By Lynne Charoenkitsuksun
Sometime during the 1980s the regular activity of “Going to the Movies” seemed to die a slow death, as the experience of gazing, goggle-eyed, mouth crammed with popcorn, at the lives and loves of the stars cavorting on the big screen simply faded from the collective consciousness, and weekends of VHS at home replaced cinema for leisure. Fortunately, over the last couple of decades the huge multiplexes have revived filmgoing as a comfortable, and even exciting pastime. The newer Odeon on Blackpool's Rigby Road, and on the Promenade at Cleveleys, now each house smoothly-running multi-screens which present most of the latest popular releases.
Seventy or eighty years ago, however, Blackpool displayed a rather different face. Streets thronged with varied entertainment venues. The tunes drifting from the myriad song booths in the early to mid-20th century enlivened the seaside resort - much like the songs of today's karaoke singers from dimly-lit bars occasionally reach the ears of passers-by. These song booths were in the midst of surprisingly numerous cinemas, old and new, to which visitors and residents poured in to view Hollywood extravaganzas in that pre-television era.
Today several of those old picture houses still stand; some are broken down shells, some just a sad half-façade, others rejuvenated in a new life altogether. On central Church Street, diagonally opposite Marks & Spencer, looking upwards at the town skyline rewards attention. Here remnants of the exterior of the Clifton Palace Cinema, later the Tatler News Cinema, inform of the building's former life as a plush 700-seater; once running Pathé newsreels to attract viewers throughout the day. It operated in a similar way to today's Sky News or BBC World. The Clifton Palace building was originally built in 1878-9 as the Blackpool Liberal Club, opening as a cinema in 1910.
During the 1890s Blackpool had quickly caught on to the new cinema genre, opening the Theatre Royal (later known as the Tivoli). The theatre was a stage venue until it had a season of short lumiere films in 1897.
From a heritage perspective, the town centre Church Street is lined with broken and restored monuments to old classic cinema: from the Palace Picture Pavilion on the present Viva club site at the sea end to the recently revived Regent Cinema as an antique centre, this street must have once teemed day and night with visitors hungry for fun and seaside entertainment. The Regent's glitzy silver dome above the skyline can be seen from quite a distance out of town and its dinky retractable roof window is notable for opening, disappointingly, only to the outer ceiling above the renovated and well-used auditorium. Tiling by Middletons Fire Clay Company would in its heyday certainly have rivalled those from Neatby Tiles used at the nearby Winter Gardens, which itself was kitted out with a screen. These are possibly the only old picture houses now being used again to show films, the Regent running classic films at the weekend, while the Winter Gardens has a short annual film season.
Between the two stood the Clifton Palace Cinema and the demolished Syndicate nightclub which used to be the well-liked ABC cinema. The ABC opened as the Empire in 1895 and became the Hippodrome in 1900. One of the first in the country to screen Monty Python's Life of Brian, the ABC was the only serious rival to the Odeon across town.
Not far away in Talbot Square the lovely Tivoli, part of the Yates’s Wine Lodge complex, with its iron-grilled green arcade, was destroyed in a terrible fire only a few years ago. Its famed pet shop, boutiques and smoking shop drew the crowds, encouraging them upstairs to the first-floor cinema which had in the late 20th century played an important role in returning cinema to something of its past glories.
One iconic, very visible and familiar Blackpool landmark is the 1939 Odeon on Dickson Road. It used to run a raucous Saturday matineé club for kids and was invariably the first in the region to receive the newest films, sometimes hosting regional or even national premières of such movies as the 007 James Bond series. In those forgotten double-bill days, refreshments during the interval were integral features of the cinema experience. Founded by Oscar Deutsch, the building faced in the locally omnipresent faience this cinema which can be seen from the outskirts of town, has Grade ll listed status. Once a 3088-seater cinema, it remained a well-used venue for decades until its closure in 1988 and it has for some years housed Funny Girls. The Odeon's art-deco façade and impressive interior are still grand, its steps and glass doors still welcoming - it simply no longer shows films.
Along the Promenade near Springfield Road stands the formerly showy Princess, once a sizeable cinema but later a live music venue which had originally been named for one of Queen Victoria's daughters, the Princess Louise, who made a well-chronicled visit to the resort. The crumbling interior of the Princess retained its decorative merit while still in use, but its steel gates are today locked against the winds and rains from the Promenade and sea beyond. Closer to North Pier the now closed Studios 1-4, later the Cannon Cinemas 1-4, belonging to the Star Cinema Group was renowned for showing back-to-back adult themes and horrors. In the 1970s either The Exorcist or The Omen seemed to run every season for years.
On the outskirts of Blackpool was the King Edward on Central Drive, which opened as the Central Picture Theatre in 1913 and still stands as a derelict grade ll listed building owned by the Council. Also, Bond Street's Rendezvous and the Palladium, whose remains can still be seen next to the Royal Oak pub at the corner of Waterloo Road and Lytham Road. Look upwards above the dismal bricked face to see the upper façade of the original Palladium cinema. Four of its fluted pilasters in stone are visible, their Ionic-style capitals surrounded by creamy-coloured faience tiles beneath the original eaves. Recently advertised for sale, the fate of the Palladium's cavernous interior is unclear. Nearby was one of Blackpool’s first cinemas, the Waterloo which was replaced by shops in the 1960s.
The luxury of choices available to movie lovers in those roomy, busy cinemas of the early 20th century is difficult to imagine today. The modern, lavish, high-tech Odeon multiplexes satisfy most demands of their visitors in terms of ease, quality, sound and of course refreshment. They no longer dish up international daily news, but they are excellent picture houses. Looking around town, skywards towards the upper sections of urban buildings, their pediments, windows, brick and stonework, reliefs or sculptures can be rewarding in revealing a wealth of forgotten places and people associated with the town's historic tradition of quality entertainment and leisure.