Architectural gems: Wetherspoon pubs that used to be cinemas
Some of the finest drinking establishments in the land are leased by none other than J.D. Wetherspoon, the nations favourite destination for value for money pub grub and probably the best priced beer and ale your likely to find in the UK. From the stunning Winter Gardens in Harrogate to the very grand Palladium in Llandudno, many used to be banks or concert halls, but some of the most striking architecture out there started life as picture houses. Here’s a list of must visit Wetherspoon pubs that once upon a time were cinemas.
Caley Picture House, Edinburgh
North of the border in bonny Edinburgh you will find the Grade B listed Caley Picture House which was built in 1922 and opened it’s doors on New Years Day 1923 with a screening of the silent movie ‘The Game of Life’, which was produced and directed by G.B. Samuelson. The building was expanded from it’s 900 seat capacity to 1,900 to accommodate an increase in theatre goers and the birth of the talkies.
The Caley Picture House remained as such until 1986 when it closed it’s doors and was converted into a nightclub, prior to becoming a Wetherspoon pub this year. It’s final incarnation, before its modern day guise was that of a music venue, hosting some significant performers like Pink Floyd and Queen and was actually called the HMV Picture House due to a sponsorship deal with the retail giants.
The original design was by architects J.S. Richardson & J.R. McKay and was done so in the Beaux-Arts style with luxurious Gatsby-esque interiors, giving the Caley the feel of a grand American opera house, with it’s elaborate interiors and magnificent entrance. Many of the original features are front and centre in it’s current life as a most magnificent boozer. Certainly a wonderful watering hole that it’s a pleasure to sink a pint or two in.
The Royal Enfield, Redditch
The imposing Art Deco style Royal Enfield in Redditch is named unsurprisingly after the world famous motorcycle manufacturers BSA and of course Royal Enfield. Responsible throughout the most part of the twentieth century for producing among others the Meteor, Clipper, Crusader and the Constellation motorbikes. The company ceased trading in 1967, however the Royal Enfield continues to be manufactured in India.
On 4th February 1937, The Danilo Cinema, built by Ernest S. Roberts, opened its doors to the public with a screening of ‘Children of Divorce’ a 1927 American silent romantic drama starring Clara Bow and Gary Cooper. The theatre had a small stage with a 40 foot wide proscenium. Seating was provided in the traditional stalls and circle level setting, and when it was taken over by the Classic Cinemas chain in 1972 they tripled the seating in the auditorium. It was later owned by the Cannon group and finally ABC, until being transformed into a Chicago Rock Café in 2002 before J.D Wetherspoon took over the premises in 2010.
This grand old building once again lifts the lid on the architectural landscape of the time with the opulence and exuberance of the Art Deco style. There’s little reference inside now to its previous life as a cinema other than structurally and the layout inside. Instead it’s a tribute to Redditch’s most famous export the equally grand Royal Enfield motorcycle and that particularly rich history.
The Godfrey Morgan, Newport
The Godfrey Morgan named so after Newport’s greatest benefactor and later freeman of the town, first opened it’s doors a little later than some others on the list and as cinema’s of the time go, had a rather short life span. Originally named The Maindee Cinema, the doors opened here for the first time in 1939 with a screening of ‘If I Were King,’ a biographical drama featuring Ronald Colman. With seating for around 1,200, the interesting feature was the position of the projector which was actually at the front of the balcony.
The final presentation was in September 1961 a mere 22 years after it first opened when the 1948 comedy western ‘The Paleface’ featuring Bob Hope and Jane Russell was screened. Following this The Maindee was turned into a bingo hall, which it continued to be until 1994. It remained derelict until Wetherspoon took the lease.
The main cinema area doesn’t feature as part of the pub, instead it is the spacious Art Deco foyer area that wows with tall windows and tiling in keeping with the era. A hidden Welsh treasure.
The Picture House, Stafford
The historic town of Stafford is home to The Picture House, which dates all the way back to 1914 when it opened its doors as the nation was on the brink of WWI. The first screening to be shown was ‘The House of Temperley,’ a silent film drama based on the book Rodney Stone which was written by Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was by all accounts an extremely popular cinema during the boom period of the 1920s and like the many cinemas of the day, became equipped for the talkies as the decade came to a close. The first talkie to be shown at The Picture House was ‘The Last of Mrs Cheyney,’ starring Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone, which was screened on April 28th 1930. It was purchased by J.D. Wetherspoon in 1997 and retains many of its original features.
It has a tudor style exterior with black and white timber beams and a wrought iron canopy, with wonderful stained glass lettering spelling out the name. Inside it has a bright and airy feel, more so than the equally magnificent Capitol which we’ll come to next, and in tribute to it’s former glory the original ticket office still remains.
The English Heritage certified it a Grade II listed building back in 1989, it’s a truly impressive building that is certainly worth enjoying a few scoops in, and if you want to revel in its cinematic past, free screenings of films are on Wednesday evenings.
The Capitol, Forest Hill
The Capitol down in Forest Hill, South London is one of the most stunning cinema conversions featured here. It was built in 1929 and closed its doors in the early 1970s, following which it was turned into a bingo hall, surviving as such until 1996. The Grade II listed interior of this impressive building remains relatively intact from its early guise, the wonderful Art Deco design transports you back in time and remarkably the upper circle seating overlooking the vast downstairs space is untouched.
The first film to be screened at The Capitol was the silent movie ‘Man, Woman and Sin,’ featuring heart throb of the time John Gilbert, a poster of which can be found plastered on the wall of the entrance, there’s also a tribute to Boris Karloff who was born in the area and went on to find fame in Hollywood, chiefly in the horror film industry.
A ticket booth can be found to the right of the entrance hall offering a glimpse of it’s previous incarnation. Given it’s such a large space, the atmosphere can at times be subdued, almost like a cinema you might say. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
The Peter Cushing, Whitstable
The lovely seaside town of Whitstable is home to many remarkable places, not least one of the most decadent Wetherspoon pubs in the country. It’s named The Peter Cushing after the late, famed Hammer horror actor who used to weekend in Whitstable, before retiring there. First known as The Oxford Picture Hall, the building was opened on 11th December 1912 as a purpose built cinema with noted features such as a scrolled and glazed canopy, with auditorium seating on one level.
The cinema was re-built in 1936 around the frame of the original one. The Oxford Cinema, as it was now named, was designed in an Art Deco style, by a local architect W.M. Bishop and re-opened on 27th July 1936 screening ‘Jack Of All Trades,’ starring Jack Hulbert. 1962 saw the arrival of part-time bingo on the premises and in October 1984 it ceased showing films and became a full-time bingo hall untill 2010, before it re-opened as part of the J.D. Wetherspoon chain under its new star name.
Its Art Deco facade has been brought back to life in fabulous style and the building has a wonderfully opulent manner. The foyer is home to a large old cinema projector, as well as the original transformers and switch gear used for putting on screenings, and pictures of Peter Cushing adorn the walls as a tribute to the actor that made the town his home. The building’s 1930s feel when sitting in the venue conjures up thoughts of the grand ballroom in The Shining, you wouldn’t be surprised if Lloyd popped up behind the bar to serve you. Whatever pre-conceptions anyone might have about Wetherspoon pubs are blown right out of the water after a visit to this truly magnificent place.