edited by John Hayes


Cinerama at the Theatre Royal, Manchester

In 1963, Cinerama came to Manchester. The system was installed in the beautiful old Theatre Royal Cinema in Peter Street and for a few short years we had the biggest and the best of the big screen systems right here on our doorstep. Sadly long gone - only the building remains, converted to other uses - those of us who were regular patrons can only wistfully remember scrambling for the "sweet seats" in the middle of row "G".

However, thanks to the efforts my friend Mike Taylor, of the Projected Picture Trust, we have been supplied with the following article, which I have transcribed from a photocopy. Neither Mike nor myself have been able to unearth the name of the original author, or indeed the magazine in which it appeared; the article, however is much too interesting to remain unread, so I am reproducing it here for Cinerama fans everywhere. Should the author find himself reading his own words after all this time, I would be very grateful if he (or, indeed, she) would contact me to receive full credit.

For views of the Theatre Royal yesterday and today and some further history of the theatre, see Matthew Lloyd's page.

J.H.


THE THEATRE ROYAL

The first Theatre Royal in Manchester opened in Spring Gardens in 1775, burned down fourteen years later and was rebuilt in 1790. Its successor, in Fountain Street, opened in 1807 and burned down in 1844. The owner, one John Knowles, decided to build a new Theatre Royal in Peter Street. Designed by Messrs Irwin and Chester, the new theatre was built at a cost of some £23,000, opened on 29th September 1845 and continued to provide theatrical entertainment until 1921.

In 1921 the Theatre Royal became the property of Raymond Pollock. Audience numbers had been falling for some time, partly because of the increasing number of theatres in the city centre and the suburbs, but also because of the rise in popularity of the cinema. A decision was made to operate the Theatre Royal as a picture house and, after some alterations (notably the removal of the theatre's four balconies) the building was reopened on Monday 4th September 1922 by Sir William Veno. The film chosen for the opening performances was a British production, The Game Of Life.

It had been decided that the Theatre Royal should still be able to function as a live theatre when necessary, and to that end it retained two resident orchestras. When the silent version of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse was shown in the cinema, the programme also featured a live prologue and epilogue. Films went over in a big way in the Theatre Royal and for most of the twenties the new house did good business with silent pictures.

The Theatre Royal was fortunate in having managements with foresight and the showman's touch. When the Talkies were introduced in the last years of the 1920's, this became Manchester's second cinema (after the Oxford) to install the equipment for sound movies.

In January 1929, in what was a tremendous coup, the cinema booked the Paramount picture Wings, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. The picture had had sound sequences added to it before it was shown in the US in 1928. A few months later the Theatre Royal booked the Fox picture In Old Arizona, which had brought Warner Baxter the Oscar for Best Actor. The adverts for the picture claimed that "…more than twenty stars speak their parts in this long-awaited epic of the colourful South-west". A week or so after that the Theatre Royal offered its audiences "The thrilling, Paramount all-talking production The Dummy"!

Early in 1929 an article in the Manchester Evening News bewailed the lack of British Talkies showing in the city. British producer-director Herbert Wilcox made the first British Talkie to be shown in Manchester - in July of 1929 the Theatre Royal played Wilcox's Black Waters. Even that one had actually been filmed in Hollywood. The first British all-Talkie picture, Hitchcock's Blackmail, was not shown in Manchester until late November, and then it played at the Manchester Hippodrome Theatre, rather than at an established cinema.

In the week of 27th January 1930, the Theatre Royal boasted "Manchester's first double all-talking" programme. Both films were from Paramount: The Man I Love, starring Richard Arlen, and The Studio Murder Mystery, starring Warner Oland (who would soon win fame as Charlie Chan) and Frederic March, later winner of two Best Actor Oscars. To support the films there was a stage presentation featuring the Paramount Tiller Girls.

The Talkies brought good audiences to the Theatre Royal in common with most cinemas, and the venue continued to prosper through the 1930's. From 1930 to 1935 the Theatre Royal was part of the ABC circuit. It was a cinema, but it also featured variety, and it had a café.

In 1935 the Theatre Royal changed hands and the new management, Garrett Klement Theatres Limited, closed it for a short time for refurbishment. Part of the make-over was a false front for the building. For the reopening on 11th November 1935 the Warner Brothers' movie G-Men, starring James Cagney, not as a gangster, but as a government agent, was the attraction. In 1937 the H.D. Moorhouse circuit took over and they were still operating the cinema during the war years, which saw it well established on Peter Street. However, when Manchester was bombed, a blast blew off the building's false front.

After the war, discussions took place about the Theatre Royal's future and one of the proposals made was that it should become a civic theatre. The discussions came to nothing, however and in 1949 the cinema was taken over by the Buxton Circuit (proprietor Harry Buxton).

In the early fifties the Theatre Royal saw audiences decline. This was common to every cinema in those years, but the fact that the Theatre Royal was now independent, and not part of the Rank or ABC chains, meant that it could not get major films from studios like Warners, 20th Century-Fox, MGM and Paramount for their first runs in the city. All these major studios had links with one of the two big circuits. True to its pioneering spirit, however, the Peter Street house embraced one of the fifties' most startling innovations. It was the first Manchester city-centre venue to equip for the showing of 3D pictures. On the 24th May 1953 the Columbia film Man In The Dark, with Edmond O'Brien and Audrey Totter, and made in 3D was shown there with great success.

Unfortunately 3D didn't last. The spectacles which patrons had to use to see a 3D film, with polarized lenses, were a nuisance, especially if you wore glasses already; and the quality of 3D pictures was poor, mainly because directors used 3D as an excuse to throw things at the audience instead of exploring the cinematic possibilities of the medium. When cleverly and intelligently used, 3D was a real experience, as in the hands of Hitchcock in Dial M For Murder and in the Fox film, Inferno. Both of those movies were shown 'flat' here, so that the 3D effect was lost.

For a while, though, 3D caught on, and the Theatre Royal benefited from the showing of films like Phantom Of The Rue Morgue and Kiss Me Kate in their 3D form. An interesting sidelight on 3D pictures comes from Ms Catherine Austin of Denton. She recalls working at the Theatre Royal while it was showing films made in 3D and part of her job was to clean the spectacles.

After this brief 3D fillip, the Theatre Royal continued to muddle along in the fifties and into the sixties. A great success in 1956 was MGM's I'll Cry Tomorrow, in which Susan Hayward gave her most brilliant performance as the tragic singer, Lillian Roth, who became an alcoholic. I remember a visit there with my wife in 1962 to see I Thank A Fool, also starring Susan Hayward, my favourite actress. The picture wasn't very good, but the Theatre Royal was certainly a splendid place to see it!

By 1960, City Cinemas (Manchester) - the proprietors of the Theatre Royal - were finding it difficult to programme the cinema with films which brought in good audiences. Cinema everywhere were struggling, and, unless something could be done to halt the decline, the Theatre Royal seemed doomed to go the way of the Gaiety, its near neighbour on the opposite side of Peter Street. The management had toyed with the idea of introducing Cinerama to Manchester ever since its initial success in London in the mid-1950's. Using three projectors, which threw the film on to a vast curved screen, This Is Cinerama and its successors had enthralled audiences in the capital. The huge size of screen required, however, and the high cost of installing screen and projectors had put Manchester cinema owners off. Sometimes it was necessary to adapt a building's interior for Cinerama by removing some seats, and all this, together with a shortage of pictures made in Cinerama, made the system impractical.

In 1963 City Cinemas took the plunge. The Theatre Royal closed on Saturday 21st September, after the last showing of Divorce Italian Style, starring Daniella Rocca, Stefania Sandrelli and Marcello Mastroianni. It took six weeks to install a giant new screen measuring 65 feet by 28 feet together with the necessary projection equipment, and to reduce the seating capacity from 1800 to about 1000, then the MGM-Cinerama production How The West Was Won had its gala premiere on Monday 4th November. Coronation Street's Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) and comedian Ken Dodd were among the celebrities who attended. The occasion, one of the most important cinematic events in Manchester for years, was even covered on TV's 'Look North'.

Managing director Gordon Buxton had said, when announcing that Cinerama was to be installed at the Theatre Royal, that he expected How The West Was Won to run for at least a year. The novelty of the vast screen, together with the picture's star line-up - Gregory Peck, James Stewart, John Wayne and Richard Widmark were just four of its many stars - certainly attracted audiences from far afield, not just from the North West, but from North Wales and across the Pennines, and the initial response was all the management hoped. It didn't last, though, and on 16th May 1964, after a run of just seven months (by no means a negligible run for a provincial showing) the film closed, and was replaced first by Cinerama Holiday and then The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm.

I saw How The West Was Won shortly after it opened, and from our seats in the centre of the balcony, my wife and I were quite staggered by the vast screen and the spectacle which seemed to engulf the audience. Manchester Evening News critic John Stratten summed it up to a T, when he wrote: "Never before …has so much deliberate sound and fury been poured into one screen. There are moments when, your eyes dazzled, your ear-drums shattered, your nervous system unstrung, you seem to be watching three films at once". His last sentence was a reference to the joins which showed on the screen, marking the limit of each of the three projectors. Inventive direction frequently tried to disguise the joins by having a strategically placed tree or other object on the set.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was shown at the
Theatre Royal in 1965 – your editor saw it there!

The Theatre Royal took Cinerama films as often as it could get them. In 1968 the Warner Brothers' film of the musical Camelot (in Cinerama, although filmed in Super Panavision 70) had its Manchester showing there, and I went with my wife's mother to see it. I can still remember her gasp of amazement when she first saw the huge screen, and she often talked afterwards about what a beautiful film it was.

Impressive though the system was, the boost which the Theatre Royal gained from Cinerama was short-lived. A scarcity of product suitable for the Cinerama screen meant that the cinema often had to rely on smaller pictures to attract paying customers. My last visit there was, I think, in 1968, to see Rex Harrison and Susan Hayward in the Venetian-set comedy, The Honey Pot.

In the late sixties there was talk about the Theatre Royal's future, and it was suggested that it might be converted to, or replaced by, an office block. The old theatre staggered on, however, until 1972, half a century after its conversion to a cinema.

The end came on Sunday 13th August and the last film shown on that vast Cinerama screen, which had been installed amid such excitement just nine years earlier, was a reissue of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King And I, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. On 24th August the Theatre Royal opened for business as the City Bingo and Social Club.

The Theatre Royal building still stands on Peter Street. It has been, in succession, a Bingo hall, a dance hall and now a discotheque, the Disc Royale.

Whenever I am in that part of Manchester, I look at the building with much nostalgia for its cinematic days. John Stratten's tribute in the Manchester Evening News says it all: "I note [the Theatre Royal's] passing with regret. It was the oldest cinema in the city and always ahead of the field, with such tricky innovations as 3D and Cinerama. Too bad it has to end like this. But my sincere thanks to Harry and Gordon Buxton for the many, many happy, stimulating hours I have spent in the old Theatre Royal".


Editor's Note:

The Theatre Royal is still there and is still a club; the Royale.

I, too, have fond memories of the Theatre Royal Cinerama and of the many films that were given a new lease of life on the giant curved screen. I can remember seeing such films as Ben-Hur, El Cid, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Where Eagles Dare and Lafayette among the many great big-screen epics that played there as they were meant to be seen.
I would love to hear from anyone who worked there during the Cinerama years, particularly the projection staff. If you are one of these people and you would like to share any of your reminiscences, please feel free get in touch with us.


The Projected Picture Trust

The excellent Cinerama article you have just read was kindly supplied to us by Mike Taylor, who is the North-West co-ordinator of The Projected Picture Trust, an organisation which was formed in 1978, and which is dedicated to the preservation, restoration and exhibition of cinema equipment at several permanent sites around the UK.

Since 1994, the PPT's most prestigious permanent exhibition is based at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes, home of the WWII code-breakers and the world's first computer. There they have a 42 seat cinema - the Enigma - with facilities to show 8mm, 9.5mm, 16mm, 35mm and 70mm films, complete with Dolby CP100 sound.

In addition to the invaluable work they do in restoring old equipment - some of which is in a sorry state when it comes into their possession - to pristine condition, they also maintain a comprehensive data base of their holdings, together with instruction manuals, technical drawings and related publications such as those produced by the Cinema Theatre Association, Mercia Society, The British Kinematograph Sound & Television Society, S.M.P.T.E. USA and Screen International etc. Plus, they have an ongoing programme of educational visits.

If you would like more information about the PPT you can visit their website www.ppttrust.org or alternatively contact the Curator, Ken Draper, at the National Museum Of Cinema Technology, Bletchley Park, BLETCHLEY. Tel. 01908 234214 (Home).



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John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 6 November, 2009

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