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. Billy Cotton and His Band took the stage for the Grand Re-Opening Show. A second- hand Christie organ that had been bought from the La Scala Cinema in Glasgow to replace the bomb damaged Compton organ was played during the evening. 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
The PLAZA CINEMA, Birkenhead.
The ARGLE CINEMA, Birkenhead.
The Empress cinema Lowlands Road, Runcorn, was the head office of Cheshire County Cinemas, run by the Godfrey family. They ran several cinemas in Cheshire and Lancashire. In Runcorn they also owned the Scala cinema, which was originally known as the Palace Kinema. This became Scala in the late 1920s and Cheshire County Cinemas took over in 1930. Cinema screenings ceased in 1957 and it became a dance hall, called La Scala. Its claim to fame was two appearances by the fab four, the Beatles, playing There on the 16th October 1962 and 12th November 1962. It was eyes down in 1970 when bingo was the name of the game. It closed for good in 2006 and had the demolition hammer on it in 2012. The small circuit also ran the Kings cinema Other cinemas in the circuit included the Woolton, Liverpool, the Empire and Plaza Widnes and the Regal and Plaza Northwich.
The Empress opened on the 26 December 1913 as the Empress Assembly Hall with a flat floor and no balcony. The building was used for a number of uses, including film. An ad from December 1914 mentions it as the Empress cinema showing the films Hearts Adrift and A Lady of Quality. Still named as the Empress Assembly Hall, it was up for sale in March 1915. It was closed for alterations on 11 th June 1915. The floor was raked and a stage and balcony were inserted. it re-opened on the 16th August 1915 and run by Mr Robert Godfrey, better known as Robert Hamilton. Later, Cheshire County Cinemas were formed.
The foyer of the Empress was small with a pay-box on the right, as you entered. Next to the pay-box was a door leading to the small projection room. The projection equipment consisted of Westar projectors, Peerless carbon arcs and Western Electric Sound. There was also a slide lantern. Stereo sound was an attraction, offered occasionally when prints with four track magnetic sound were available. All the circuit’s cinemas were equipped with the Westar machines and Western Electric sound. After the cinema’s closure the machines went to the shopping city twin cinemas, now gone, using the tower system. The balcony staircase was on the right, just past the pay-box. The 1,023 seat cinema, which originally housed 1200 had a fully equipped stage.
For many years the manager was a Mr John Darlington. He was there in the silent era, and and would stand behind the screen, creating sound effects. Later, a Mr Horton took over the manager’s duties. The cinema had a children’s matinee on Saturday afternoon, which included the usual cliff hanging serial. Films were only shown in the evenings, with the main feature being screened twice and the second feature once. The national anthem was screened before the start of the show and for some reason they didn’t show the certificate at the time I went. The only cinema where I hadn’t seen it.
For many years the chief operator was a man by the name of Percy. Relief projectionist was a Mr John Forster. He would cover at other cinemas including the Plaza Widnes. On June 23 1973 the little Empress closed with the film The Clockwork Orange, and it was later demolished for road development.
David A Ellis ©chestercinemas.co.uk (Photograph – Shirley Valentine)
The Palace theatre High Street Runcorn, Cheshire opened for business on the 20th March 1913. The opening programme was the film, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Proceeds from the first performance went to the cottage hospital and the Runcorn District Nurse Fund. There were two houses at 7 and 9. Prices were one shilling, sixpence and threepence. There was a children’s matinee on the Saturday with prices at one penny and tuppence. Building was rapid. The first brick was laid on January 6th and the building was erected in the second week of February. It was designed by Clegg and Lloyd and the contractors were Richard Costain of Liverpool. Seating was provided for 964.
The Palace was run by Alfonso Smith and his lieutenant Douglas Watson, a newcomer to Runcorn, described as a man possessed of much energy and up to date ideas. The press said: The brilliant illumination of the front of the theatre attracted a great crowd and several constables were required to keep the thoroughfare free from obstruction.
The film programme commenced after the orchestra had played the national anthem. It was also reported that too large a lens had been used, but was soon put right. It was said that the audience enjoyed the programme and greatly admired the comfort and charm of the new building. At the time the cinema licence was granted it was reported that the magistrates had inspected the building and had found it very complete. They had unanimously decided to grant the license. They had been talking over one one or two details. The bench were desirous that there should be enough light in the house to prevent the possibility of any complaints. They had no desire to hamper the management by making any regulations but the bench would keep an eye on the place for six months, just to satisfy themselves.
Apart from film, stage shows were presented. These were first staged from Easter Monday onwards. One of the acts was Hayes and Merritt, described as trampolinists. They appeared in April 2013. Also appearing that month were the nieces of Music Hall star Vesta Tilley, dancers, calling themselves the Two Vestas.
On the 9th June 1913 the first all picture programme was presented. Films included ‘The Fatal Grotto’ and ‘Saved by the child’. In the late 1920s the Palace became the Scala. In 1930 it was taken over by Cheshire County Cinemas, who also ran the Empress, the head office of the company.
Film shows came to an end in 1957 and it became a dance hall called LA SCALA. It is said that it had the nickname Ranch house because of the number of westerns it screened.
Pop sensation the Beatles made two appearances, on 16th October 1962 and 11th December 1962. Dancing came to an end, and in 1970 bingo was the name of the game. The building was closed for good in 2006 and was left to deteriorate. The wrecking ball was called in, in 2012. Another one of Runcorn’s entertainment venues consigned to history.
David A Ellis ©chestercinemas.co.uk
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