End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (2023)

TThe two films shown on the opening night of Odeon founder Oscar Deutsch's first cinema in October 1928 may have been quiet – but they certainly got residents of the small town of Brierley Hill, in what is now the West Midlands, talking.

Designed in an Assyrian style by a local architect, Stanley Griffiths, the single-story street facade of the Picture House featured a gable of sorts with a sawtooth motif borrowed from ancient Egypt - an architectural style popular in Britain after the discovery of the tomb of 1922. Tutankhamun.

Black Country historian Ned Williams says the auditorium was "the grandest in the region", and viewers hoping to see Paramount Pictures' German-British crime comedy The Ghost Train and Woman on Trial had to be reassured of the safety of the vast balcony. before the exhibition could begin.

End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (1)
End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (2)
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Not to be outdone, the Palace, a nearby rival cinema, showed the 1925 epic Ben-Hur to divert attention.

None of the theaters survive today. The Palace closed in the 1940s and in 1959 Casa da Imagem was demolished to make way for a supermarket. Today the site is occupied by a small parade of shops.

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But the Brierley Hill Picture House was just the beginning for Deutsch, born in Birmingham to a Jewish scrap metal worker who emigrated from Hungary. When he died of cancer 13 years later, aged just 48, he had opened another 257 cinemas across the UK.

End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (4)

After Brierley Hill, it was another two years before Deutsch opened his next cinema: a building designed in the Moorish style by Griffiths and Horace G Bradley in Perry Barr, north of Birmingham.

Deutsch planned it as another Picture House, but the existing Birchfield Picture House objected. He needed a new name, and Mel Mindelsohn, who had worked on editing the Brierley Hill cinema, came up with one while on vacation in Tunis: “Odeon”.

It was an ancient Greek word meaning “corner place” – and Deutsch and his team decided it wasn't too exotic to risk alienating British film-going audiences. Additionally, it started with Oscar Deutsch's initials and was used to spell out "Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation" in advertising campaigns.

End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (5)
End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (6)

The cinema's opening pace picked up after Deutsch met architect Harry Weedon in 1932. Weedon was in Birmingham making alterations to a factory run by Deutsch's father Leopold, and the cinema boss hired him to work on the interiors of an Odeon in Warley, Staffordshire.

It was the beginning of a prolific partnership. They opened five new theaters in 1933 and 16 the following year. Another 33 opened in 1936 – and the same again in 1937.

Weedon has expanded its staff of six to an office employing 140 people. Returns were quick.

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Speaking with Allen Eyles fromfocus on the moviein 1975, Lieutenant Robert Bullivant recalled a 9:00 pm phone call from Weedon asking him to immediately visit a site in Falmouth. Bullivant drove 400 miles overnight and found someone the next day at 11am. Within three weeks, plans for the scheme were approved; less than a year later, the Odeon Falmouth opened.

Though they grew rapidly, Deutsch's theaters were by no means sloppy. For many of the towns and cities around the Midlands and along the south coast, where most were built, they were the region's most interesting and modern pieces of architecture.

This was Odeon in its heyday and its signature styles became well known. Earthenware, a material that has remained unblemished by the smoke and pollution of industrial cities, was employed in conjunction with rounded corners to complete a streamlined finish. If this could not be done – if the council opposed the plans, for example – then brick was used in an art deco style (used in the Odeon buildings in York andChester, for example). A vertical feature, sometimes used for advertising, was another trademark element.

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End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (9)

Opening programs were published that praised the design of each new cinema and gave some details about the architecture and architect behind them. When the Odeon's flagship cinema opened in Leicester Square in 1937, Weedon's design appeared as a silhouette on the cover. Inside, Deutsch wrote of his “great pride and gratitude… [for] British goods and labor having erected such a magnificent building… gratitude to the men who designed this theater and to those who carried out these projects so successfully”.

In 1940, the year before Deutsch's death, Odeon theaters sold 100 million tickets, but that level of popularity would eventually wane as home television and later video rentals took over. In 1984, the entire British film industry sold54mtickets.

As the silver screen went out of fashion, Deutsch's theaters were in danger of going down as quickly as they went up.

End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (10)

The Odeon Falmouth closed in 1970 and was demolished six years later. Today the site is occupied by a Tesco Metro. In total, 85 Deutsch cinemas were flattened by the wrecking ball.

Many others were saved as buildings but now serve another purpose. The 1935 Kingstanding cinema was one of many to find new life as a bingo hall, as was the Perry Barr Odeon before a second transformation into the Royale Banqueting Suite.

When the 1937 Dudley Odeon closed in 1975, owner Rank Leisure attempted to demolish it, but council blocked the move. The cinema is now Grade II listed and is used as a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Rank faced similar opposition six years later when it tried to demolish Woolwich Odeon. “We'd love to take over the place and run it… how we think it should be run,” said a passionate Tom Myatt, the cinema's projectionist.he told BBC Newsnightno moment.

Rank was furious. “I question whether it's reasonable for private enterprise to build beautiful buildings and then be told, when that building's original use has fallen away, 'Well, now you can't get rid of them and do something else,'” he protested. managing director Angus Crichton-Miller.

Today, the former Woolwich Odeon is Grade II listed, but is now known as Gateway House and is managed by the New Wine church.

Seventeen of the 173 surviving Odeons are listed, with 10 of them now used as churches or bingo halls, or empty.

“It's getting harder and harder to add listings,” says Elain Harwood, a member of the Cinema Theater Association and a historian for Historic England. “[Authorities] feel like they addressed the matter 20 years ago and that enough is already listed.”

End Credits: The Battle to Save the 1930s Odeon Theaters – Photo Essay (11)

But unlisted Odeons may be subject to radical change, or worse. The Odeon in Balham, south London, survived a bomb in 1941, but its auditorium was demolished in 1985 and the building was repurposed as a Majestic Wine Warehouse. The impressive faience façade remains.

The Isleworth Odeon also retained its façade, but has since become the entrance to adjoining apartments that pay little respect to the old cinema. The facades were also retained in Wrexham and Bristol, but one is the entrance to a nightclub and the other an H&M clothing store.

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Many other unlisted Odeons are lost forever. Notable cinemas in Erith, Chingford, Colwyn Bay and Worthing were all destroyed. Most of this wrecking work was done in the 1980s when the film industry was in decline, but the wrecking ball is still swinging.

The Bolton Odeon was demolished in 2007 to make way for a hotel and shopping complex, and two more – Redhill and Hackney Road – were demolished last year. Ashford is vacant and facing possible demolition, while Llanelli and Lancing are vacant, with their futures at stake.

Photographer Philip Butler has been trying to capture as many as possible before they disappear. “Since I started the project at the end of last year, unfortunately, I've already missed the demolition of two old Odeons and there are question marks hanging over at least three others,” he says.

“I may not be able to save them from their final fate, but at least I can produce some proper memorials in image form.”

  • This article was edited on March 11, 2019 to remove a reference to the destruction of the Odeon in Yeovil. In fact, the building is still standing, although the original interior is no longer intact.

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