People’s Palaces of the Past

Submitted by: Daniel Shannon-Hughes

The opening of the Empire Cinema in November last year was greeted with huge excitement in the local community.

After more than a decade Waltham Forest can now boast a cinema again, leaving Lewisham the only London borough without one. And, following the purchase of the derelict EMD or Granada Theatre on Hoe Street, there could soon be two venues for movie-goers to choose from.

It is hard to believe the borough went so long without a cinema. It would have been unbelievable to someone in the 1930s. Between 1928 and 1935 four new cinemas opened in Waltham Forest, and one other was substantially rebuilt and upgraded.

Over the next 70 years the cinemas underwent many changes of name and ownership. All saw a steady decline.

The EMD was the last to turn out the lights in 2003.

The French Lumière brothers brought cinema to Britain in 1896 and the marvel of ‘animated pictures’ spread rapidly. Many shops, halls and railway arches were converted into cinemas. The Royal Electric Palace, opposite the Fire Station on High Rd Leytonstone, was one such shop conversion. It opened in 1910, operating for a decade before going back to retail use in 1921.

The early cinemas were usually small, cramped, crudely built and rarely seated more than a few hundred people. The First World War, economic difficulties of the 1920s, the influenza pandemic and rise of the radio temporarily slowed the rise of cinema.

It was only in 1928 with the wildly popular introduction of talking pictures that the building of cinemas really took off.

‘Super cinemas’ were constructed up and down the country. They were opulent designs that celebrated the wonder of the moving image, the promise of progress and the ritual of cinema going as an event. According to the BFI history of cinema in the UK, super cinemas particularly flourished in poorer areas where their warmth and luxurious surroundings were most appreciated.

For some the cinema was the first time they walked on carpet, while others, such as the unemployed, took refuge throughout the afternoon and evening in the back-to-back repeat performances.

At the height of popularity in the late 1930s, a newspaper survey found roughly a third of the population went to the movies at least once a week.

Cinema was clearly a big thing in Waltham Forest. The rebuilt Regal Cinema (Hale End Rd) had capacity for 615 people, but this paled in to comparison to the four new venues.

The Chingford Odeon (Cherrydown Ave) could accommodate around 1,400, the Savoy Cinema (Lea Bridge Rd) 1,795, whilst the Rex Cinema (High Road Leytonstone) had seats for 1,954 people, the Granada (EMD) over 2,500.

There was also the Crown Cinema (now Wood Street Market), a more rudimentary cinema that had been operating since 1912, with room for 650 people.

All of the cinemas were single screen making each film screening a large public event. Combined, the cinemas offered almost 9,000 seats. To put this in context, the newly opened Empire, Waltham Forest can accommodate 1,200.

Also notable is the architecture of the buildings. Most striking is the Chingford Odeon. A massive New York skyline style tower dominated the futuristic structure.

Theodore Komisarjevsky, a Russian refugee prince, designed the Granada’s interior in an impressive Spanish Baroque style with huge mirrors on the walls. In their style and size the cinemas of the early twentieth century were something approaching people’s palaces, portals to other marvelous worlds.

Like the First World War, the Second put a stop to cinema building and the immediate post-war decades saw restrictions on construction. In particular new cinema buildings were banned in areas of expanding population.

With the spread of television from the 1950s cinema popularity rapidly declined. Between 1956 to 1960 cinema admissions halved.

Waltham Forest’s cinemas were no exception and fought a losing battle against diminishing ticket sales after the 1950s.

The Rex was the first to close in 1960, becoming a bowling alley after the building was completely gutted.

The Savoy (renamed as The Classic Cinema) and The Regal both experimented with being mixed bingo hall and cinema before converting to purely bingo clubs in the 1970s.

The Chingford Odeon (also now known as The Classic Cinema) shut its doors in 1972. Very sadly the entire building was demolished and replaced with a non-descript supermarket and offices.

Only the Granada kept on going. In the 1950s and 60s it hosted pantomimes and live music including many famous acts, among them the Beatles.

The next couple of decades saw the cinema change hands (and name) several times and was finally renamed the EMD Cinema.

In January 2003 however the cinema closed. The building was purchased by a Brazilian based church and became the focus of a longrunning popular local campaign to retain it as a cinema for the local community.

Late last year the church sold the building to the Antic pub group.

For a full history of the EMD Cinema read Simon Munk’s article on the Waltham Forest Echo
website.

It is hoped that working with other parties the Antic pub group will reopen the EMD/Granada as a cinema venue.

Is this then the beginning of a renaissance of cinema in Waltham Forest? It is hard to believe the 1930’s heyday, with cinema seats for 9,000 people will be repeated.

Our ways of viewing films have changed too much. At the start of the twentieth century, cinema was the only way to watch moving pictures. Now it is not only possible at home but almost anywhere with a good wifi connection through services like Netflix on a smart phone or tablet.

However there is still magic in the big screen and the shared viewing experience cinema provides. The popularity of the new Empire, and the well-supported local campaign to reopen the EMD cinema proves there is enthusiasm in the borough.

Let’s hope the developments of late last year are just the start.