By Jerry Green
If our campaign for a cinema at in Crystal Palace is successful, it would become the area’s ‘fifth’ cinema. The article which follows is about the previous four….
The silver screens of Crystal Palace
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – well actually it was Crystal Palace in the 1930s…
Back then the area had four cinemas – and not a lot of people know that.
THE AREA’S FIRST CINEMA was the Photodrome, which opened around 1909. Situated off Ranger Road – now Jasper Road – it would later become the premises of the Jacatex mail order company and the Crystal Palace snooker and social club before being demolished and replaced by housing.
The building began life as a swimming pool – a lease having been granted for the land to the Norwood public hall and baths company in January 1887 – before being covered over with a false floor. It reopened as the Electra in September 1909 with 500 seats and room for 200 standing.
In 1912 a new entrance for the cinemas was created through a former hosiery shop at 63 Westow Hill.
“A flight of old stone steps leads down beside Barclays Bank, leading nowhere now, but they used to access a very early cinema at the foot of the steps – the Electra Picture Palace, long demolished and replaced by a row of modern houses”. (Lambeth environmental services committee 1998 review of the C P
In April 1913 the lease of the cinema was assigned to Tom Naylor of the Norwood public house, Ranger Road, the cinema “having been used as the Electric Picture Palace.”
The cinema had changed its name from the Electra to the Palladium by 1921 before closing in 1933. It reopened in November 1935 but in less than a year had closed forever.
Insurance documents of February 1933 for the building refer to dressing rooms, studio and set making and stipulate “scrap cinematograph film to be collected at frequent intervals each day and placed in a metal receptacle with the words: film waste.”
A lease dated June 1937 shows the building being leased to the Religious Film Society, which was founded, by Joseph Arthur Rank of Heathfield, Reigate Heath, and Surrey. (The lease excluded the premises at 63 Westow Hill which in 2005 closed its doors as a launderette after more than 50 years.)
Rank, a devout Christian, had produced a religious film called The Turn of the Tide (1935), which failed to get general distribution. Among those who worked on the film – uncredited – was David Lean (see Kevin Brownlow’s biography, page 90). Rank eventually became a cinema magnate in his own right.
In September 1937 the front page of the Norwood News trumpeted: Film studios for Upper Norwood Former cinema taken over by religious society First effort of its kind in the country
The building was opened in late September of 1937 with the Norwood News front page headline: ‘Film studio dedicated by bishop – unique ceremony in former swimming bath’
“The Religious Film Society, which was formed around 1932, has acquired the Pavilion cinema in Westow Hill and it is now being converted into studios where films suitable for churches and halls will be produced” the paper reported. (The Society had actually acquired the auditorium which had another entrance on what was then Ranger Road – now Jasper Road).
The Society’s first film was a biography of William Tyndale. In the title role was Alan Wheatley – later on to play one of two Sheriffs of Nottingham in the ITV series Robin Hood starring Richard Greene. Outdoor locations were Hamburg, Cologne and Antwerp with interiors filmed in Norwood.
THE SECOND cinema to open was in the Crystal Palace itself. It would inspire one young girl who lived locally to become an actress. Margaret Lockwood lived at 2 Lunham Road and later at 18a Highland Road. Her two aunts lived at 30 Highland Road where one source says she also lived at a later date.
She recalled going to the cinema in the grounds of the Palace where she was inspired by Betty Bronson – a leading lady of the 1920s who like many other silent screen stars of the time did not succeed in talkies – in the film of Peter Pan (1924) which the young Margaret managed to watch every night for a week.
Allen Eyles and Keith Skone in their book ‘The Cinemas of Croydon’ record that a grand bioscope and gramophone entertainment was being offered as one of the sideshows in the Palace by August 1910 with no admission fee.
On Saturday September 19, 1925 the Norwood Press and Dulwich Advertiser reported: “On Monday week the cinema will be reopened when the West End Scala Theatres success The Epic of Everest will be shown”.
New seating, carpeting and heating apparatus has been installed for the comfort of patrons and popular prices including admission to the Palace will be charged.
The cinema must have closed again because the programme for the 22nd annual band contest held at the Crystal Palace on September 24 1927 announces that: ”The Picture House Crystal Palace will be re-opened on Monday October 3rd with the screen sensation of the age – Metropolis.”
The programme for the same event the following year – held on September 29, 1928 – has the cinema screening Pola Negri in The Secret Hour and Horseman of the Plains starring Tom Mix. The band contest programmes are held in the local studies library at Bromley. There is no programme available for 1929. No advertisement for the cinema appears in the 1930 programme.
The exact location of the cinema in the Palace is a bit of a mystery. An interior guide map of the Palace from April 1906 shows a theatre to the right (North Nave side) of the central transept and a concert room to the left (South Nave side). The transept, which led out into the grounds, was opposite where the ‘great orchestra’ stood.
The 1911 auction catalogue for the Crystal Palace states the Palace’s Variety theatre has an iron lined cinematograph box with shutters.
J Bannister Howard, who was general manager of the theatre until the entire Crystal Palace was taken over by the Navy at the start of the First World War, says a later, large wooden theatre was built near the centre of the Palace. (The theatre never re-opened after the First World War ended).
THE AREA’S THIRD CINEMA – the Rialto – opened on Saturday October 6, 1928 with Ramona starring Dolores Del Rio. Anna May Wong and John Stuart were guests at the opening night where Miss Wong addressed the crowds with a few words of Chinese.
An Australian, A C Matthews, built both the Rialto and the neighbouring Albany cinema. He also built the State cinemas in Sydenham and Thornton Heath. In September 1950 the Rialto was renamed the Granada. (Photographs of the various incarnations of the Rialto can be found elsewhere on this web site).
THE FOURTH – THE ALBANY – opened in January 1930 being built on derelict land in just 15 weeks. The opening attraction was The Glad Rag Doll starring Dolores Costello, and High Society starring Laura La Plante.
On the outbreak of World War Two the cinema was closed and requisitioned as a Government food store. Released in January 1948 it reopened as a cinema that October before being acquired by the Granada group. Closed for reconstruction it reopened its doors on Boxing Day 1950 as the Century.
The Century closed for a ‘rest period’ on May 30 1958. It never reopened. In March 1960 the Norwood News reported the opening of Selhurst Park Garages new showrooms in the former cinema. The building is still there today – an empty shell – adjacent to the former Granada cinema.
The Granada was the last to close, shutting its doors on Saturday May 26, 1968. Its final screening was Reflections in a Golden Eye supported by Assignment to Kill. It was converted into a Granada Bingo Club a month later. Gala Bingo took it over in 1991.
The Crystal Palace Sydenham to be sold by auction. (Knight Frank and Rutley 1911).*
The Cinemas of Croydon by Allen Eyles and Keith Skone (Keystone Publications in association with Croydon public libraries 1989)*
Focus on Film No. 6 Spring 1971 article on The Cinemas of Norwood by Allen Eyles assisted by Kevin Wheelan*
Once a Wicked Lady a biography of Margaret Lockwood by Hilton Tims (Virgin Books London 1989)*
Lucky Star the autobiography of Margaret Lockwood (Odhams Press London 1955)*
The Dictionary of National Biography 1971-1980 (Oxford University Press 1986)*
Halliwell’s Filmgoers Companion 12th edition edited by John Walker (Harper Collins London 1997)*
50 years a Showman by J Bannister Howard (Hutchinson London 1938)
Minet library, Brixton, archives
Thanks to Jerry Savage at Upper Norwood reference library for his help in providing information towards this article.
*All items marked with an asterisk may be found in Upper Norwood’s reference library
Further reading: Transmitter magazine – Film issue October 2009
(This is a revised version of an original article which appeared in The Palace magazine issue of January 2007 and which can still be found on the Crystal Palace magazine website)
Copyright Jerry Green 2014. Reproduced with the author’s permission