Hiding in plain sight: my search for the old cinemas of Leeds

This week our guest writer is Dr Laura Ager, Academic researcher and Creative Engagement Officer at the Hyde Park Picture House, who is writing about the history of old cinemas in Leeds.

Before the era of the corporate multiplex cinema began, Leeds used to have many different and unique small cinemas. I have read that at the height of their popularity, there would have been over 60 cinemas active in Leeds. During the mid to late 20th century, many of these became bingo halls and by the 1980s, as annual cinema admissions in the UK slumped to an all-time low, a lot of cinemas closed down for good.

Much of the published research on the history of cinemas in Leeds is limited to a handful of facts such as when they opened and closed, what the last film shown there was and a few old pictures for each one. However, the idea of a changing geography of cinemas and cinemagoing got me thinking about where these former cinemas might be, what has happened to them in recent years and what they might look like now. How many of them can still be seen, still there, hiding in plain sight?

And so on Wednesday 19th June 2019, I gave an illustrated talk to an audience at the Leeds Central Library based on the research I have been doing in this area over the last year. This short article summarises that talk and looks ahead to how this work could be developed further.

Coming Soon

Before I go on, I must add that of course not all of the old cinemas in Leeds have closed their doors. It is generally believed that the Cottage Road cinema in Headingley is the oldest working cinema in Leeds, it dates back to 1913 and is still showing films daily. The Hyde Park Picture House, which opened one year later, also remains an active part of the city’s film scene, bringing together a mix of new, cult, classic and international films.

When I first arrived in Leeds, I started to learn a little about the city’s contemporary cinemascape by getting involved in the production of the Leeds International Film Festival, which is one of the UK’s largest and most established film festivals.

The 1st Leeds International Film Festival was first organised in 1987 and it makes use of many of the city’s cinemas to present an international programme.

The annual film festival in November is run by a small team of dedicated cinephiles with the support of Leeds City Council, and they recruit a huge number of volunteers every year. I have been part of the team for over ten years and have also interviewed many of the people who have been involved with the film festival since it began in 1987. Doing this research made me become even more interested in finding out more about the evolution of cinemas and film culture in the city.

There are many useful resources on local cinemas in the library’s Local and Family History Library on the 2nd floor of the Central Library, including three excellent books by Robert Preedy: Leeds Cinemas Remembered (1980) and Leeds Cinemas (2005) and Flicks A Picture Album of Cinemas in Leeds and Bradford – the date of publication of which is uncertain. The library also have a great pamphlet that Brian Hornsey wrote in 2001, which draws on company records and local news.

After a few hours spent in the library with these resources, I picked a sunny day last summer and with Google maps as my co-pilot and some printouts from the Cinema Treasures website, I set out on my bicycle to see how many of the outlying ones I could find.

What followed was a journey into builders’ yards, tile warehouses, massage parlours, fish and chip shops and more besides!

Imperial, Kirkstall Rd, built in 1913 and now used as a Dulux Decorator centre.

I managed to find twelve of the former cinemas before it got dark, with a break for sandwiches of course. These adventures, and new photographs of the cinemas, along with findings from a trip to the West Yorkshire archive and the Local and Family History Library, formed the basis of a public talk that I have now given three times to different audiences.

The subject of cinema history in Leeds is vast and I couldn’t hope to cover every detail in my hour long talk, but I did hope that it might encourage people to go looking for some of these former cinemas themselves. The list of ones that can be found easily includes many of the well-known luxurious super-cinemas that were built in the city centre, some of which now proudly bear blue plaques. Less well known are the constellation of smaller, local cinemas which could at one time have been found in every part of the city.

The Majestic cinema opened in 1922 with seats for 2800 and its own orchestra. Brian Hornsey suggests that in 1922, Leeds city centre entered an ‘era of large cinemas’

These smaller cinemas are often characterised as local ‘flea pits’, but they are places that belonged to the community, local people would have had jobs at these places and I feel that they can be understood as meaningful places where people would go out with their friends and family, or perhaps for a date with a new beau.

The Abbey Picture House, Kirkstall, opened in 1913. The area was very different and there were a lot of houses, enough people lived there in that area to support six local cinemas.

The height of cinema’s impact on the lives of Leeds’ citizens would probably have been in the 1930s, since then the rise of other leisure pursuits and the changing forms of how we consume moving images have permanently altered our relationship with our former cinema spaces. Other developments such as policy and changing technology have also left a mark on the way cinema geographies developed. Prior to 1910, there was very little regulation regarding the screening of films and the premises used for them. Theatres were already well developed for audiences, so that was where it started.

The Coliseum was turned into a cinema in 1905 by a company called New Century Pictures. It later became The Gaumont.

In the early days of film, the film stock (cellulose nitrate) was highly unstable and when combined with the intense light source required to project a moving image it could be very flammable, several significant and fatal fires ensued as a result. The 1909 Cinematograph Act was designed to ensure that venues that wanted to screen films must conform to certain health and safety regulations for the safety of their patrons. The key specific of the new law meant that a projector must be enclosed within a fire resisting enclosure, and so we see the origins of the projection room as we know it today. After the implementation of the Act, venues which wished to screen films had to apply for a special license from their local authority.

According to Brian Hornsey, 1912 saw the start of a cinema ‘boom’ in which sixteen new cinemas opened in Leeds. In December 1913, Leeds City Council added another rule to their Cinematograph license which was that all cinemas should have a resident fireman! There were around 60 cinemas in the area at this time, with more licenses pending. A Harehills based architect J.P. Crawford designed at least fourteen cinemas between 1914 and 1930.

Out of the city centre ‘super cinemas’ that appeared in the 1920s and 30s, the gigantic Scala is now a hotel, the Odeon has become a sportswear store and The Ritz / ABC / Cannon is a building site. The Majestic went over to bingo in 1969, then later reopened as an enormous dance club, Majestyk, which closed down in 2006. The building suffered a terrible fire in 2014 which destroyed the roof and its future looked uncertain, but in 2017, property developers Rushbond promised a “£40m grade A super-prime office scheme”. We now expect that the building will become the new home for Channel 4.

The Hyde Park Picture House, Brudenell Road, today.

I feel lucky then, that my local cinema, the Hyde Park Picture House, is not only still open, but is currently about to undergo a major regeneration project. This work is being funded primarily by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in order to protect and preserve the cinema’s many historic features, while at the same time making the building more sustainable, more comfortable and accessible to more people.

There’s plenty of information about the plans and who will be delivering them on this website which states that the project’s core aims are ‘for the cinema to be seen as a progressive cultural organisation, a safe space and an essential hub within our community’.

The Hyde Park Picture House first opened its doors on the 7th November 1914, there are sadly no pictures of the cinema at that time, but it retains many heritage assets that you can see today, just by visiting. There’s the beautiful lamppost outside the Picture House, which like the main building itself is Grade II listed, and inside the cinema there are nine working gas lights, which are lit every day when the is cinema open. The photograph above shows the cinema entrance, which is where the current ticket office is. You will now find that the former ticket office of the 1950s and 60s is a tiny shop that sells sweets, cakes and drinks. Going back to the cinema’s earliest years, that same space would have been occupied by a fireplace. When the cinema first opened, refreshments would probably have been sold from usherette trays during intervals.

Cinema manager Len Thompson at the ticket booth (date unknown at present).

The auditorium at the Hyde Park Picture House still shows traces of earlier extravagance, there are red velvet curtains at the front, exquisite stained glass windows set into the doors at the back, while garlands of plaster roses adorn the balcony. Behind the current screen, more of the original plasterwork still exists, featuring an elaborate cherub design. Prior to the arrival of ‘the talkies’ films would have been projected directly onto the back wall and a decorative plaster border called the ‘proscenium arch’ would have framed the image. New technology called for a new arch to be built in front of the wall, and the cherubs are now hidden.

Cherubs in the plasterwork at the Hyde Park Picture House are now hidden from view.

During the next phase of the cinema’s history, all of the donated objects presently being held at the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Morley will be studied to more comprehensively understand how the cinema operated in past decades. Local community consultations are planned, these will help us to find out more about the memories that people in the area have of the place. By searching back through the assembled evidence and stories, I hope to understand how this Edwardian cinema has endured the changes I have mentioned and remained a local treasure, while other Leeds cinemas have not been so fortunate.

If you have any memories of Leeds cinemas that you’d like to share, or if you’re interested in volunteering on the Hyde Park Picture House heritage project, or if you’d like to host my talk on the old cinemas of Leeds at your club or venue, please do get in touch.


One Comment Add yours

  1. val383 says:

    Oh the Hyde Park and the Cottage Road. I was one of those hundreds of students who went regularly to the Hyde Park to see Casablanca in the late 70s and early 80s. We all knew the script and cheered and hissed at all the right moments, and sang along with the Marseillaise when Viktor Laszlo made the band play it.

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