Date Opened: Monday 4th October 1937.
Seating capacity: 2170
Architect: Robert Cromie
Date Closed: Sunday 5th January 1969. Building demolished Sept/Oct 2000.
One of the largest and most extravagant cinema/theatres in the North West was the Ritz, Birkenhead. Positioned on the corner of Claughton Road and Oliver Street. It was to be part of the S.M. Super Cinemas Ltd. chain, headed by Southan Morris.
Covering more than an acre this mammoth construction was designed with a “modern simplicity coupled with quiet dignity” by architect Robert Cromie. A local firm, Lloyd & Cross, was awarded the contract to build “a theatre of such majestic proportions”. An external feature was a 70’ glass and steel tower that dominated one corner of the building above the main entrance doors. White Portland stone was used on the front facing walls. Inside a large staircase and foyers led customers into an auditorium that had art deco murals painted on the plain side walls. Ceiling coves contained concealed lighting with footlights and battens on the stage hooked up to the Holophane system that took the lighting through a full colour changing sequence. The proscenium was 56’ in width and little more than half as high. It had a huge stage area of 75′ and was fully equipped to put on the most adventurous and elaborate stage presentations. Unfortunately it did not have flying facilities due to restrictions set by the local planning committee who stipulated that the height of the stage should not exceed that of the auditorium. A member of that committee owned a nearby theatre and it was feared that the Ritz would cause a problem for his theatre if they put on regular stage shows.
Opening on Monday 4th October 1937 with a glittering line up of celebrities headed by one of the top British stars of that time, Gracie Fields, who together with the Mayors Of Birkenhead, Liverpool, Wallasey and Bebington performed the opening ceremony on the stage. The music that accompanied the choreographed dancing by 14 Ritzettes was played by the Ritz Orchestra. Gaumont British News filmed the Gala Opening.
Under the direction of H. Kaufman, an elaborate stage presentation took place on stage. The first film shown was “The Man In Possession” featuring Jean Harlow & Robert Taylor.
The name”Showplace Of The North”was truly deserved as the Ritz stage was put into top gear by manager, Bill Boht, who booked in top artists and bands of that era. Boht had arrangements with the Empire Theatre and the Paramount cinema in Liverpool to loan their lighting, drapes and scenery to give maximum impact to the dazzling stage interludes.
Just over three years after the Gala Opening disaster struck. During an air raid and after the film performance of “Stardust” had finished, the audience stayed behind to listen to organist Harold Hunt entertain them until, as they thought, danger had passed. Two bombs hit the building, the first exploded directly in front of the circle killing ten people, including Sally Eglington the cinema’s head usherette, a further one hundred people were injured. Although the front of the building and foyers remained intact, the second bomb had all but demolished the rear wall of the cinema. The severity of the damage was such that the building lay closed and badly damaged until after the war when in July 1946 local architects M.W. & W.M. Shennan were commissioned to draw plans for the renovation of the cinema. The building work progressed with some speed as the Ritz Theatre opened for business on 13th January 1947.
Although many praised the work done to repair the massive damage, it was acknowledged that it was not as elaborately finished as it had been before the bombs dropped.
A second-hand three-manual Christie organ which had been reconditioned by Wurlitzer, that had been originally installed at the La Scala in Glasgow had been brought in to replace the badly damaged John Compton organ.
Billy Cotton and His Band took the stage for the Grand Re-Opening Show. Robinson Clever played the organ which was now advertised as a Wurlitzer.
The film “Blue Skies” starring Fred Astaire was the chosen re-opening film.
Click on the above frame to view video of the RITZ
The Ritz Theatre was taken over by the Essoldo Cinemas chain on 26th August 1954, and was re-named Essoldo. It was closed on 5th January 1969 with Boris Karloff in “The Body Snatcher” and Glenn Langan in “The Amazing Colossal Man”. The building’s final years were as a bingo hall.
The Ritz Cinema was demolished during September/October 2000.
Roger Shone©chestercinemas.co.uk *with acknowledgement to the late Clive Garner archives
Birkenhead, CH42 9NA
Date Opened: 2nd August 1930.
Seating capacity: 2560- Stalls: 1860 Balcony: 700
First film shown: “The Last of Mrs. Cheyney” starring Norma Shearer.
Date Closed: 3rd March 1973.
Final film shown: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” starring Clint Eastwood.
The Plaza Cinema built on Borough Road, Birkenhead, was owned by the local company Bedford Cinemas Ltd.
The frontage of the building was in brick. White stone facing helped to achieve a Neo-Classical appearance. The main entrance and auditorium were in an Art Deco style. A first floor restaurant was located on the first floor above the entrance lobby. It boasted a fully equipped stage, the proscenium opening was 40′ in width and the depth of the stage was 18′. Four dressing rooms were provided for the artists. There was also an added feature of a John Compton 3 manual/12 rank cinema organ.
The large capacity comprised of 1860 seats in the stalls with a further 700 in the balcony.
The cinema opened on 2nd August 1930. The first feature film shown was “The Last of Mrs. Cheyney” starring Norma Shearer.
At the beginning of 1941 the cinema was damaged by bombs which forced it to close for repairs, re-opening in April of that same year.
Like many large cinemas, the Plaza began to struggle with falling attendances during the 1950s and 60s. To supplement it’s income, part-time bingo was introduced during the mid 1960s but returned to full time cinema use fairly quickly. The final film shown was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” starring Clint Eastwood on 3rd March 1973.
Mecca took over the building and then operated it as one of their Bingo Clubs which lasted until November 1997.
The building was left in a derelict state. Over a period of time it was vandalised and even became a victim of an arson attack.
The building was demolished in May 2001.
Birkenhead, CH41 6AB
Date Opened: Monday 10th October 1938.
Seating capacity: 2016- Stalls: 1248 Balcony: 768
Architect: William Riddell Glen (1884-1950)
Date Closed: March 1982. Building demolished.
Built on a site previously occupied by the Theatre Royal (1864 to 1921) which was adapted into the Scala Cinema (1921 to 1937), the Savoy Cinema was typical of a W. R. Glen designed cinema. Having a large, high ceiling entrance hall with large chandeliers, large double staircases leading to a bridge where you entered into the balcony foyer. The approach to the stalls area was via steps down from the entrance foyer landing.
The balcony was wide and had seating for 768 patrons. In the large stalls area another 1248 customers were accommodated. Unusual for a theatre of this size, no organ was installed, although provision was made for a stage which was seldom put into theatre use. The opening film was “Bluebeards Eighth Wife”.
ABC Savoy Birkenhead
The building suffered bomb damage during 1940 and was forced to close while the ceiling was repaired, re-opening on 16th December 1940.
Like all other cinemas on the circuit, the Savoy was re-named simply as ABC during c1961
It closed for alterations on 14th November 1970. The balcony was closed down and painted black, while the stalls area was refurbished and refashioned as a “Luxury Lounge”. From the re-opening on 7th December 1970 until it’s closure as a cinema in March 1982 it operated as a stalls only venue.
It later became a snooker hall, with a gym in the balcony area. This business continued until 2016 when the premises was put on the market. With no interested buyers the building was demolished.
The Phoenix Wallasey was built on the site of the Coliseum cinema. It was named Phoenix because it was built on the site of a former one, which had been bombed . The Phoenix was the first cinema designed by young Liverpool architect Alexander Webber, who was only twenty- four at the time. The Coliseum, originally known as the Cosmo opened on the 12th May 1913 with the film “For the Honour of the 7th”. There was a large glass dome on the roof and there were shops on both sides of the entrance. The single level hall housed seven hundred. Alterations took place in 1924. They included installing a forty foot deep stage and nine dressing rooms. Films ceased, and It was renamed the Coliseum Theatre, opening on the 24th June 1924. It appears it wasn’t a success as a live venue and film was reintroduced from Easter Monday 1925, and it was renamed again, this time to the Wallesey Picture House. The opening attraction was “The Family Secret”. Later it became the Coliseum. Sadly, it was bombed in 1941.
Ten years after the Coliseum’s demise, the Phoenix rose on the site and was built for Leslie Blond. The doors opened for the first time on the 4th June 1951 with king of the cowboys, John Wayne in “Rio Grande”. Seating was for 792, on a single floor. It was stated that, if required a balcony could be erected at a later date, which never happened. Unlike many other cinemas there were two cry rooms, each having six double seats to accommodate parents and children. The rooms were equipped with loudspeakers, so that the occupants could see and hear the programme. At one point one of the projectionists’ was Eric Monkhouse. His wife also worked there as an operator.The operating box was reached from outside the cinema.
The cinema was the first in Wallasey to be equipped with Cinemascope in July 1953, and was described as bigger than normal wide screens. The auditorium merged to a semi circular shape at the proscenium end where there was a complete absence of ornamentation. The expanse of the side walls was broken by a series of plain pilasters. Across the full width of the ceiling there were six fibrous plaster troughs stepped down towards the proscenium to conceal the main house lighting. Soft furnishings were in varying shades of blue. On the carpeting alone there were four shades. Between the rows of seats the floor covering was a heavy type of linoleum, which was said to have a life of fifty years. The stage tabs were dark blue with silver relief.
During the summer of 1975 it was taken over by the Hutchinson Leisure Group, who were based in Burnley. They decided to turn it into a twin cinema and bingo. Bingo wasn’t successful, so the bingo section also became a cinema. The complex became known as Cinema 3. In the projection room there were two Westar projectors with Western Electric sound. The light source was provided by Peerless carbon arcs. Later, the Westars were paired with Orcon xenon lamps. Tower systems were installed allowing the film to run without changeovers. The last manager was Geoff Mander. The end came on the 6th July 1983 with “Tootsie” in screen 1 and “An Officer and a Gentleman” in screen 2. By that time screen 3 had already been closed. The building was demolished. The Phoenix rose again, this time in the form of housing.
David A Ellis ©chestercinemas.co.uk