Glasgow’s history traced through its old cinemas

The Paramount cinema on Renfield Street, Glasgow in January 1935. Picture: Contributed

The Paramount cinema on Renfield Street, Glasgow in January 1935. Picture: Contributed

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GLASGOW’S network of movie house landmarks gives a fascinating insight into the city’s social history and its love of film, writes Alistair Harkness

It’s an odd building if you look at it,” says Gordon Barr. It’s a chilly January afternoon and Barr, an architecture enthusiast and chronicler of Scotland’s cinema heritage, is pointing at the Rose Street exterior of Glasgow Film Theatre, a purpose-built arthouse cinema which first opened its doors as the Cosmo back in 1939. “It’s set back from the rest of the buildings, which was deliberate on the part of the city planners, who didn’t like it and didn’t want it to be visible from Sauchiehall Street. That’s the reason it has a huge, protruding neon sign: so that it would still be visible from down there.”

Barr is a veritable fount of knowledge when it comes to the history of Glasgow’s cinemas. His own website, scottishcinemas.org.uk, is a rich resource of old photos and facts about these often curious buildings and, alongside fellow enthusiast, Gary Painter, he is occasionally to be found providing tours around Glasgow’s extensive network of cinema landmarks. He will be giving two such walking tours with Painter later this month – one around the city centre, the other around the West End – as part of Glasgow Film Festival’s new Cinema City strand, an ongoing project initiated by Glasgow Film to celebrate the city’s relationship with cinema. Once boasting the highest number of screens per head of population outside the US, Glasgow’s love affair with movies offers an important resource for understanding the changing nature of the city over the last century or so.

“Cinemas are an interesting building type because there hasn’t been a lot of study done on them,” says Barr as we walk round the corner to the ABC, a live music venue on Sauchiehall Street that was once a flagship ABC Regal cinema and, in an earlier incarnation, the site of Glasgow’s first ever film show. “Lots of folk study film, not as many study the buildings in which you see them – and that’s a big part of the experience.”

Capturing that “experience” is at the heart of the centrepiece of Cinema City: a free multi-media exhibition entitled Jeely Jars and Seeing Stars that will provide an oral history of cinema-going in Glasgow at the Mitchell Library. The title is a reference to an old Glaswegian practice of trading jam jars for entry into films. “Glass had currency,” elaborates Cinema City project manager Angela Fussell. “And the nice thing about doing this is that we’ve spoken to people who actually remember doing this.”

Such reminiscences – compiled from a cross-section of locals ranging in age from 19 to 90 – are, says Fussell, the heartbeat of the whole project and will be presented in audio and video form in the exhibition, augmented by photos, archival footage and period artifacts. “What comes through is how the fabric of society has changed over the years, which sounds quite grand, but it really isn’t the same now as it was then.”

Back on Sauchiehall Street, Barr reckons Glasgow’s large working class population and high-density tenement living made cinemas especially attractive and affordable sources of escape, particularly cinemas like the ABC or the recently demolished Odeon on Renfield Street, which began life as The Paramount and was known to be the plushest cinema in Glasgow. “Those old cinemas were very much people’s palaces. They were grand; they were opulent; they were welcoming.”

Indeed, old cinemas like La Scala – traces of which can be seen in the archways above the entrance to Waterstone’s bookshop – offered cinemagoers the chance to dine while taking in a film. Across the street, the Picture House, which is now the Savoy Centre, boasted up-market fountains, regal staircases and was designed specifically to be a safe environment for women. “When you walk down Sauchiehall Street it’s incredible to see how many of the buildings you pass used to be cinemas,” Barr says. “Now you have 18 screens at Cineworld, all in one building.”

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We stop at the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Renfield Street, where four cinemas used to stand within a few metres of each other. None exists today, but towering over us is the aforementioned Cineworld – currently the tallest cinema in the world, and one of the most visited in the UK. There have been sniffy condemnations of the building in the past, but that’s unfair. Not only do its upper levels offer some of the most breathtaking views of Glasgow, its record-breaking size, popularity and functionality give it a nice historical link to Glasgow’s cinema past.

As Barr reveals, long before the Apollo music venue that hitherto occupied the site was demolished, Europe’s largest single cinema screen stood there: Green’s Playhouse. This silent era behemoth could accommodate a staggering 4,368 moviegoers and also boasted a ballroom over two floors, as well as tearooms, offices and even a putting green on the roof. It was an early example of the kind of vertically integrated entertainment emporium that’s common today, and Barr can’t help but admire the ambition of its proprietor, George Green, who built it despite operating only a small, family-run business.

We hop on the underground to the West End. En route Barr shows me photos of another former cinema known as The Norwood on St George’s Road. Adorning the roof is a scale model of the Forth Bridge. “The building still exists, but this is gone,” sighs Barr, pointing at the bridge. “It’s hard to imagine when you walk past that there was once this completely mad structure on top of it. But that was all about the cinema working as its own advertisement, trying to grab your attention and stop you walking past without noticing.”

It seems strange, then, that Glasgow’s oldest still-functioning cinema should be somewhat hidden away. The two-screen Grosvenor sits not on busy Byers Road, but behind it on Ashton Lane. “It didn’t used to be,” Barr says. The original entrance was on Byers Road, but the foyer and projection booth were demolished in the early 1980s as Hillhead underground underwent expansion. As we emerge from the station, Barr points to where the entrance once stood. It’s now an Indian restaurant. “When it opened in 1921 it was much grander.”

The original auditorium remains, however, housing the restaurant attached to the cinema. We walk round to take a look, but detour into a muddy courtyard next to a betting shop where the back of the current Grosvenor building stands. Barr points to some bricked-up windows. “Those are the original projection portholes,” he says.

These kinds of remnants of old cinema buildings are dotted around Glasgow like architectural ghosts. They’re what Barr loves most about doing this. “They bring it all to life,” he says.

Appropriately enough, our final stop was designed to have permanence. Hillhead Book Club may be a hipster West End bar now, but was once the Hillhead Electric Theatre, a pre-First World War cinema, built in 1913 to withstand the fires that frequently tore through picture houses of the day (running highly flammable nitrate film through hot projectors being a risky endeavour). “The whole building is made from concrete,” says Barr. “It was completely fireproof, which might have caught on had it not been such a slow process.”

Inside and out it’s unusual and beautiful and gets back, says Barr, to this idea of the building functioning as its own advertisement. “Cinemas are very commercial,” he surmises, “but they’re a hugely important social part of our community as well.”

Cinema City Walking Tours run on 26 February (West End) and 28 February (City Centre). Tickets are £5 payable on the day. For places, email walks@scottishcinemas.org.uk. Jeely Jars and Seeing Stars runs at the Mitchell Library, 12-28 February. For more information on Cinema City, and on the rest of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, which runs from 18 February until 1 March, visit: www.glasgowfilm.org

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