Scottish Cinema Archaeology
Part of what we do at ScottishCinemas.org is attempt to record cinema buildings as they are today, but also to try to poke about behind the scenes to see what's left of what they used to be.
It's amazing, even in a building that's been chopped and changed about in lots of different ways over the years, how many original features, bits of decoration, or interesting details can still survive. We've learned that it's always worth peering above ceiling tiles, clambering into roof-voids, and venturing onto decaying balconies. In a few cases, we've even been able to rescue important artefacts just in time, before the bulldozers moved in.
Here are a few of our more interesting, or unexpected finds...
Burnt Glass in Burntisland
The Palace cinema, built in 1939, had 'gone on fire' in 1985, after being partly converted to an amusement arcade. Boarded up and forgotten about, the interior was left to decay. We got access in 2005 to take photos, finding an eerily emotive, and quiet, green space right next to a busy high street.
The trees had grown up in the auditorium, reaching up towards the skeletal remains of the roof. Burnt-in shadows of the former decoration were visible on the side walls; and grass had grown on the steps of the balcony.
The foyer block had survived more intact, with original doors, cracked and soot-covered art deco light fittings, and decaying projectors and film-reels. Archive images of the cinema show that its logo was a prancing deer, featured in the painted decoration, and also the three prominent stained glass windows that faced out to the high street.
These had been boarded up since the fire, but our photos showed that one of the windows - featuring the prancing deer - survived mostly intact. These images proved crucial, when the demolition teams were due to move in during 2008, to help convince the local council's Archaeology Service to bring in a cherry picker, and remove it for safe-keeping.
The window is now in the ownership of Burntisland Heritage Trust, who are seeking an appropriate new home for it, so at least one part of Burntisland's most opulent cinema will survive for the future.
Circus Posters in Hamilton
Two abandoned cinemas within two minutes walk of each other in Hamilton provided a wealth of details, and an interesting contrast.
At the old ABC Regal in 2005, where we were accompanied guests of the local council, we had to dress up in comedy paper suits, in case of any asbestos or other problems. Another victim of fire, there wasn't a huge amount left to see - but again, some original light fittings, and some fragments of the 1930s painted interior, which helped show how similar it was to its sister Regal in Sauchiehall Street could be glimpsed. The building has since been demolished for a car park.
In marked contrast, when it came to the 1921 La Scala around the corner, the council just gave us the keys and left us alone to do our survey. This had the great advantage of letting us take our time, and be able to be more thorough than in other visits. Although the asbestos strippers had beat us to it, removing much of the interior decoration, there was still lots to see.
As well as a good range of general photos, we were also able to capture some stunning images of a unique discovery. In a tiny room up in the roof, accessed only via a small hatch from the projection room, someone - presumably the original projectionist - had covered the walls in an amazing selection of posters from travelling circuses and shows from the 1920s.
Featuring 'Bostock & Wombwell's Gigantic and Combined Show', these posters, stunningly hand-painted, feature such delights as 'the best and most expensive collection of monkeys ever seen in this country.'
Despite the best efforts of the local museum service to arrange to have these removed for safe-keeping, sadly they were lost when the auditorium was demolished in 2008. In a shocking piece of planning when it comes to listed buildings, the permission to demolish the auditorium was only granted on the grounds that the stunning facade would be incorporated into the subsequent building.
Yet as soon as that had been demolished, a new application was submitted, to flatten the remaining facade, on the grounds that it was irrelevant without the auditorium behind it. Several years later in 2010, the remaining portion of the building remains in limbo and slowly decaying.
Paperwork in Prestwick
The former Broadway cinema, designed by Alister MacDonald (the son of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald), was a brilliant small town cinema. Containing some wonderfully odd design ideas (ventilation ducts in the shape of camels? In Ayrshire?!), the building had been closed for some years when we got the chance to survey it thanks to the owners in 2005.
Last used as an amusement arcade and squash courts, we quickly found that while the ground floor had been altered a great deal, the upstairs - the former balcony and tea-rooms - were astonishingly intact, down to the original 1930s carpet in the balcony, wonderful decorative woodwork and chrome in the tea-room, plus (going by the smell!) original linoleum in the toilets, and the remains of the projectors and the original neon sign up in the booth. There was even a 1930s rattan sofa in the lounge.
But the really important find was the mound of paperwork we discovered in what had originally been the projectionist's toilet, which we were able to rescue from the building. Looking through it gives a fantastic insight into the minutiae of running a cinema from roughly the late 1940s to the late 60s.
Much of this archive material consists of correspondence from the MD and booking agent Sir Alex B. King to the cinema's manager of the time, James C. Ross. Letters found detail everything from break-ins, to Sunday opening discussions, patrons tearing their clothes on seats, curtain cleaning, to the difficulties of obtaining replacement fixtures, and even ice-cream supply problems due to post-war shortages!
Projectionists detail damage to prints in their logbook (as a small cinema at the end of the print supply chain, they were often badly scratched), whilst arrangements to share a visiting Hollywood starlet Vivian Blaine with King's Seamore cinema in Maryhill are detailed in terms of the potential financial gain for the cinema.
In 1959, A.B. King instructs his manager that under no circumstances should an advert entitled 'A Happy Family Is A Planned Family' be shown in his hall, whilst two years later, he is detailing a strategy to help quash rumours of the cinema's closure.
Sadly, a document dated March 1964 shows the cinema to be running bingo several times a week, whilst an undated blank application form invites patrons to join the Broadway Bingo and Social Club, still under the auspices of the erstwhile J.C. Ross, who is by then listed as secretary.
All in all, the Prestwick Broadway is a remarkable survival. The furnishings and fittings which survive today may not be 100% original, but the fascinating and invaluable archive documents show that where maintenance and replacement was necessary, much effort was made to obtain matching and appropriate repairs or replacements.
To this end, it is one of the most important surviving 1930s cinemas in Scotland, and still very much evocative of the period in which it was first built. The large written archive gives a glimpse into the day-today running of a cinema from its heyday to its slow demise at the hands of bingo.
All of this paperwork is now safely housed with the Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland, where it will hopefully provide a useful resource for future researchers. The building itself is currently empty and awaiting a new use, although we were able to take curators from the local museum service around it to identify artefacts they might want to save before any demolition plans take place.
All photos copyright Gordon Barr