a new cinema at the rear of the Knifesmithgate buildings on what had been part of the Victoria Foundry, situated to the rear of the burial ground adjoining the Unitarian Chapel. This work continued into 1924, not affecting THE VICTORIA PICTURE PALACE or the billiard hall until the July 5th when the earlier cinema then had to close to allow completion of the new building. The Palace’s last film was Burning Words starring Roy Stewart, plus the last episode of The Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu. The building was then torn down, with so much else of the frontage, and the site incorporated in the new VICTORIA’s frontage.
The Derbyshire Times for 29th November 1924 informs us that, ‘Subject to the approval of the local Licensing Committee’, THE VICTORIA, Knifesmithgate, will re-open on Monday next, 1st December, at 3 o’clock with the film The Colleen Bawn and supporting films. ‘Showing twice nightly at 6.50 and 8.50 with a daily matinee at 2.30. Prices of admission will be 5d, 9d, 1/- and 1/3d.’ The building work was still ongoing while the cinema was open, and the Mayor officiated at the formal opening on Monday, 15th December. Projection was from a box at the rear of the stage. A later report stated that the cinema was 120 feet in length and could accommodate 1,500 people.
Reports praising the new VICTORIA abounded, some stating that it had a ‘Tudor’ influence in its interior décor, with wall lamps after the style of London Bridge; others stated that it was a huge and airy building; others concentrated on the calibre of the films and the quality of the projection. So it seems the cinema was off to a good start.
The VICTORIA cinema ran its last ‘all silent’ programme on 13th July 1929 with the films The Country Doctor starring Rudolf Schildkraut and Luck staring ‘Long and Short’. It was then closed for two weeks for ‘alterations, redecoration and talkies’.
A Grand Re-opening was held on Monday 29th July 1929 with the great ‘talkie’ sensation The Singing Fool with Al Jolson, Davey Lee and Betty Bronson, a Vitaphone Picture. This was supported by Martinelli, the great Italian opera singer, in On With The Motley, plus other films. Seats were now priced at 6d, 9d, and 1/- in the stalls, with booked seats 1/3d. The balcony prices were 1/6d, booked at 1/9d. The Singing Fool was held over for two weeks.
In 1930 Victoria Entertainments Ltd. finished the building of their new café, ballroom and complex of shops. These opened in July, thus completing the whole of the rebuilding plans. The basic fabric of the construction remains to this day. The architects were Jackson & Fryer and the builder was G.F. Kirk. The cinema then had 1,298 seats and was entered up a flight of stairs. Victoria Enterprises had certainly enhanced Knifesmithgate with the half-timbered frontage. A huge ‘sky’ sign on a frame above the end nearest the Unitarian Chapel advertised THE VICTORIA – Cinema, Café and Billiards.
THE VICTORIA became one of the two town centre cinemas that were the first with the major films through the 1930s and into the War years. It closed briefly on the outbreak of World War II on 2nd September 1939 for nine days but then re-opened and continued business, including Sunday films and shows for the Forces from about 1941.
THE VICTORIA cinema continued into 1950 with the post-war restrictions on food, materials, etc. being gradually lifted, and its seat prices also gradually rose to between 1/- to 2/9d.
The Derbyshire Times for Friday 3rd February 1956 carried a report of changes, with the announcement, after a meeting of the Shareholders of Victoria Entertainments Ltd., of an offer by the J. Arthur Rank Organisation of £225,000 for the freehold of the VICTORIA comprising its cinema, ballroom, café, billiard hall, snack bar, sweet shop, other shops including a furniture store and adjoining property on Elder Way. The offer was deemed acceptable and the entire business was sold.
Early in 1957 the name was changed to THE GAUMONT in line with other Rank properties and another era in the cinema’s history began. It began playing the regular national Gaumont releases in marked contrast to the rival ABC Cinema round the corner and THE ODEON across town. By this time, the major film studios had well established releasing arrangements with the national chains. For example, all new Warner Brothers and M-G-M pictures would be shown exclusively at ABC Cinemas while Columbia and 20th Century Fox pictures would debut at ODEON Cinemas. In effect THE GAUMONT was left playing second run features or obscure releases that wouldn’t be screened elsewhere. It seemed to show, in between the re-runs of James Bond and Norman Wisdom, a lot of Italian dubbed ‘sword and sandal’ pictures of the type often starring Steve Reeves.
Just nine years later, by early January 1965, it was announced that THE GAUMONT was to close as a cinema. The final film, Tom Jones starring Albert Finney and Susannah York, together with Happy Anniversary in support, closed the cinema for good on Saturday 30th January 1965.
The interior was renovated and redecorated for conversion to a Bingo Club which moved up from the old billiard hall into the cinema auditorium. New electronic equipment was installed and the Club opened for its first ‘Eyes Down’ session on 11th February 1965. The restaurant remained for a while but then this, like the Bingo Club, was eventually closed. The complex was used for other entertainment purposes in the late 1960s. A local entrepreneur, David McPhie who ran a specialist record shop in Chesterfield and had a managing interest in a local pop group, The Blueberries, used THE VICTORIA as a regular disco venue and promoted a number of live concerts featuring up-and-coming rock groups of the progressive music-type in the former restaurant area, re-named ‘Velvet Underground’. Eventually, the entire complex was closed and its interior gutted to make way for what is now known as THE VICTORIA CENTRE, a conglomerate of various retail businesses. For a while, some of the original décor was still observable behind the displays of furniture and rolls of carpet, but new flooring and underdrawn ceilings have now obscured all signs of the building’s former purpose. Fortunately, the original half-timbered frontage is largely intact and, better still, the external covered pavement, known locally as ‘The Vic Verandah’, still survives along with a small sample of the tiled mosaic flooring by the entrance and the stone pillars upon which the showcase and poster boards were fixed.
Whittington Moor, on the corner of Nelson Street and Sheffield Road
Although THE EMPIRE opened in 1909, very little is known of it from local records. It seems to have been purpose-built as a cinema and was owned and operated by Mr W.H. Lotes, its opening programme listed simply as ‘Animated Pictures’. The November 1909 press advertisement stated that ‘the pictures are absolutely flickerless’.
By Christmas of that year, the management was announcing the engagement of Mr Tom Pickering with vocal and elocutionary variety, plus a full orchestra. The cinema opened nightly at 7.15, the programme commencing promptly at 7.45. Ordinary prices in this single-storey building were 3d, 6d and 1/-.
At first the advertising was regular but by the end of 1910 was much more sporadic. Although the cinema was still shown on maps and listed in Kinematograph Year Books up to 1914, it seems to have suffered badly from the building and opening of THE LYCEUM further along Whittington Moor in 1913. It is reported that THE EMPIRE was converted to a Billiards Hall, holding five tables, and managed by a Mr Rudge. Further alterations for alternate use were made around the time of the Second World War but by the 1950s the building was no longer shown on maps. The site was then occupied by a car dealership.
THE PALACE / CINEMA HOUSE
THE PALACE, PICTURE PALACE or PALACE THEATRE OF VARIETIES were among the many advertised names of this cinema opened in property behind Burlington Street and Church Lane. It was established by a private company with the owners listed as H.H. Broomhead, W.N. Broomhead, A.J. Hopkins and manager Mr A.B. Taylor. There was no elaborate show frontage on the building to indicate the presence of a cinema but the inaugural advertising for the opening on Monday 12th September 1910 directed potential patrons to an entry ‘next to Mr Bales’ ironmongers shop, and in Church Lane’. There is said to be in existence a postcard showing a sign on the wall of the shop frontages opposite Woolworth’s store denoting the presence of THE PALACE with an arrow pointing to its entrance.
THE PALACE THEATRE OF VARIETIES mixed cinema with various live shows from the beginning. It was regarded as a comfortable hall with tip-up seats and, for film shows, it boasted an effects machine as well as piano accompaniment from Mr Bertie Brennan. THE PALACE opened its doors for preliminary inspections on the previous Saturday, the 10th, from 7 pm to 10 pm.
Tragedy struck in THE PALACE’s second year when, on 27th December 1911, five local children died in a fire in the dressing rooms of an adjoining building while getting ready for their performance as Eskimos in a Christmas show. This led to many questions, locally and nationally, and the building closed for a week. Inquests were duly held, the licences were queried but upheld, and attention was drawn to the unsatisfactory use of materials. Much of the enquiry focussed on the issue of smoking and whether this had been taking place backstage. The unhappy event would seem to have seriously damaged the reputation and popularity of THE PALACE but, contrary to other reports, it did re-open shortly after with a similar bill of variety as before. Advertisements appeared from the 6th January 1912 and over the following weeks.
In that year THE PALACE came under the management of The Hippodrome Ltd., presenting largely film programmes with one or two variety acts between reels. It closed for renovation ‘under new management’ on 9th May 1914 with the film A Bid For A Throne, and re-opened under the new name of CINEMA HOUSE on Thursday, 28th May with The Golden Beetle and an Indian Jungle romance. Forthcoming attractions were listed as The Old Curiosity Shop and Raised From The Ranks. The ‘popular’ prices were 2d, 4d, 6d and 9d.
By 1920, the cinema was being managed by Mr G.H. Crawshawe and offered three shows daily.
Prices had risen to a range from 4d to 1/3d and ran successfully along these lines until 25th July 1922 whereupon it closed with the Ethel Claydon film City Sparrow for repair and redecoration. It seems that negotiations of some kind were taking place at this time as the cinema remained closed for three months. It re-opened on 23rd October 1922 under a lease taken out by Mr A.B. Taylor who, The Derbyshire Times reminded everyone, ‘was connected with the same in its Palace days’. The opening film was Smilin’ Through starring Norma Talmadge. Prices were now 1/3d for balcony seats, 8d in the ‘saloon’ and 5d in the pit. From here on, advertising was irregular, if at all, and with the opening of new larger purpose-built cinemas in the town centre, all with full orchestras, the CINEMA HOUSE, it seems, just faded into obscurity. Although no accurate date can be found nor any details of its last programme, the cinema must have closed in the mid-1920s, the site being demolished to make way for an extension to Woolworth’s. All traces of this former ‘picture palace’ vanished for good.
‘The new theatre which has recently been erected at Whittington is now complete, and will be opened on December 22nd under the name LYCEUM with seating accommodation for some 800 persons,’ etc. Thus began the report in The Derbyshire Times for 20th December 1913. The builders were Messrs. Powell and Woodward and it was announced that a company was being formed to run the business. One minor puzzle in Whittington Moor’s cinema history stems from the fact that Kelly’s Directory for 1912 already lists a cinema at this address, the QUEENS PICTURE PALACE managed by a Mr Fred Davis, but it may simply be that this was the initial name proposed for the new building before it was later changed to THE LYCEUM. In any event, Mr Fred Davis was certainly the new cinema’s resident manager.
THE LYCEUM’s grand opening on the advertised date featured the famous Dvorak Family (acrobats), Three Floradora Girls (acting, singing and up-to-date dancing) and other acts plus, of course, a film show. THE LYCEUM had its own electricity generating plant. The ‘popular’ prices of 3d, 6d and 9d in 1913 had risen by 1922 to 4d, 8d and 1/- with one performance nightly and twice on Saturdays. Programmes were changed on Mondays and Thursdays and by this time more feature-length films were being shown. The ownership changed to Picture and Variety Palaces Ltd. in 1922 although Fred Davis was still there as Manager.
In June 1932, THE LYCEUM closed along with its adjoining Billiard Hall. The frontage and interior underwent a massive transformation, co-inciding with the installation of B.T.H. sound equipment. Only the shell of the original cinema remained, the balcony was demolished and then extended; a new staircase was built along with a new marble paved entrance hall. Exits were altered and a glass marquee erected over the pavement. Electrically-controlled screen tabs were installed together with a completely modern electrical installation throughout the building. The new décor showed colourful Venetian scenes, centering on the proscenium arch and extending around the theatre. Plastic paint was used on Celotex plaster. The architects for this transformation were Wilcockson and Cutts. The billiard hall, too, was renovated and redecorated. Everything re-opened on Monday 3rd August with the film The Big House starring Wallace Beery and Chester Morris. The supporting feature was Lon Chaney’s The Unholy Three, a 1930s remake of his 1925 silent film, being Chaney’s first and only ‘talkie’ as he died before its release.
At some time in the early 1930s Harry Cutts was appointed as the new manager. The cinema ran continuously until its brief closure on the outbreak of war in September 1939. Then, after the last showing on Saturday 27th June 1946 of Johnny Frenchman starring Patricia Roc, a fire broke out in the early morning which completely gutted THE LYCEUM. When the blaze was extinguished, only the four walls and the balcony were left. Because of the rationing of building materials immediately after the war, no rebuilding could be considered for a while.
By 1949, the architect Brian Cutts had been invited to design a new interior for the cinema. The building needed to be re-roofed, and then internal rebuilding could begin with the fitting of 540 new seats and all-new B.T.H. equipment. The cinema re-opened on Monday 25th July 1949 with the Technicolor film Luxury Liner starring George Brent and Jane Powell. It could now offer continuous programmes from 5.30 onwards, two separate shows on Saturdays and Sundays and often three changes of programme throughout the week.
In 1954 THE LYCEUM was being run in conjunction with Hasland’s CARLTON CINEMA under a single ownership. Admission prices had risen to between 1/- and 2/7d. Around 1955, THE LYCEUM, in common with most other cinemas, fitted a new ‘Panoramic’ screen and was including ‘Cinemascope’ films into the programme. As mentioned earlier, I memorably endured all four hours of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments at this cinema some time in the late 1950s. But the habits of cinemagoers were changing and all suburban cinemas started to feel the pinch. In early 1960 the adjoining building became a Bingo Hall, and on the 11th January 1963, The Derbyshire Times announced: ‘The end of the line for the LYCEUM’. The Carlton Cabaret Club’s bingo was to move next door into THE LYCEUM as the club now proposed to run full time shows and cabaret. Thus the cinema changed to THE LYCEUM BINGO CLUB every evening from Thursday to Monday.
By the late 1980s even this enterprise had failed and the building was offered for sale. In 1991 it was sold and its roof and interior were completely removed. Windows were fitted at both the stage end and in the new roof and it became offices and a private health club.
THE PICTURE HOUSE / THE ODEON
Built by the Chesterfield Picture House Co. Ltd. at the time of the widening of Holywell Street, this latest town centre cinema had a magnificent half-timbered frontage leading to a grand foyer and beyond that into a sumptuous interior. THE PICTURE HOUSE opened on 10th September 1923 with the film Hearts Affair which starred Frank Keenan and Anna Q. Nilssen. The programme also included Buster Keaton in The Playhouse. Edwin Booth conducted the Picture House Orchestra with solo violinist Miss May Peet, LRAM. Admission prices were set at 1/6d. for a reserved balcony seat (1/3d unreserved) or 1/- for a seat in the stalls. The orchestra stalls were also available for 6d but were entered from the side through Parkinson’s Yard.
The cinema was the proud possessor of ‘a 3-manual, 25 speaking stop, tubular pneumatic concert (orchestral) organ, with tonal units comprising glockenspiel, gongs, chimes, sleigh bells, side and bass drums’ and was installed by Messrs Jardine and Co. with the console to the right of the orchestra pit and the pipes behind a wire mesh grille on the right of the proscenium arch. The opening night organist was Edwin Booth who later handed the duties to a Mr J. Crapper. It was on this instrument that a young musician named Reginald Dixon is said to have had his first instruction in organ-playing at the start of a career which led through several engagements in Sheffield cinemas and finally to stardom on the Tower Wurtlitzer in Blackpool.
THE PICTURE HOUSE, described in its advertising as ‘the premier cinema of Chesterfield’, was managed throughout the 1920s by a Mr F.J. Harris although the films were booked at Sheffield. Admission prices remained stable during those early days. Talkies had arrived in London in 1928 and most cinemas of repute were fitting the necessary equipment by the following year. So, on June 21st 1930, THE PICTURE HOUSE played its last silent feature, Society Scandals with Brigitte Helm after which it closed briefly for alterations including an extension to the auditorium and a huge development of the frontage which involved the setting back of the property allowing for further widening of Holywell Street. It re-opened on Monday July 7th with the Western Electric Sound System in place and the film Paris starring Jack Buchanan and Iris Bordoni – ‘All Talking , Singing and Dancing, with Technicolor scenes’. Accordingly, admission prices rose to 1/6d in the circle, with an extra fee of 3d for advance booking. Rear stalls were now 1/3d, centre stalls 1/- and front stalls were available for 9d and 6d. The Saturday November 29th issue of The Derbyshire Times described in detail the new facilities as designed by the Sheffield architect H.J. Sheppard.
At this time a Birmingham businessman, Oscar Deutsch, had been acquiring a circuit of cinemas around the country, some newly built, others established businesses, under the collective name of ODEON. It was said by some of his more zealous employees that the name was an acronym for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation” although clearly it derived from the original Latin – ‘odeum – a building used for the public performance of music and poetry’, and was already incorporated into terms such as ‘nickelodeon’. Deutsch became interested in Chesterfield’s PICTURE HOUSE, partly because of its ornate interior which fitted well into the ethos of the Odeon circuit, and thus control of the cinema moved from Sheffield to Birmingham although its original name was retained for a while. It didn’t become THE ODEON until 1938 and, with just 900 seats, it was one of the smaller venues in the national circuit. Throughout this period the restaurant and ballroom were retained.
Apart from the usual brief closure at the beginning of the War, the cinema ran successfully and without incident into the 1950s.
It played the national first-run features of the Odeon chain and was thus part of the disagreement with 20th Century Fox over the terms for conversion to Cinemascope pictures around 1954. Fox, as pioneers of the new widescreen process, wanted all participating theatres to install new screens and equipment but many older venues, including Chesterfield’s ODEON, had fixed proscenium arches which could not be moved or extended without serious structural or aesthetic damage. In the end, widescreen movies came to THE ODEON but this was achieved simply by lowering the top masking of the existing screen. Its actual width remained constant, thus somewhat negating the intended effect of the panoramic image. It was analogous to a widescreen film playing on a conventional 4:3 TV set – the letterboxed image is all there but it’s just smaller.
Paramount’s Vistavision was the first into THE ODEON with the film White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, which played, unseasonably so, from the 14th February 1955 for seven days. Sign of the Pagan, starring Jack Palance, seems to have been the first true Cinemascope film on the 7th March. Admission prices rose again, ranging now from 1/6d to 3/2d. Inflation then, as now, forced regular price rises over the next few years. In 1958 the range was from 2/- to 3/6d while, by 1962, it was between 2/6d and 3/9d. Both THE ODEON and the nearby GAUMONT had been running under the joint management of the Circuits Management Association (C.M.A.) but, under re-organisation, the cinema now came under the Rank Theatre logo, the most obvious change being the use of Rank Cinema Advertising as opposed to the well-established Pearl & Dean, the former eventually eclipsing the latter.
In 1969 the restaurant closed and became the Fusion Disco in line with trends in popular culture at the time. Unfortunately, the internal sound proofing was not all it could have been and, on disco nights, quiet passages in the film would often be punctuated by the bass thumps coming through from next door. This was just one of the factors which slowly marked a decline in the cinema’s popularity over the next ten years.
By 1975 THE ODEON was listed as having 970 seats and was still showing the Rank Organisation’s general release features. It had been a very successful cinema despite serious competition from the ABC CINEMA around the corner, and major releases could still require the use of the ‘House Full’ notice. The Beatles’ films and anything featuring James Bond would create queues along Holywell Street, and during the summer of 1967 The Sound of Music played to packed houses for a record-breaking eight weeks. However, cinemagoing nationally, indeed globally, seemed to be in terminal decline. Even though the disco eventually closed and the cinema was offering a bar and ballroom with facilities for exhibitions, it seemed that the writing was on the wall. A review of all its properties in the Odeon circuit was conducted in 1981 and a list was issued on 19th July of 29 unprofitable and non-viable cinemas. Chester-field’s ODEON was on this list. It had to close.
The death sentence hanging over it had an irreparable effect upon the morale of the local management and staff. The cinema limped on for a further four months, programmes of new releases were advertised and shown, and externally it seemed to be ‘business-as-usual’, but the heart had gone out of this once-flourishing cinema.
No further investment could be made into the building’s infrastructure so, for example, the already inefficient heating system simply got turned off. The cinema had been notoriously chilly in the winter months and patrons had been known to leave their seats to warm themselves directly on the side aisle radiators. I have personal memories of taking a wraparound blanket and a Thermos of hot drink simply to get through to the end of the show. The pay desk still issued tickets, the projectionist still loaded the reels, but there was a palpable feeling of ‘no further interest’ among the remaining employees. After the last scheduled screening, on Saturday 17th October 1981, of 12th Squadron Buccaneers followed by John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, starring Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef, the curtain closed for the final time. The last words on the screen said ‘The End’ and it was. All the staff lost their jobs.
The building remained locked, empty and unused for six years until the decision was made by the local council to purchase it and refurbish it as a new civic amenity combining performance facilities for live shows and an exhibition and conference centre. It was reborn under the more locally-appropriate name of THE WINDING WHEEL and has become a successful, all-purpose venue. Dances, lectures, concerts and exhibitions of all kinds are held there. I found myself returning on a regular basis to support the regional Blood Donor service which held sessions there on Sundays and I was encouraged to see that the wonderful ornate interior had been left intact. The heating was drastically improved. In fact, the whole building was now pleasant and comfortable to use. The circle and its seats had been left in situ – only the stalls had gone, the tip-up plush seats having been bought by a local amateur drama group, The Hasland Playgoers, who had the luxury of a fixed venue for their productions. The exterior had been unaltered. In fact, there had been very little change at all apart from one. No more film shows.
THE REGAL / THE ABC
Architects W.R. Glen and J. Owen Bond were engaged in 1935 by businessman Lou Morris, in consultation with the Chesterfield Corporation, to build a new cinema at a location between Cavendish Street and Broad Pavement. The rather odd-shaped and tapering site required that the resulting auditorium would be markedly narrower at its rear than at the screen end. But this did not matter. In fact, it rather enhanced the scale and majestic look of the cinema once patrons got inside. Even before completion, the business had been leased to ABC (Associated British Cinemas).
When Mr Morris applied for a Cinematograph Licence, the Chief Constable opposed its granting because it was felt the licence should be held by the on-site Manager and not by some remote controlling interest. The licence was eventually granted but only on the proviso that Mr Morris would notify the Police of any change of Manager as soon as appointments were made. Accordingly, on the 12th October 1936 at 2 pm, the Mayor, Councillor H.P. Short, officiated at a short opening ceremony and the new cinema, THE REGAL, with its 2,048 plush seats, screened its first programme. (Brian Hornsey states it had 1,907 seats.)
Cinemas by this time were well into the era of sound spectaculars and things got off to a rousing start with the film Follow The Fleet starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers working their way through numbers such as ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket’, ‘We Saw The Sea’, ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’, ’Let Yourself Go’ and many others. There was also a ‘3c 7 rank plus’ Melotone Compton organ opened by Wilfred Southworth. It had an illuminated console and would rise grandly from the pit below the stage for interval entertainment and special performances by visiting ABC organists, sometimes with singers and a backing chorus. One such grand concert was given by the popular BBC organist, Sandy MacPherson, on Sunday 19th February 1939. This was before Sunday opening was fully established and was allowed only by a special licence. (In October 1936 a ‘Sunday licence’ was refused for one particular recital as the annual quota had already been issued!) Among the regular resident organists was Norman Swann, at 19 years of age the youngest professional organist on the circuit. Others included Clifford Birchall, John Madin and Trevor Willetts. Reginald Dixon returned to Chesterfield and played a Sunday concert here in 1957.
THE REGAL was well equipped for live shows as its stage was 16 feet deep and it had four backstage dressing rooms. It regularly hosted variety shows and concerts instead of its normal film screenings, occasionally for limited runs but usually for one day only. In the 1960s THE REGAL, or THE ABC as it was by then, was one of the many venues throughout the country to welcome the touring ‘pop packages’ whereby a number of the top groups of the day would be sent around the provinces for two shows a night and then on to the next town. Each act would perform for about 20-30 minutes to packed houses of enthusiastic fans and the assembled rosters sometimes threw together strange bedfellows such as the tour in April 1967 which featured The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck and a relatively unknown Jimi Hendrix all on the same bill. They played at THE ABC in Chesterfield on Saturday 8th April. Legend has it that both Humperdinck and Hendrix got on famously during the tour!
My memories of this performance are rather hazy. The audience was heavy with teenage girls, there essentially to scream at Scott Walker. Hendrix was still a bit of an unknown quantity although he’d already had two hit singles by that time (“Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze”) so the audience should have known what to expect. However, the sight (and sound) of him playing, with The Experience, bathed in a single green spotlight, was certainly something Chesterfield had never ‘experienced’ before.
Following this show, listings reveal that only three further ‘package tours’ came to the ABC during the 1960s. One, in October 1967, featured an assortment of ‘psychedelic’ groups such as Traffic and Tomorrow, while in April 1968 The Kinks were the headlining attraction on a bill which included The Herd and The Tremeloes. And Scott Walker made a return visit to Chesterfield in October 1968, this time as a solo artist. Tommy James and the Shondells were also on the bill along with The Love Affair and the all-girl group, The Paper Dolls. After this, the pop music scene changed and, in the wake of Woodstock in 1969 (itself the subject of a widescreen documentary), big outdoor festivals became the order of the day. However, there were endless pop-themed features on the silver screen during this time as well as several more ‘serious’ filmed musical shows, such as Aida, Swan Lake and a film of The Royal Ballet.
The main bill of fare was, of course, the latest movies and THE REGAL continued to screen the first-run releases for Associated British Cinemas including the new films from M-G-M and Warner. There was also the regular Pathé Gazette which later became Pathé News. As elsewhere, there was a brief period of closure on the outbreak of war, but the cinema soon re-opened and was shortly adding scheduled Sunday screenings as a matter of course. These still required a special licence which, along with the regular licence, had to be applied for annually.
In 1945, THE REGAL was bedecked with bunting and flags to mark the end of hostilities, but it was not until 1949 that the outside lighting restrictions were lifted and the building was fitted with the famous red and blue neon triangle, the logo of ABC Cinemas. As part of the national circuit’s plans for rationalisation, it was decided to drop all the individual names such as Savoy and Empire and thus THE REGAL was renamed THE ABC in the early 1960s.
By this time, television had already begun its inexorable takeover of the nation’s viewing habits and, despite the introduction in the 1950s of gimmicks such as 3-D and new panoramic formats, audiences started to dwindle. THE REGAL was adapted for widescreen presentations in 1955 and one of its first such screenings, in February, was the Warner Brothers film King Richard and the Crusaders starring Rex Harrison and Virginia Mayo. Warners had recently become shareholders in Associated British Cinemas following the death of founder John Maxwell and the subsequent sale of shares in the company. Cinemascope did give a much needed boost to the film business but, as a result of the continuing decline in cinema attendances throughout the 1960s, the cinema closed after the final screening on Saturday June 12th 1971 for refurbishment and for what was then known as the ‘Luxury Lounge Treatment’. In other words, it was substantially reduced to a mere 484 seats in a smaller auditorium retained from the former balcony area. The proposed changes were scheduled to take eight weeks and were planned to include a complex of new shops. Instead, the rear stalls were removed and the space converted into a town centre bar called the Painted Waggon. Apparently the front stalls, screen and stage were untouched but were never used again. Whether they are still there now I really doubt, but their fate remains a mystery.
THE ABC was, in fact closed for three months, ignominiously re-opening on Sunday 12th September 1971 with the limp comedy, Percy. In support was The Navy is a Ship. It is pleasing to note, however, that the children’s Saturday matinees were still running with admission set at a pocket-pleasing 5 pence!
The 1970s saw a big change globally in the business of cinema exhibition. Out went the double bills and continuous performances. In came the blockbuster movies, such as The Exorcist and Jaws, with separate showings and increased prices to match.
A close look will reveal that The Exorcist is showing at The ABC when this photograph was taken in the Spring of 1974.
A number of high profile films like these kept THE ABC satisfactorily filled, sometimes even leading to queues outside. But, as with THE ODEON around the corner, questions of profitability and viability began to be raised as the 1980s dawned and THE ABC was quietly offered for sale. The Coral Group considered turning it into a Bingo Club and applied for the appropriate licence in 1985, but of that there came nothing. Nationally, ABC had been merged with EMI as far back as 1970 and now the whole caboodle was taken over by Cannon in mid-1986. The following year the cinema was put up ‘To Let’.
To the rescue came Peter Walker who leased THE ABC in August 1987 and decided to restore it to the name by which many townspeople still knew it, THE REGAL. He was reported to have spent £250,000 on improving the frontage, installing new neon strips and a new vertical REGAL sign on the front and rear of the building. He was an experienced businessman with several successful cinemas in London, but the real investment in state-of-the-art facilities, such as stereo sound and the more contemporary approach to cinema exhibition as demonstrated by the burgeoning multiplexes in nearby cities, was never forthcoming.
By 1991, while still in operational use, estate agents’ enquiry boards appeared on the building, and THE REGAL came to an undistinguished end with the final screening at 7.40 on 18th April 1993 of the comedy The Distinguished Gentleman. From Fred Astaire to Eddie Murphy over the course of 56 years, THE REGAL had truly been Chesterfield’s premier cinema – the largest auditorium, the biggest films and a cavalcade of top performers in person.
The building was then reported to have been bought by Cathelco which seems unlikely given the nature of their business. It has since been home to at least a trio of night clubs: Zanzibar, then Escapade. Now it is called simply ‘Department’ but that, too, seems to have closed. On current form, it will probably change its name, ownership and purpose several more times, but is unlikely ever to be used as a cinema again.
This short history has only considered the cinemas in the Central and Whittington Moor areas of Chesterfield. During the heyday of cinemagoing, there were, of course, many other picture palaces in the related suburbs and beyond. For a full and wonderfully nostalgic overview of the cinema scene in Derbyshire there is no better account than that of Ashley Franklin in his book, A Cinema Near You: 100 years of going to the Pictures in Derbyshire. Beautifully written, peppered throughout with revealing anecdotes and lavishly illustrated, his study naturally focusses on Derby with its lion’s share of the county’s cinemas but it does venture to the far-flung regions, too. However, my own experience of the movies when young was largely limited to the Chesterfield area. As a teenager I occasionally ‘nipped over’ to Sheffield for big screenings (Krakatoa, East of Java on a Cinerama screen and in stereo) or for more esoteric pictures (Wonderwall) not likely to be shown in Chesterfield, but Sheffield is well beyond the scope of this account.
I also managed two visits to THE REGAL on Church Street in Staveley (still officially part of Chesterfield, but several miles further out) just after the cinema’s refurbishment and re-opening as THE WEDGWOOD on September 4th 1967. (I caught up again with Bonnie and Clyde and Lord of the Flies here.) THE REGAL had originally opened on 10 April 1939, its inaugural programme featuring Edward G. Robinson as The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse. It could seat 588 patrons in the stalls and a further 220 in the circle.
Although the cinema’s exterior was rather dull architecturally, being merely featureless red-brick, the building was outlined in neon and was enhanced by its art deco interior. It operated until 25 June 1966, but closed after a final screening of Carry On Cowboy, claiming damage “due to vandals”.
However, it was only out of use for thirteen months, having been acquired and renovated by the Wedgwood Group. This must surely have been one of the most tasteful and ambitious attempts to upgrade a provincial cinema as its new décor was all in the light blue-and-white motifs and colours of Wedgwood pottery. The screening programme also attempted to move upmarket with an emphasis on the more lavish and sophisticated family films of the time: musicals, big name spectaculars, even art films. It re-opened with My Fair Lady, offered yet another extended run in the region for the ubiquitous Sound of Music, and in November 1967 screened the Derbyshire première of The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Yet this exercise in education and decorum seemed to fly in the face of the public’s preferences at the time, and THE WEDGWOOD soon suffered the humiliating fate, shared by most of its contemporaries, of quickly becoming a Bingo Club! It closed as a cinema on 27 December 1969 with The Three Stooges in Snow White and the Three Clowns. Bingo started less than two months later (19 February 1970), operated by Lucky Seven who sold the premises to Ladbrokes in the late 1970s. Eventually, DeLuxe Bingo Clubs ran it until October 2007 when the ban on smoking in public places provided the final nail in THE REGAL’s coffin.
But there is an intriguing twist to this story.
THE REGAL had yet one more bite at the cherry in 2010 when a father-and-son team, Trevor and Anthony Harris, sank around £50,000 into new equipment and seating and re-opened for cinema exhibition on July 30 under the original ‘REGAL’ name with Toy Story 3.
Unfortunately, still nobody came and by the January of 2011, following screenings of The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, THE REGAL closed again after a mere six months!
According to Trevor: “I simply can’t understand it because we’re in an area within ten miles of a quarter of a million people which should give us between six and seven hundred attendances a week….I can’t understand why people would want to go into Chesterfield and pay £7.20 a seat.” THE REGAL was charging a mere £5.50.
The forlorn premises (below) are, at the time of writing, up for sale through a local estate agent so this cinematic phoenix could rise yet again from its ashes – but don’t hold your breath.
(This sad tale is at least not as bad as that concerning The Regal Cinema in Grimsby which, according to the Cinema Treasures website, was bought by a local businessman, re-opened in August 2009 and closed again in September 2009 after a mere month!)
No such resurrection is possible for Staveley’s other cinema, THE EMPIRE, which opened initially on 14 December 1914 and was run by a succession of independent owners until 1961 when it featured Flora Robson in Innocent Sinners and Brian Keith in Chicago Confidential as its last presentations.
After that, it became the inevitable Lucky Seven Bingo Club but ultimately suffered an even more ignominious fate when the building was finally demolished and was replaced by a Morrison’s Supermarket!
When I was a young whippersnapper, I recall being taken by my grandmother to THE RITZ in Matlock to see The King and I which, for some reason, I found rather unsettling (all those ‘Siamese children’ appearing as if from nowhere) and she was obliged to take me out of the cinema.
Later I had just the one visit to THE HASLAND CINEMA when my mother insisted on taking me to see Alan Ladd in Boy on a Dolphin. Brian Hornsey refers to this cinema as THE CARLTON but this was only in its later years. It appears to have been opened originally on Monday 18th September 1922 by the local Mayor, Alderman William Rhodes who also gave his name to a local school in Chesterfield. The HASLAND CINEMA’s first programme included Married Life, with ‘a West End cast’, and Eve’s Film Review along with other items. The resident manager was Mr M. Booth and shows were continuous from 7 pm each evening. Admission prices to the rather plain hall, seating 554 patrons, ranged from 6d to 1/-.
An early unnamed sound system, possibly Pathé Edibell, was installed around 1931 but was soon replaced by B.T.H. equipment. Advertising in The Derbyshire Times seems to have been limited to occasional special presentations. As mentioned elsewhere, the cinema was taken into joint management control by Picture Palace and Varieties Ltd. along with THE LYCEUM on Whittington Moor in the 1950s. A refurbishment followed and seating reduced to 422, under the new name, THE CARLTON, and with increased prices (1/-, 1/6d and 2/-) for single nightly screenings. A ‘panoramic’ screen was fitted but this did little to boost business. Even the top films of the time could take up to six months to be booked at THE CARLTON, yet it was a very short walk or bus-ride into town for patrons to catch these films upon their first release. By 1963, the cinema bowed to the inevitable and closed its doors. The basic outer structure of the building still stands on the corner of Mansfield Road and Calow Lane but now houses a tyre-fitting business.
A minor mystery remains for Chesterfield in the listing in a Kinematograph Year Book, some time in the 1930s, of another cinema for Lou Morris who had already established THE REGAL. It seems he had plans for an alternative venue, to be called THE RITZ, on a West Bars site formally occupied by a skating rink, long since destroyed by fire. As all cinema building was halted by the outbreak of World War II it remains unclear what was intended here.
So then what of THE ROXY at Shirebrook? THE REGORS CINEMA at Cresswell? THE PICTURE PALACE at Holmewood? Bakewell also had a PICTURE PALACE of its own. Plus there was Bolsover’s PLAZA, Alfreton’s EMPIRE and two cinemas at Sutton-in-Ashfield: THE PORTLAND and THE KINGS – all still operating into the 1960s and advertising their programmes to any Derbyshire picturegoers bold enough to venture afield. Once, it seemed, there was a cinema around every corner. Then, in the space of a few short years, they were gone, replaced by the new crop of video rental stores which, in their turn, have lost trade, first to the big supermarkets and then to mail-order and downloads. Patrons, even back in the 1950s, saw nothing wrong in staying at home to watch a film on television if they could, and most people today with an interest in movies will install their own home cinema systems with widescreen LCD TVs and Surround Sound systems – just like being at the pictures. Except that it’s not.
Even when you discount the pros and cons of actual cinemagoing (and there are many of both) there is still no substitute for gathering with a group of cinephiles in an auditorium as the house lights dim, the curtains draw back and a beam of light strikes through the darkness from the projector to the silver screen. There, in big, bright shapes and colours, a whole new world appears. It moves and sings to you. It draws you in as no television yet invented has been able to do.
People do still love ‘the pictures’, and cinemas have NOT disappeared from our urban or cultural landscape. Chesterfield, after five years in the cinematic wilderness, saw the rebirth of the movies when Cineworld opened a 10-screen multiplex in 1998 at the newly-developed Alma Leisure Park on the southern edge of the town centre. Cinema exhibition has always been a precarious business but, by adapting to new trends and patterns, films continue to be made and screened and the last ten years have seen some of the biggest successes in movie history (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter films and so on). Styles may not be to everyone’s liking (were they ever?), some cinemagoers find the latest sound systems overpowering, there is a natural distaste among older patrons at the drive for excess in cinema catering with its buckets of popcorn and gallons of fizzy drinks. The films themselves have become flashier and go further in terms of controversial content than anyone could have imagined in the 1940s and 50s. And, of course, the future is digital.
It may be that the old practice of creating images by the registering of light on the chemical emulsion of a length of blank celluloid spooled around a reel will soon be replaced forever by discs or other storage media encoded only with a series of digital impulses. Threading a projector with sprocketed film may soon seem as quaint as the original Magic Lantern shows, but the basic experience of sitting in front of a screen reflecting a progression of images and sounds, however produced, will last as long as people retain the wish to immerse themselves in this virtually real world. People still love a good movie and, for many, the cinema remains the best and only place to go.
At the start of this account I hinted at my penchant for ‘playing’ at cinemas when I was young and promised an explanation. It involved nothing esoteric or questionable, but must still have seemed a bit bizarre to my parents. It seems even odder now to think back over five decades and picture myself, seated at a table, with a picture book or illustrated comic before me. I would turn the pictures upside down, position a mirror (usually one of those small brown-coated vanity mirrors that often came with women’s handbags) so that the image would be reflected the right way up (though laterally inverted, of course) and then pretend that it was a cinema screen. The pictures in the comic would then, in sequence, appear as a still-frame film show in the mirror. I would vocalise all the music, dialogue and sound effects. I also became adept at reading text both reversed and inverted! This mirror/cinema was a private passion, of course, but I still got through a considerable number of mirrors over the years. Woolworth’s became the regular source of supply for replacements.
Next up was my MiniCine projector. Bought as a Christmas present in, I think, 1960, this allowed me to fantasise even further by inviting neighbourhood friends to come round for a brief ‘picture show’ on my bedroom wall. MiniCine was a rather elaborate toy, far superior to the usual plastic Chad Valley alternatives.
The projectors were manufactured from die-cast metal in Germany, I believe, and were imported and sold in the U.K. by Martin Lucas Limited in Lancashire. They were very popular as a mail order purchase – I’m not sure if they were ever available through shops. They were supplied with an assortment of film strips, each about a foot long, some in colour, most in black-and-white. The majority were designed to be presented as a sequence of still pictures (usually text and then the appropriate image) but some employed a very primitive but quite effective moving image to help tell the story. The ‘projectionist’ had to hand-crank the thing and this could be tiring, but fortunately these simple if repetitive ‘movies’ lasted only about five minutes depending on how quickly one cranked!
Extra film strips could be purchased and I remember sending off a postal order to get at least a further half-dozen. Sadly, my projector didn’t last too long as it suffered a mishap when I took it to school one day. Replacement parts and repairs were almost impossible to procure and I simply had to abandon it, but it remained my all-time favourite childhood gift.
Many years later, I was able to recreate the magic of a projected image falling on to a reflective screen when I invested in a couple of DLP projectors whose advanced technology uses a matrix of microscopically small mirrors to reflect the pixels that make up the digitized picture conveyed in the signal from a video player. In simple terms, it projects a DVD picture on to a screen with full clarity and depth.
This seems as far from the origins of cinemas as I can imagine. There are no reels, no celluloid passing through the projector’s ‘gate’, and nothing to wear or break as with conventional film. The days of scratched and damaged prints are well and truly over. Accordingly, those viable cinemas that have survived to the present day are now almost wholly converted to digital presentation. A multiplex cinema with ten or more screens can be operated by one individual. All aspects of the presentation are computer controlled. However, despite these advances that seem to come straight from a science-fiction movie, one principle remains. To enjoy these films, we still sit in front of a silver screen…which is where we came in.
What was on?
These are all the films as advertised for presentation at Chesterfield’s town-centre cinemas from 1964 to 1969. Readers may wonder why I have limited this section to this relatively brief period from the many decades of film fare offered in the town. A full list of every cinema programme throughout the 20th century would indeed be a magnificent, if somewhat unwieldy, archive but is well beyond the scope or patience of this researcher. For a start, in earlier periods, particularly pre-World War II, many cinemas did not advertise with any consistency and certainly not with the tools of professional promotion that came later. Ironically, today’s multiplex cinemas prefer to advertise online rather than in print. This is fine while the information is current, but is quickly ‘lost’ once it is no longer applicable. Therefore, I have set my own parameters based on those years of my keenest regular cinemagoing. Unsurprisingly, the months listed below are imbued with a great personal nostalgia. I can clearly recall seeing several of these programmes. However, in many cases, I don’t have accurate dates for my attendances and, as certain films would return to Chesterfield for a second run, I cannot be sure which screenings I saw. It is also notable how many main features I can remember but with no recollection whatsoever of the rest of the show. These supporting films must have been spectacularly dull for me to have erased them entirely from my memory. Also, the listing of a title in the local press did not guarantee that that film would inevitably be shown as there were sometimes last minute changes.
What is the general significance of these lists from a social and cultural perspective? As an average-sized town in the provinces, Chesterfield was typical of much of the U.K. and these film programmes would be booked into cinemas across most of the country. The lists provide a snapshot of both the state of cinema exhibition in Britain and a reflection of the trends within popular culture at the time. London and the larger regional cities would offer a greater variety of films, collegiate towns might screen a few more titles aimed at the campus crowds, but for Chesterfield the popular mainstream features were sufficient. Successful franchises of the time – the Elvis musicals, the Carry On films, the Bond movies, anything from Hammer – were guaranteed a booking through the two main distributing chains, Rank and ABC. Indeed, after Bond, ‘spy’ films were all the rage, whether serious stuff (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) or the comic book antics of The Men from U.N.C.L.E. and Matt Helm. And as the decade moved to its end, the shift in permissiveness, and the attendant relaxation of some of the strictures of censorship, brought in the dubious benefits of the frank and revealing sex education films, referred to within the industry as ‘white coaters’, which were really exploitation movies dressed up as serious documentaries, luridly promoted for no other reason than they were from Sweden or Germany. By this time, the era of the gentler British comedy, the spectacular historical epic and the ubiquitous Hollywood western was over apart from the occasional nostalgic re-run.
Double bills were still the order of the day, two titles – not necessarily complementary subjects – alternating continuously throughout the afternoon and evenings. There would be separate showings for special presentations only, with special prices to match! We mustn’t forget the Pathé Newsreel at the ABC and a short documentary, usually from the Look At Life series, at Rank cinemas. Even when there was just a single feature the listing would always say ‘Full Supporting Programme’ which simply meant adverts (from Pearl & Dean or Rank Advertising), some trailers and possibly a cartoon if you were lucky.
The dates given here are for the Sunday of each listed week. Programmes usually ran for 7 days from Sunday unless shown otherwise. There were, however, quite a few programmes beginning on the Monday with a separate ‘One Day Only’ show the day before. The latter were mostly pairings of second run features and were quite often low profile titles (westerns, sexploitation films and schlock horrors) and these were offered as an adult alternative, particularly during the holiday seasons when the rest of the week was given over to family films.
Furthermore, there was the practice, particularly at the Rank cinemas, of running two separate programmes for 3 or 4 days only, the second half of the week usually commencing on the Thursday. One-off film presentations of culturally prestigious pictures – filmed ballets, opera productions, Shakespeare and the like – were also offered. Then there were several occasions when the regular programmes at the ABC Cinema were suspended for various live shows, the so-called pop ‘package tours’. Usually, these were for ‘one day only’ although there had been some ‘extended’ engagements in earlier decades. Throughout the wider region, some cinemas even held boxing bouts and talent shows. Many cinemas were bookable for private events and several larger schools in the county hired cinemas for their Speech Days and prize-giving ceremonies. As the Bingo craze started to take over from film shows, some cinemas tried to combine the two but this schizophrenic approach did not offer the best of both worlds as intended, but simply pointed the way to the eventual decline and closure of so many more picture palaces in the 1970s and beyond. But back to the Sixties…
Copyright 2015 Kenneth Bishton All Rights Reserved