THE MOVIE PALACES OF BRITAIN
Near the end of Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle wins Henry Higgins’ bet by passing herself off as a duchess at an embassy ball. But not even her elongated vowels and newly acquired cultured speech were likely to snag her an invitation to Buckingham Palace. There were other palaces that a 20-year-old woman eager for a bit of fun and entertainment could visit however. And what better place for our young heroine to relax than the movie palaces springing up all over Britain? Also called picture palaces, these lavishly decorated showplaces multiplied each year in England and America from the early 1910s until the 1940s.
In the early years of the 20th century, vaudeville theaters in America and music halls in Britain started to show silent films. As attendance grew, the pressing demand for movies warranted their own buildings. Dubbed ‘palaces’ because the intention was to make an audience member feel like royalty, these new movie theaters boasted extravagant décor and exotic design. Architectural styles included Egyptian Revival, Moroccan, Baroque, Gothic and even Mayan and Aztec.
In 1911, one of the oldest picture palaces opened in Harwich, England. Still operating today in the county of Essex, the Harwich Electric Picture Palace is one of the first movie theaters built specifically for film. A contemporary stroll about the theater will reveal its original projection room, silent film screen, decorative facade, and box office. The Harwich picture palace was the brainchild of traveling showman Charles Thurston who presented bioscope shows (two-minute animated movies) at English country fairs. Watching the audience’s delighted reactions – in particular the children from the workhouses he entertained – Thurston decided the future lay in screening these movies in an actual theater. Indeed, movies were already so popular that Photoplay Magazine was launched in 1911 to celebrate the new industry and its stars.
An energetic entrepreneur, Thurston commissioned the construction of a movie palace in Harwich. Designed by 26-year-old Harold Hooper, the theater took 18 weeks to build and cost £1500. When it opened to the public on November 29, 1911, the first film shown was The Battle of Trafalgar and The Death of Nelson. Admission price was a shilling for adults, and sixpence for children. They no doubt got their money’s worth since the silent film was accompanied by both live music and sound effects. Thurston went on to build the Empire Cinema and the Palace Cinema in 1913. Closed in 1956, the Harwich Electric Picture Palace reopened in 1981, and continues to show films every weekend. Run by community volunteers, among the theater’s many patrons is actor Clive Owens.
Obviously the Harwich was not the only movie palace going up in Britain. Such was the popularity of silent films that concern over fire safety in the new theaters prompted the Cinematograph Act of 1910 in Britain. To keep track of all the movie palaces, a Bioscope and Trade Directory was published which listed the cinemas in each county. In 1911, the directory was over 400 pages long! Audiences simply couldn’t get enough of the silent films which arrived from France and America three times a week. Not surprisingly, the English decided to make movies as well, and places such as Box Hill in Surrey became the shooting location for British versions of American westerns.
As for what actually transpired during an Edwardian picture show, suffice it to say that hygienic standards were low. In 1908, many music halls began to screen silent movies. Since the entire program lasted no more than an hour, it was not thought necessary to provide public restrooms. Not a wise decision, considering that children were often part of the audience. The air was also thick with cigarette and pipe smoke; it could be difficult to even see the screen through the haze. This meant the theaters were usually dirty and smelled foul. To counteract the stench, attendants walked up and down the aisles spraying the disinfectant fluid Jeyes into the air.
But by the early 1910s, theaters built specifically for film were designed to look and feel like a palace. Not only was the architecture extravagant and eye catching, but everything from the gilt trim on the curtains to the plush upholstered seats were meant to impress. The air was still filled with tobacco smoke however, and the savvy cinema fan paid more to sit in the back of the theater where the glare from the screen was less painful. For little more than sixpence, the audience was treated to an hour’s worth of entertainment that included a main feature and a newsreel provided by Pathe News, all of it accompanied by a live orchestra.
Two of the oldest movie palaces in London predate the one in Harwich. Both the Baroque designed Electric Cinema on Portobello Road and the Art Deco East Finchley Picturedrome were built in 1910. Due to financial problems the 428-seat Picturedrome didn’t open until May 1912 when it showed a silent film about the Titanic which had recently sunk. In 1929, the Picturedrome, renamed the Coliseum, became one of the first movie theaters in London to screen a talking film.
Other British movie palaces built before 1914 include The Kursaal (aka The Dome) in Worthing, Brixton’s Electric Pavilion, the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, Blackburn’s Exchange Hall, the Curzon in Clevedon, and the Headlingley Picture House in Leeds.
But it is the city of Brighton that claims to be the site of Britain’s oldest movie theater in continuous operation. The Duke of York’s Picture House was built by theatrical manager/actress Violet Melnotte-Wyatt at a cost of £3000. Designed to seat 800 moviegoers, the red and cream-colored theater opened on September 22, 1910. This elegant theater was marketed to an upscale audience. In fact the managers of the Duke of York were so convinced of its high quality that their advertisements claimed, “Bring her to the Duke’s, it is fit for a Duchess.” A pity Eliza Doolittle didn’t live in Brighton. This theater seems perfect for our favorite ‘duchess’.
The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson, 2006.