Copyright: Friends of Beer Wurlitzer 2017
A History of The Picture House, Walsall (later Gaumont & Odeon)
The Picture House in Bridge Street, Walsall, Staffordshire, was built for Associated Provincial Picture Houses, and was designed by the architects Percy Browne and Kenneth Glover. Percy Browne operated from Newcastle Upon Tyne and designed more than 120 cinemas in a 20 year period.
He was a cinema specialist and had studied cinema design in the United States. His partnership with Kenneth Glover was formed in 1913 and was dissolved in about 1927. Kenneth Glover was both an architect and an engineer.
Just before the First World War the Associated Provincial Picture Houses began work on the cinema. The site had previously been part of the George Hotel. The building of the Picture House in Walsall took several years to complete as work had to be suspended during the First World War, due to a shortage of labour and materials. By the time the building work could resume, the foundations were flooded.
The cinema's frontage was finished in cream with marble pillars above the main entrance. The large upper windows, to the cafe at balcony level, added to the grandeur. The foyer was oak-panelled and there was a large fireplace. There were also lifts to the balcony level. The best seats were of the armchair type. Everything suggested luxury and refinement. Newspaper articles at the time, claimed it was the finest cinema theatre in Europe when it was built.
The Picture House could seat 1,500 patrons and eventually opened on 29th July 1920 with a showing of the film “Woman”, a Charlie Chaplin comedy, and various other topical items. At the time the films were accompanied by an orchestra at the cinema. The Mayor of Walsall, Councillor Tucker, was present on the opening night as was a representative from Associated Provincial who gave a speech explaining why Walsall deserved such a prestigious cinema. The cafe was to supply morning coffee and afternoon tea, but it had not been completed in time for the cinema’s opening. All of the cinema’s takings on the opening day were donated to the Mayor for his War Memorial Fund. This amounted to about 100 guineas.
In December 1928 word had got around that Gaumont British theatres had offered to purchase Provincial Cinematograph Theatres. At the time PCT had built up a national chain of 96 cinemas, and were not experiencing any financial difficulties.
But, in February 1929 PCT were never-the-less taken over by the Gaumont British Picture Corporation. When Gaumont British took over the huge PCT chain it became a powerful force. The acquisition also included the other companies under the control of PCT: Associated Provincial Picture Houses, Scala Theatres of London, the Jersey and Guernsey Amusements Company, and the West Country circuit of Albany Ward Theatres. Gaumont took over all of the “Regent” and “Picture House” cinemas that had been built up by PCT. They then added a number of huge Gaumont Palaces and other modern cinemas in the 1930’s. The Picture House at Walsall now came under the control of Gaumont.
A year after the take-over, not only was the cinema advertising its restaurant and cafe, but also the Oak Room which was available for dinners, parties, banquets, and wedding receptions.
In October 1965, the name of the cinema was changed. This time it became known as The Odeon. The Odeon closed in May 1967 for the interior to be modernised at a cost of £70,000.
It was given new seats, a new stage curtain, new carpets throughout, and a larger screen. The restaurant was also rebuilt, and the fireplace in the foyer was removed. During the updating, the marble pillars outside were replaced with tiling. The cinema re-opened the following month with a gala performance of Casino Royale.
About four years later, on the 2nd March 1971, after a showing of the film “Hello Dolly”, another fire broke out at the cinema, again destroying the interior. The roof also caved in and collapsed. Luckily the cinema was empty at the time, but it was reported that it was one of the worst fires to ever be seen in Walsall's town centre. The local newspapers reported “about 80 firemen from 5 brigades fought the fire”. A man was later convicted of arson.
The frontage was boarded up and this is how it remained for a number of years. The site was then sold and redeveloped. Eventually a Tesco Metro supermarket opened there in 1995. This closed in 2010 and again the site remained empty for a while. It is now occupied by a Co-operative Supermarket.
Lower Bridge Street in 1928
Lower Bridge Street in 2009
In 1941 the Gaumont British Picture Corporation was taken over by the Rank Organisation. Founded in 1937 by J. Arthur Rank, the Rank Organisation had already purchased the Odeon chain in 1938 and the the UK Paramount cinemas in 1939.
During November 1944 the first children’s club opened at the Picture House. The Gaumont British Junior Club was intended for children aged seven to fourteen years, and membership was free. Admission to the club each Saturday morning was 6d.
In 1948 the Rank Organisation centralised the operations of Gaumont and Odeon and set up a new body called Cinema Management Association (CMA). Now under the control of CMA, The Picture House became known as The Gaumont.
Advertisement from January 1925
Advertisement from October 1925
Advertisement from February 1941
1946 : “At the Picture House in Walsall,
manager J.P. Newby designed and constructed this attractive railway station theme, executed in alto-relievo with imitation stone, to exploit ‘Brief Encounter’.
The electric signal changed 2700 times an hour”.
1961 : “Here’s a lobby creation by manager G. Lockyer for ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ at the Gaumont theatre in Walsall. It’s a water and weather-scarred boat bearing a skull and crossbones at one end, backed by a tropical island scene and with a display card with the simple copy - All Aboard... Big Adventure Film”.
Advert from the Walsall Observer - July 1920
Over the coming couple of years Associated Provincial Picture Houses was absorbed by Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT). Shortly after the take-over, on the night of 1st September 1923 a fire broke out at the cinema. The fire brigade worked for a considerable time bringing the fire under control and damping down the remains. However much of the cinema was a wreck.
PCT took on the task of rebuilding the cinema, again to a luxurious level. The new interior was brighter and a Renaissance style ceiling was added. The oak panelling was removed from the foyer but the fireplace remained. New stage lighting was installed, as was a screen that rose up so the stage could be used for performances. The seating capacity was increased to 1700. PCT claimed it was second in size, only to their Regent Cinema in Brighton.
The rebuilt cinema opened on 26th December 1924 with a showing of the film “Down to the Sea in Ships”. During the rebuild, a theatre organ was ordered from the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company of North Tonawanda, USA. This was installed over the coming months and opened on the 26th January 1925. It was the first Wurlitzer theatre organ to be installed in England.
CLICK HERE to read more about Walsall’s Wurlitzer organ
The Picture House was also the first cinema in Walsall to show “the talkies”. The first of these was “The Singing Fool” starring Al Johnson, which was shown on 26th August 1929. The picture house used the Western Electric sound system, and had GB-Kalee projectors and amplifiers costing £4,000 at the time.
At the matinee performances in 1929 the front stalls cost 5d., the back stalls 8d., the back balcony 1/-, and the front balcony 1/3d. The evening performances were the same prices with the exception of the front balcony which rose to 1/6d.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the government ordered all cinemas, theatres and other public places of entertainment to close until further notice. The cinemas in Walsall re-opened about a month later.
Competition was rife. By the end of the 1930’s there were no fewer than seven cinemas in Walsall town centre. These included the Imperial Picture House in Darwall Street, The Palace Cinema in The Square, The Empire in Freer Street, and the Cinema De-Luxe (later known as the Classic) in Stafford Street. Her Majesty’s Theatre in Park Street was demolished in 1937 to make way for the Savoy Cinema which opened in 1938. The Grand Theatre, also in Park Street, showed films up until 1938 too.
1. Savoy Cinema 2. Grand Theatre 3. Imperial Picture House
4. Empire Cinema 5. The Palace Cinema 6. Gaumont Picture House
During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s television gained in popularity and cinemas began to see a serious decline in attendance. To try and defy this trend, 20th Century Fox developed a technical innovation which they called “CinemaScope”. CinemaScope was a unique lens (known as an anamorphic lens) which allowed wide-angle panoramic scenes to be displayed. The system used a wide screen which was slightly curved. Fox officials insisted that the sound should be as impressive as the picture, and so they insisted true stereophonic sound was installed too. The idea of this new system was to promote widescreen motion pictures developed in Hollywood at the Fox Studios.
The Rank Organisation had been distributing 20th Century Fox films for a while and so they decided to install CinemaScope into a number of their cinemas. The Picture House in Walsall received this system in 1955. Due to the amount of space that was needed to install all the equipment in the stage area and in the wings, the decision was taken to sell their Wurlitzer cinema organ.