Glasgow Odeon - Renfield Street
Gordon Barr looks back on the history of Glasgow's once-proud Odeon cinema and at the various plans to return the building to its former glory.
The Odeon in Glasgow's Renfield Street closed its doors for the last time on 7 January 2006. It had first opened just over seventy-one years earlier, on Hogmanay 1934, as the Paramount Theatre.
Unlike England and Wales, most of Odeon's older Scottish cinemas were acquired by takeovers. Only three custom-built Odeons were ever erected in Scotland - at Hamilton, Motherwell and Ayr. These were all relatively plain by the standards of the best English examples, and only Ayr remains today.
Glasgow's main Odeon was actually built for another company “ namely the American Paramount chain, wholly owned by Paramount Pictures, and this was the name originally carried on the cinema's elegant curved faÃ§ade. Most of the British Paramount cinemas were designed by London-based architects Frank Verity and Samuel Beverley. Glasgow was in the middle of their series of UK Paramounts; Leeds had opened earlier that year and Birmingham a year later, while Manchester and Newcastle also had their own Paramounts.
The design for Glasgow seems quite unlike any of the others. Occupying half a city block, the focal point of the exterior was a corner entrance with tall vanes and double-height windows wrapping around the corner. An American style exterior paybox led to a large double-height foyer, and a sweeping staircase led up to the balcony foyer, and from there to the tea-room and restaurant, which also had its own direct access from the street.
The auditorium seated 2,784 in an Italian renaissance-style, with stalls and a balcony, decorated in green and silver. Concealed lighting in troughs in the ceiling provided most of the illumination and long narrow light fittings hung in front of either side of the splay walls. The side walls were painted with decorative murals while the sides of the ceiling were picked out with swirls of plasterwork. A large stage, with a full-height fly tower and many dressing rooms and offices were provided backstage (many films were accompanied by stage presentations at the time).
In 1939 it was bought along with the rest of the UK Paramounts by Odeon, but continued to be advertised as the Paramount Theatre for some time after this before it was eventually renamed the Odeon.
By the 1960s, the decoration in the auditorium had been simplified, with much of the plasterwork on the balcony front and ceiling removed and the side walls repainted. The foyer also seems to have had several different decorative schemes over the years.
1963 saw the building play host to a sell-out Beatles concert.
In 1969, the building closed for a thorough conversion to one of then owner, Rank's, first 3 screen operations reopening as the Odeon Film Centre. This involved the gutting and removal of almost all of the original decoration, leaving only fragments behind in out of the way corners.
The balcony was extended forwards on new steelwork to create a large 1,100 seat Screen 1. Screen 2 occupied effectively the original stalls area, and a third screen was created in the stage and flyspace, which featured both a small balcony and its own separate entrance. At the same time, the stunning deco faÃ§ade was covered in a giant readograph and metal sheeting covering the entire front of the building.
In 1988, Screen 2 was itself tripled, and a new corridor was created down the side of the building giving access to the screens in the original stage area from the main foyer for the first time. The 1970s screen 3 was also split in two, with its balcony forming one screen, and a new projection box created at the rear of its stalls bringing the total screens to six.
In 1999, with the threat of the new Virgin/UGC (now Cineworld) eighteen screen megaplex opening up the road, Odeon embarked on what was to prove a final refurbishment, inserting three more screens in the rear half of the 1970s screen 1. This brought the total screens to 9, but thankfully also saw the removal of the 1970s readograph and corrugated iron and the exterior restored to something approaching its former glory. The new blue neon scheme, while less complex than the original, was still quite stunning at night and an excellent advert for the building.
Despite strong competition, both from Odeon's own twelve screen at the Glasgow Quay and the UGC in Renfrew Street, the Renfield Street remained both profitable and popular to the end.
This came eventually when Odeon sold the building “ and its Edinburgh equivalent “ to a development company who leased it back, allowing the cinema to continue while they finalised their plans for the site.
Shortly after the sale of the cinema in 2003, it emerged that the Glasgow site was protected only by virtue of the City Centre Conservation Area. Historic Scotland swiftly moved to B-list the building on the merits of its landmark corner faÃ§ade - despite there being almost no original historic fabric left inside.
The first redevelopment plans for this cinema thus entailed only the removal of the interior elements, with retail and leisure units being slotted into the existing structure, and a glass rooftop extension perched above. Later, these were revised to remove the rooftop extension, but neither plan saw the light of day.
In 2007, a much more radical scheme came before Glasgow City Council which entailed the complete removal of the auditorium block to be replaced with a ten-storey glass tower. The lower floors of this speculative office development would echo the outline of the former auditorium block, whilst the 1934 corner faÃ§ade would be restored and used for leisure or retail. After discussion with the planning department, a storey was removed from the tower element.
These plans were passed by Glasgow City Council in November 2007 after the developers compromised by agreeing to reduce the height of the office block by a couple of stories. While little of the original fabric remained inside, it was unfortunate that the scale of the new-build tower element would completely overwhelm the retained historic faÃ§ade of the Paramount. However, it was announced at the start of 2009 that these plans have also been shelved due to problems securing finance.
Meanwhile, the building sits empty and forlorn.
A last look round the building in January 2006, shortly after closure saw the Grand Old Lady of Glasgow Cinema in a very sorry state: Screens had been simply slashed to get access to speakers behind them, seats were piled up ready to be taken away, and the halls felt empty, echoey and dark.
This last visit also gave an opportunity to explore behind the scenes and see some of the hidden corners where original features still survive intact “ some decorative flourishes on the tops of pillars hidden above suspended ceilings, much of the roof and swirling plasterwork of the tea-room behind the tall corner windows, and some of the original dressing rooms abandoned for decades.
The final message on the readograph said¦
Odeon Glasgow 31 Dec 34 “ 7 Jan 06 Thank You and Goodnight