Between 1898 and 1935, no less than 16 different cinemas opened in my home town of Southend. Add to that a further 14 within a 4 or 5 mile radius of the town! The cinema was big business in those days, and must have pretty much been the national pass-time of choice (well, the Nintendo Wii never really took off like they expected back then!!). By the time I started going to the cinema only 3 of those 30 cinemas remained.... guess how many remain now??!
But I will always have such fond memories of the Odeon in Southend. I can still clearly remember what it looked like inside, the smell, the cinema tickets on a roll (like old fashioned bus tickets), the queues round the block for the summer blockbusters, the usherettes selling goodies during the interval (ALWAYS a 'support film' before the main event in those days), the popcorn, the ice cream, those awful cups of warm, still orange juice that you had to pierce the top with the straw!, the distinctive 'sound' of the seats flipping up, even the soundtrack to the films and those cheesy adverts for local businesses ("ere Burt, this is the place..."), had a unique, stark twang to it. It was a real occasion to go there... And it was the venue for so many 'firsts' in my life too.... first time I ever went to the cinema (Disney's Robin Hood in 1973), first time I ever went to the cinema without Mum and\or Dad (Star Wars in 1977), first time I ever took a girl to the cinema (Airplane! in 1980) and first time I ever saw an 'X' rated film (Porkys in 1982). I spent 25 of my first 32 years going there, and have always been a little obsessed with the memory of the place. So I thought it was about time that I document this now defunct pleasure palace.
The Astoria, opened in Southend high street on 15th July 1935 (Brewster's Millions was the first film shown), on the site of the recently demolished Lukers brewery. The cinema was by far the biggest in town and boasted room for a whopping 2,750 punters (1750 in the stalls and 1000 in the balcony), and even had room for a large cafe area. The exterior was faced with polished stone and there were three very striking, large arched metal windows above the entrance. Here's a picture of it on the opening day:
Check out the luxuriously lavish foyer and auditorium:
Within a year it had been taken over by County Cinemas Ltd. In 1937 Odeon Theatres took over County Cinemas, and in the early 1940's the venue was renamed the Odeon. Here's a picture of it in 1948:
Here's a great picture of the Odeon in 1959, which really shows off those windows:
In 1960 it was refurbished, the seating was reduced to 2286 and the cafe became a dance studio. The venue had already made a name for itself for booking big name acts (Laurel and Hardy even played there for a week in 1952), but during the 60's they really upped their game.... Louis Armstrong appeared there in 1962, The Beatles played twice in 63, The Rolling Stones played in 65, The Who in 66... and many more besides.In 1970 the Odeon was closed, and the building underwent major reconstruction to turn it into a two screen cinema. Screen 1 was built in the space of the old cafe\dance studio area and seated 500. For screen 2 the balcony was extended forward to create a 1350 seater auditorium. It was at this point that the entrance was moved from the High Street to the side of the building in Elmer Approach. This enabled the original High Street entrance and foyer to be sold off as shop space (I remember it as a Presto's supermarket in the 80's, and a shopping arcade in the 90's and later as an amusement arcade). My only recollection of this cinema is as a two-screener, and I only ever knew it with the much less glamorous side entrance. Here's a picture of the all new entrance in 1971:
Here is the original frontage in 1991, complete with 'Shop In Village' crappy indoor market!
The Odeon cinema eventually closed for good in 1998...rather fittingly, the last three films I saw there were the 'special editions' of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997... twenty years on from seeing the original film in the very same auditorium.
The empty building hung around for a few years looking rather sorry for itself, and it's final indignity was for the old front entrance shop to be turned into a 'Poundland', until the whole building was finally demolished in 2004. Here it is in the last year or two of its life, those windows, despite now being broken and boarded up are still as prominent as ever.
Now in it's place stands the frontage to the University of Essex... nice.Apologies if this piece has been of little relevance to you (quite likely!). I'm sure you all have a fondly remembered equivalent from your own childhoods, which was equally neglected and eventually torn down by the local council with little regard for architecture and\or local history. And it's that very attitude that is fast making every high street in every UK town look identical. There are no new character buildings, nothing to give a place some identity.... just bland, 'built as cheap as possible' boxes. But hey, look on the bright side, we do have some amazing white goods super-outlets, drive-thru takeaways and retail parks in their place, so it's not all bad. I guess in 40 odd years time my son will be writing a similar post, lamenting on the loss of his favourite KFC outlet "they served the best hot-wings money could buy".