at the Abbey Cinema, Liverpool
by Mike Taylor
Cinerama came to Liverpool in 1964 – some ten years after opening at the Casino Theatre, London. Following the success in Manchester in 1963, it was no surprise that Liverpool was the next North West city to be selected by Cinerama. Cinerama had been looking for a city centre site such as the Empire Theatre on Lime Street, ideal both for location and size, but unfortunately Moss Empires were not enthusiastic about this at all. Undeterred, Cinerama cast its net a little wider.
Bedford Cinemas (1928) Ltd., headed by John F. Wood, was the leading independent cinema circuit on Merseyside and always in the forefront for new and exciting innovations in motion picture presentation. The flagship of the circuit was the Abbey cinema in Church Road, Wavertree – a suburb in South Liverpool. It was one of the best attended cinemas in the city, and considered by many to be one of, if not the finest of Liverpool's many super cinemas of the thirties.
Designed by the celebrated Liverpool architect, Alderman Alfred Ernest Shennan (later Lord Mayor) who was responsible for a number of other Merseyside cinemas, including the Forum, on Lime Street; Curzon, Old Swan; Plaza, Allerton; Mayfair, Aigburth and the Plaza, Birkenhead.
The Abbey originally opened on 4th March 1939 for the Regal Cinema Company (Liverpool), who's company secretary, Mr. W.L. Hampson, was a well known figure in the entertainment world. When the company built the Regal, Norris Green, over in East Liverpool, the name “Regal” was adopted officially. After a short period the cinema was acquired by Bedford Cinemas in 1943, and film bookings continued to include many ABC circuit releases.
In the fifties – along with the company's other cinemas – Widescreen and 3D came to the Abbey; the first 3D presentation being Kiss Me Kate, with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. Another popular 3D film was Hondo, starring John Wayne. As the novelty of 3D faded, the wide screen came into its own, with CinemaScope and Stereophonic Sound; the first presentation being The Command, starring Guy Madison. However, despite the introduction of 3D, CinemaScope and Stereophonic Sound, the Abbey, like the vast majority of cinemas across the country saw a steady decline in business due to the inroads of television – particularly commercial television. In one week alone Liverpool saw the closure of seven local cinemas.
Bedford Cinemas (1928) Ltd., as mentioned previously, had a go-ahead management with John F. Wood, so with his son Tony alongside him he negotiated with Cinerama to bring the new wide screen process to Liverpool. The Abbey closed after business on 25th January 1964 for extensive alterations, including a new projection room in the rear stalls. The proscenium and flanking walls were then completely obscured by the giant Cinerama screen which extended almost wall to wall. The trade mark of Cinerama being the deep red curtains which slowly opened and closed over the vast, deeply curved screen. Cinerama paid for the entire conversion and cost of the projection equipment, which came close to £100,000. New sightlines in the auditorium reduced the seating capacity from 1876 to 1260, including the circle. Projection was with three Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors and Super Zenith Cinemeccanica carbon arc lamps. The magnetic sound follower and amplifier racks were also provided by Cinemeccanica. The original projection room at the rear of the circle was retained with its Kalee 12 projectors, Westrex sound heads and Peerless Magnarc arc lamps, although the latter were replaced by Cinemeccanica Zenons at a later date. One interesting aspect of the projection arrangements was that Cinerama paid the wages of the staff (there were four projectionists on duty at any one time during the three-strip runs). In Liverpool at this time, projectionists working for Cinerama were the highest paid in the city.
The opening presentation took place on March 17th 1964 with This Is Cinerama, a charity performance in aid of the King George V fund for sailors. And a grand affair it was, with guests including the mayors of Liverpool, Bootle and Birkenhead; the chairman of Litherland UDC; the Liverpool Scottish Pipe Band and the trumpeters of the Liverpool City Police Band. The number of limousines lined up outside the cinema after the show was quite an impressive sight! On the following day it opened to the general public and ran for seven weeks (remember this was a film that was already 12 years old at this time).
Other presentations followed, but sadly, three-panel Cinerama was short-lived at the Abbey, having made a late entry with the process. With the supply of three-panel films exhausted, the process ceased in April 1965. Following a short closure the Abbey re-opened on 15th April 1965 with single lens Cinerama in 70mm. The first presentation in the new system was It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But even this was short-lived. With a limited number of 70mm Cinerama films available, the end came on 6th March 1971 following an 11 week run of Greig musical biopic, Song Of Norway. With the exception of an occasional re-run of a past 70mm success, Cinerama presentation ceased altogether at the Abbey. For the remaining eight years of its life the Abbey reverted to normal film bookings. Closure came on 7th August 1979, ironically, with a 70mm screening of The Towering Inferno. The Abbey cinema was no more.
Two days later there was an auction of the entire contents, including the Cinerama screen. And in a further, rather cruel irony, the old equipment in the original projection room upstairs realised more money than the Cinerama equipment downstairs. Shortly afterwards, the building was put up for sale for use as a supermarket, with the proviso that a small cinema be included in the re-development. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in operating a cinema due to the high rent being asked. It was eventually converted into a bingo hall.
Today, the outside of the Abbey looks much the same as it did as a motion picture theatre. Its new patrons passing through the same doors are customers for the Somerfield Supermarket in the stalls area, and the Gala Bingo players in the circle. A sad end to what was the daddy of Wide Screen motion pictures and one of Liverpool's great cinemas.
Mike Taylor is the Regional Co-ordinator of The Projected Picture Trust (North West) and is a former motion picture projectionist.
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