Words by Mark Langshaw
In an age of gargantuan multiplexes, super-sized popcorn and IMAX technology, it’s easy to forget that a trip to the cinema was once as much about atmosphere as celluloid thrills. The grand old picturehouses that adorned almost every Liverpool neighbourhood were havens of escapism, local treasures we lost when the likes of Odeon and Showcase became household names.
Many of these striking buildings are still with us today, rarely in their original state of splendour, but forever a reminder of a golden era that is no more. Your Move takes a look at what has become of the city’s most famous picture palaces.
Flashback to early last century and Liverpool was home to the North West’s most glamourous picturehouses. The Forum, The Scala, and Lime Street’s Palais De Luxe were beautiful Art Deco buildings that delivered the ‘complete’ cinematic experience, usually enhanced by live organ recitals and intervals of ice cream indulgence.
The end credits loomed for cinema’s golden era after World War II when the rise of TV revolutionised home entertainment. Several of the city’s picturehouses fought the googlebox against the odds, but few survived the multiplex invasion that followed decades later.
Reminders of the glory days can still be found across Liverpool as many of these buildings are still standing today. Strolling down Lime Street, it’s difficult to miss the Futurist; an iconic picturehouse that battled on with the tenacity of a silver screen hero when Odeon and National Amusements arrived on these shores, only to end up in a sorry state of dilapidation.
The 1912-built picture palace stood tall throughout the 1950s under the ownership of 20th Century Fox, but is now declared unsafe and at risk of collapse. This haven where generations of Merseyside families enjoyed unforgettable experiences is a forlorn shadow of its former self, earmarked for demolition to make way for Neptune Developments’ regeneration of Lime Street.
While many of Liverpool’s other golden-era picturehouses, such as Tuebrook’s once cutting-edge Carlton Cinema, shared the Futurist’s fate, a number of these architectural treasures have been given a new lease of life.
“Times may have changed since the rise of multiplexes, but the idea of going to a traditional picturehouse is more of an experience.”
The Picturedrome in Kensington is now a JD Wetherspoons pub, London Road’s great Paramount Theatre – which became the city’s first Odeon when the company acquired the site in the 1970s – is about to become student housing, and Anfield’s Gaumont Palace is a community centre.
Now called the Liverpool Lighthouse, the retired Anfield picturehouse provides support to disadvantaged youngsters, families and elderly people through schemes which usually tie in with music and the arts. With its façade largely unchanged, the centre is a stellar example of how former cinemas can continue to play a role in the local community.
“I think it was important to keep the building in the community,” says Liverpool Lighthouse chief executive Modupe Omideyi. “When we bought it around 1990, Anfield was quite a lively area but things started closing up in the years that followed. If the cinema building was to close as well, it would have been another nail in the coffin of this area. The work that goes on here now is really important to the community.”
Another of Liverpool’s former picture palaces could one day be added to the list of repurposed cinemas as Dingle’s 1,500-seat Gaumont Cinema, a one-time bingo hall which currently lies vacant, has been the subject of various redevelopment plans over the years. Local property firm Warehouse Lifestyle Living is currently exploring the possibility of transforming the Gaumont with a mixed-use development which could include luxury flats alongside a retail and leisure offering.
The show goes on
Although many of Liverpool’s most cherished picturehouses still exist in other forms, there are survivors from the golden age still in operation, with the single-screen Woolton Picture House and Crosby’s community-run Plaza flying twin flags for the ways of old.
Nestled in the heart of leafy suburbia, the Woolton whisks film fanatics back to the good old days of independent cinema, a time when going to the movies was as much about the ambience and the ice cream intermission as the film itself.
So how is it that humble picturehouses like the Woolton have come to hold their own in a world of Goliath multiplexes?
According to the cinema’s manager Joseph Carmichael, it’s all about the experience they offer, the public’s hunger for nostalgia in the current climate, and the picturehouse’s ability to move with the times without compromising its ethos.
“I believe the reason we’ve been able to keep it running is that we’ve updated the technology as times moved on to give people the most up-to-date experiences, but also kept the original feel for a cinema,” he tells Your Move.
“Times may have changed since the rise of multiplexes, but the idea of going to a traditional picturehouse is more of an experience. Everyone seems to be into nostalgia now, everyone likes the old style. People are interested in going back to the old days as a one-off experience.”
The Woolton has had to evolve to survive. In late 2011, the cinema secured a liquor licence to sell alcoholic drinks on the premises, a move that Joseph describes as “extremely successful”.
Our 24/7 culture and need for consumer choice allowed multiplexes to thrive, but the continued success of the Woolton and the emergence of the retro-themed Liverpool Small Cinema on Victoria Street prove there’s still a market for traditional picturehouse experiences and the fuzzy sense of nostalgia they conjure.
Watching a film amid the Art Deco elegance of the Woolton’s interiors or gazing upon the decaying shell of the Futurist, it’s easy to get misty-eyed for the magical picturehouses Liverpool has lost over the years and ponder a troubling question: did we let them slip away too easily?