Chiswick’s Early Cinemas

by Mike Gilmour

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)

Chiswick, like many areas of the country, embraced the new phenomenon of moving pictures at the turn into the 20th Century. It was exciting and entrepreneurs, artists, photographers, showmen and women were quick to exploit it. The public grew hungry for moving images too and in Chiswick there was a burgeoning population (rising from 8,508 in 1871 to 38,705 in 1911) who needed entertaining.

Moving images had been seen before the onset of the Lumière brothers in 1896. These were hand-cranked photographs shown, not in purpose-built premises but often in shops. The first people to commercially exploit moving images were the entertainers – the people who ran fairground shows and the magic lanternists who toured the country. The Royal Horticultural Society, which leased land in Chiswick from the Duke of Devonshire between 1821 and 1903, created its own showground. Magic lanternists put on regular shows here. They brought in huge crowds and were very lucrative. The music halls, or variety theatres as they became known, were at their opulent peak at the turn of the century and they too began to show moving images.

Competition became fierce, especially in respect of news items. The Warwick Trading Company (WTC) managed to beat its nearest rival, The British Mutoscope & Biograph Co Ltd, by providing six exhibitors with film recording the launch of the SS Oceanic on 14 January 1899, within 52 hours of the event taking place. Even more extraordinary was the fact that, in order to help with the filming, WTC persuaded the directors of the White Star Line to paint the ship white at a cost to the company of £600!

The British film industry, at the outset, was particularly adventurous. Cecil Hepworth from Walton-on-Thames and a son of a magic lanternist, directed Rescued by Rover (1905). It is recognised as being advanced for its day, using arc lighting and recognisable editing techniques. However, America with its financial muscle soon dominated the market. By 1926, 92% of all films screened were from across the Atlantic.

But Chiswick was not without early film connections: Gaumont set up its famous studio in nearby Shepherds Bush and the Compton Organ Company, located in Turnham Green Terrace, built the great organ for the Shepherds Bush Empire in 1923.

Due to the rapid growth in the popularity of cinema and the potential monetary gain from staying in one location, purpose-built cinemas began to be erected. They were known by a variety of names, such as ‘Kinematograph’, ‘Electric’, ‘Picture House’. This signalled the end of the travelling shows with the final death knell being sounded by the Cinematograph Act of 1909 which made it necessary to obtain a licence to show film. Thus entered the permanent Picture House – much to the bane of the local Church groups and moralists.

The Palais Cinema, opened 1909, closed 1916

PALAIS CINEMA (No. 365 Chiswick High Road)
Chiswick’s first but shortest-lived cinema was on the site now occupied by Woolworths. Seating only 350 people, it opened around 15 Oct 1909 with Lt Shackleton’s Pictures of the South Pole. It was owned by Cinema Palaces Ltd, managed by a Mr W H Broughton who lived locally in Cleveland Ave. The place seems to have been jinxed: a workman fell and injured himself working on a flagstaff and the manager was assaulted by a drunk in the street. The Palais tried to appease the moralists by raising money for a local soup kitchen in 1909 and 1910. However, Thomas Naylor, the manager at the time, was fined for Sunday opening in 1914. The Palais closed in 1916 but opened again briefly in 1919 with a name change to the Palace of Entertainments. Its swift death was perhaps due to a combination of factors: the small size of the cinema; competition from the Chiswick Empire, the Entertainment Tax introduced in May 1916, not to mention the War.

THE ELECTRIC CINEMA (Corner of Duke Rd & Chiswick High Rd)
This opened in about April 1911 with seating for 450. In 1916 it was owned by Universal Picture Theatres Ltd whose offices were at 29a Charing Cross Road. This company also owned the Hackney Electric Theatre in Clapton, and Praed St Electric Theatre in Praed St, Paddington. The General Manager was E. J. Carpenter. A fire by the screen in 1914 was swiftly put out by the Fire Brigade whose premises were almost next door!

Universal Picture Theatres Ltd went into liquidation sometime in 1916; the cinema though was apparently still open for business later that year as a court case for overcrowding was reported in the local paper on 24 October 1916.

The cinema boasted a sliding roof which would be operated during the interval, so that ‘foul air could be released’. For the next two years the premises were not registered as a cinema but it opened under new management in June 1918 and seems to have done quite well, showing such hits as The Sheik (26/1/23) and Oliver Twist (16/3/23). However the liquidator was again called in during August 1925. It re-opened, under new management, in April 1926, changing its name on 25 February 1927 to the Coliseum. It was converted for sound showing Showboat in December 1929 but the expense of trying to keep up with the technology probably caused it to close in January 1932. It had a last gasp, reopening in the same year, with a change of name to the Tatler, specialising in newsreels, but closed for good in 1933 after having its licence revoked on a technicality. The shell of the building can still be seen on the High Road.

Showing at the Cinema Royal in December 1918

CINEMA ROYAL (160 Chiswick High Rd)
Affectionately known as The Cave, originally a hall for music and dancing, it opened as a cinema on 30 May 1912. It once boasted a flashing electric stalagmite outside and its narrow entrance was made to resemble a cave. It held about 450 people and the proprietor was Mr Benjamin Slope. By associating itself with a local religious group, the Brotherhood, it managed to avoid the media vexation of Sunday opening. Mr Slope, however, was stung for overcrowding in 1914; 660 people were inside, along with 3 perambulators.

The theatre went into liquidation in August 1925 but quickly reopened in November. Installing sound and showing The Jazz Singer on 2 August 1929 it beat its rival, the Electric, by a good four months. However it closed in August 1933.

The site is well known locally, now occupied by the antiques shop, The Old Cinema, and most of the internal structure, though much changed, can still be seen. Part of the screen surround remains as well as an ornate internal dome.

CHISWICK EMPIRE (414 – 424 Chiswick High Rd)
A Vaudeville Theatre, which opened in 1912 and closed 1959 (with Liberace heading the bill), showed Bioscope pictures as part of its variety entertainment. This was common practice at the time.

Chiswick’s cinemas ceased to exist due, in part, to the increasing cost of projecting film through the development of technology. They could not compete with the splendours of the palaces in Hammersmith, such as the Gaumont/Odeon (now the Labatts Apollo), or Shepherds Bush. Even if the audiences did not wish to travel to these venues, there were still two cinemas nearby, The Commodore opposite Young’s Corner (opened by Tallulah Bankhead in 1929 specifically for showing ‘talkies’) and a cinema in Acton (it is now the Bingo Hall).

SOURCES USED include: Cinema Theatre Association; Kinematograph Year Book; Brentford and Chiswick Times (specifically letters from Mr Dunnett); British Film Institute Library; The British Cinematographer; local books/directories

At the time of the original publication Mike Gilmour lived in Chiswick and was a mature student at UWCN in Newport reading Multimedia Studies.

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