Take a look at what I found on Essex Road the other day:
I can’t decide whether it’s utterly magnificent or utterly vulgar, but either way I like it. It was at one time the Carlton Cinema, designed by George Coles and opened in 1930.
I don’t know if you saw that rather good BBC documentary on the subject of Art Deco, Glamour’s Golden Age, Part 1: The Luxe Experience, but that went briefly into the subject of these picture palaces and is worth catching on iPlayer. To sum up, before the 1920s, cinemas tended to be small-scale operations, often temporary and never classy.
As Hollywood started producing longer and grander films, it became not only economically possible, but economically sensible to build cinemas that could hold a larger audience. In the twentieth century, there was a trend towards what someone (I forget who, but I don’t want to sound like I’m nicking someone’s quote) described as the “democratization of luxury.” That is, buildings such as department stores and cinemas being designed to give the average person a taste of how the other half lives.
The first “picture palace” was the Mark Strand Theatre in New York City in 1914, and was followed by many others in the US and across the world. With these, the cinema itself could be as much of an attraction as the movies showing. They would include such luxuries as pipe organs and air conditioning. They were designed along theatrical lines, with dress circles and balconies. The still-extant Odeon in Richmond even features a low-relief Mediterrainean town either side of the screen. Why? Who cares?
Unfortunately, the days of the picture palace were short-lived. Over the following decades, television, video and now the Internet have eaten into the dedicated cinema’s monopoly on film entertainment. The Carlton there closed in 1972. Its last film was Mutiny on the Buses, so while I assume the cinema closed for economic reasons, it is possible that the building simply lost the will to live after seeing that film.
These days, the emphasis is on cramming as many screens as possible into the modern multiplex. Architecture be damned, and would you like to buy some ridiculously expensive popcorn while you’re waiting? The old picture palaces have, with a few exceptions, had to find new uses. Many have been converted into clubs or bingo halls, with their seats ripped out. The old Granada in Tooting is a bingo hall, but has been very sympathetically restored, complete with its old pipe organ.
Alas, the poor old Carlton lies abandoned. It did reopen as a Mecca Bingo, but as of 2007 has been abandoned. Being Grade II* listed, it’s reasonably safe for the time being (Grade II* puts it above the BT Tower and London Zoo), but still. It would be nice to do something with it.
http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1157_art_deco/about/buildings/mecca.htm – The Victoria and Albert Museum’s rather outdated entry.
http://cinematreasures.org/theater/15111/ – Cinema Treasures’ more comprehensive entry on the cinema.