Cinerama in Birmingham
Midlands reader, Trevor Chapman, has penned his recollections oft the two long-departed Cinerama Cinemas in Birmingham – the only UK city outside of London to have two such installations. In addition, Regular contributor David Jones has managed to delve into his huge collection of film memorabilia and has provided us with further pictures and articles from the time of their operation. Ed.
The ABC Bristol Road began life as the Bristol Cinema on 16 th May 1937, and was originally owned by A. W. Rogers of the Playhouse, Aston. Designed by Hurley Robinson, it seated 1712 patrons. The opening films were The Luckiest Girl In The World (1936) starring Jane Wyatt, and Land Without Music (1936 – US title Forbidden Music) starring Richard Tauber. It became part of the ABC circuit on 1 st January 1944, but was not renamed ABC until August 1959.
Todd-AO was installed in 1960, and the regional premier of Ben-Hur (1959) was held there on 1 st September that year. Three years later, the ABC closed for conversion to 3-strip Cinerama – at a usual cost of around £140,000 - on 4 th May 1963, re-opening on 14 th September with How The West Was Won (1963). The ABC Cinerama, Birmingham was now the first Cinerama installation outside London.
3-strip presentations continued there for a couple of years, and included George Pal’s The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm (1962), many of the Cinerama travelogues and also a presentation of Louis de Rochemont’s Windjammer (1958), which was shot in the rival process, Cinemiracle.
After Brothers Grimm, Cinerama abandoned their 3-strip process, and these presentations ceased at the ABC on 9 th January 1965, when the cinema closed for the installation of 70mm equipment. On the 17 th January it re-opened with single-strip roadshow presentations of all the classic 70mm productions, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Battle Of The Bulge (1966), Spartacus (1960), Ben-Hur, 55 Days At Peking (1963), Grand Prix 1966), Khartoum (1966) and many others, including Custer Of The West (1967) and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The ABC was a popular cinema for many years despite being a good 10-minute walk from Birmingham city centre. But the days of the big 70mm epics were coming to an end – as were many of the single-screen cinemas, and the ABC eventually succumbed. It closed, temporarily, in February 1972 for conversion to a ‘Triple’, re-opening in July of the same year. This was an unusual conversion in that the two auditoria constructed in the original stalls ran the whole length of the cinema, while a new, large, curved 70mm screen was installed against a new wall which was erected at the front of the old circle. The only film I recall seeing in there, though, was the 70mm version of Gone With The Wind.
The ABC continued operating until September 1987, when it finally closed for good. The building was demolished to make way for a McDonald’s ‘Drive-Thru’.
Birmingham’s second Cinerama theatre, The Gaumont, was part of the Rank chain of cinemas, and opened one month after the ABC on 14 th October 1963, with a showing of Cinerama Holiday (1955).
The Gaumont, as well as its 1212 seats, had the largest screen in Europe, measuring an enormous eighty four by thirty three feet – a fact which they advertised on the canopy for many years. Cinerama Holiday only ran for a short period, and after that they continued with various 3-strip presentations until It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World (1963) arrived early in 1964, which meant that the Gaumont, too, abandoned the three-projector format in favour of the new single-strip 70mm Cinerama presentations.
I went to see this film twice, and on the second visit, I complained to the manager because I realized that the film had been cut by several minutes (to date, I have never seen an uncut version of this film). As a result of complaint, I was invited to the press showing of their next presentation, The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964). The Gaumont was always my favourite cinema during the sixties, and for a while, there always seemed to be enough 70mm films to make full use of both the Gaumont and the ABC, though by this time, many of the films were ‘blow-ups’ from 35mm negatives; The Cardinal (1963) and Becket (1964), for example. The Gaumont also ran a short season of 20 th Century-Fox musicals. I recall seeing South Pacific (1958), Oklahoma! (1955)) and The King And I (1955) on their Cinerama screen - and West Side Story (1961) also had a good run there. When The Sound Of Music arrived in April 1965, it stayed for an amazing 168 weeks – the second longest run after the Dominion, in London. One patron – Miss A. Jackson – saw the film about 600 times, and was eventually granted free admission and her own seat!
By the time The Sound Of Music closed in July 1968, 70mm was in decline, though the Gaumont retained its large screen and 70mm projectors. It was always a great experience to see any film there, and the screen was perfect for any Cinemascope presentation – even though not all of it was used.
By the eighties, though, The Gaumont was probably considered too big, and the end came in October 1983, at which time I obtained permission to visit and take some of these photographs. I was made very welcome by the manager and projection staff.
The Gaumont was later demolished and an office building of The Wesleyan & General Insurance Company now stands on the site.
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John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
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