The sheer energy of Oscar Deutsch, creator of the Odeon cinema chain, remains breathtaking. In just 10 years between the founding of the chain and Deutsch’s death in 1941, 258 Odeons opened throughout Britain, more than half of them in new buildings. They brought not only the latest British films and Hollywood movies, but also a standard of contemporary design that was absent from the lives of most people in these determinedly old-fashioned islands.
With their cloud-piercing towers and sweeping lines, Odeons were a promise of the shapes of things to come. The original odeions were the popular amphitheatres of ancient Greece. The name Odeon had been appropriated by cinemas in France and Italy in the 1920s, but Deutsch was to make it his own. The first Deutsch Odeon, built in a Moorish style, opened at Perry Bar, Birmingham in 1930. It was one of the co-funders of the cinema project – grocery store owner Mel Mindelsohn – who suggested the name ODEON after spotting it in Tunis, North Africa. Years later, it would become apocryphally known as ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains our Nation’, a mere coincidence that Oscar’s name could be included into Odeon, which his son, Ronnie, recently confirmed.
For less than a shilling (five pence), coal miners, railway workers, teachers, nurses, servicemen, typists and clerks could disappear into a shining world of futuristic dreams, a whole dimension away from the grim economic and political reality.
Modern architecture and design had come late to Britain. It was often seen as a foreign conspiracy. The row over the appointment of a pair of Jews – one Russian, Serge Chermayeff; the other Prussian, Erich Mendelsohn – to design the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea appeared to confirm our worst suspicions. It did not matter that Chermayeff was a Harrow-educated designer of great taste and ability, nor that Mendelsohn was one of the greatest living European architects. They were foreigners who had taken jobs from our boys.
Deutsch’s architects were clearly well versed in the latest developments in European architecture, as well as the art deco decor that went, ticket-in-hand, with the movie business in the United States.
Of the surviving Odeons, eight are Grade II listed buildings, and one of these, in Muswell Hill (1936), is listed II*. There are other listed former Odeons up and down the country, but these have met the fate of so many British cinemas: they either stand empty, or have been turned into bingo halls. Others – Dudley, Luton and Woolwich – are churches. Grade II listed~Chester’s Odeon is now restored and integrated into a cultural centre re-named Storyhouse.
The first Odeon cinema, which still survives in Perry Bar, Birmingham.
The Odeon chain flashed into life and burned out quickly. Deutsch’s life and his legendary business ran like one of those old, pre-talkie films where everyone, with boaters and canes, seems to be in a tearing hurry, even when strolling through a park. Deutsch was born at Balsall Heath, Birmingham, in 1893, the son of a Jewish scrap merchant, Leopold Deutsch, a Hungarian by birth, and Leah Cohen, a Jewish emigrant from Poland. Always sickly, but intelligent and quick, this tiny man was dead at 48. He was generous and sentimental – staff were offered interest free loans when they got into debt. His acts of everyday kindness were legion. Deutsch also worked around the clock. He had to: there was no other way so many new cinemas of such quality could be built in such a short space of time.
The business was nurtured in Birmingham, but required Deutsch to travel the country and make frequent trips to London. He travelled on the new two-hour trains from New Street to Euston in the late 1930s with a team of secretaries and assistants. Telegrams would be typed as soon as the train steamed across the points at Birmingham; as the express slowed for Coventry, bundles of telegrams, letters and other instructions would be chucked from the train, to be picked up and dealt with by station staff. Such a thing would be impossible today, with station staff much rarer than grand cinemas. A latter-day Deutsch would be one of those men constantly on his mobile phone, driving everyone else mad.
The first truly modern Odeons, however, came in a rush in 1935. The streamline age had arrived in a shock of glossy, curved surfaces. The first of the streamlined Odeons was South Harrow (AP Starkey, 1935). Like an ocean liner that had berthed inexplicably in a suburban high street, it occupied the space of a dozen shops, and offered not only a glamorous art deco auditorium, but also a cafe and radio shop. The contrast between the cinema and its red-brick suburban setting must have been as dramatic as the films flickering on the silver screen.
There was, though, another building in South Harrow to rival it: the new London Underground station designed by Charles Holden. These two building types – the modern tube station and the Odeon – developed simultaneously, at speed, throughout suburban London. The former took people to and from work in unprecedented style; the latter offered them a stylish escape from the reality of the factory, office and journey to work.
South Harrow was a low-lying building, but the Odeon Worthing (Whinney, Son and Austen Hall, 1935), an ambitious and expensive design, was the first with a tower, waving an architectural flag for Deutsch’s rapidly expanding empire. His real star, Harry Weedon, emerged that year. A racy character, this Birmingham-born architect was a talented pianist, as well as a former first world war pilot who had served in the Royal Flying Corps. Scandalously divorced after demobilisation in 1917, his business reputation lay like a heap of edited film on a cutting-room floor. In 1932, though, he met Deutsch, who liked men of action, and three years later he had designed, in between streamlined factories and petrol stations, the Odeon Kingstanding.
This Birmingham cinema, rising from a brick tide of some 10,000 new suburban homes, was as good as anything produced in Europe or the US. With Weedon in Deutsch’s stride, the Odeon chain produced one masterpiece after the other: Sutton Coldfield, Scarborough, Colwyn Bay, while, at Well Hall in south-east London, Andrew Mather borrowed unashamedly from Chermayeff and Mendelsohn’s Bexhill Pavilion: cinema design had become truly sophisticated.
Dazzled perhaps by his own success, Deutsch began commissioning monumental cinemas in 1937. These were the Odeons at York, Exeter, Swiss Cottage, and, most dramatic of all, that great, shining black temple to the movies, Leicester Square (the combined talents of Weedon and Mather). The building cost was £110 per seat, four times that of other major Odeons, and, for once, it opened behind time, in November 1937, with The Prisoner of Zenda, starring Ronald Coleman. With its leopard-skin seats, five-manual Compton organ, swirling expressionist- meets-art-deco decor, it was, quite simply, stunning. As another
War in 1939, Deutsch’s death from cancer in 1941, and the takeover that year of the Odeon chain by J Arthur Rank, drew down the curtains on this extraordinary experiment, matching a rapidly maturing form of popular entertainment with innovative architecture and design. It seems sad that in an age when cinema is once again hugely popular, so many of us are reduced to sitting in banal multiplexes to watch films on screens that seem little bigger than the latest TVs.