From stunning art deco facades to luxurious red velvet seats, cinemas are magical places where the starts come alive on screen. Leicester has a rich and fascinating cinema history, with numerous buildings dotted across the city and many more that have been lost to newer developments over the years. De Montfort University's Cinema and Television History Research Centre has been exploring these forgotten spaces, rediscovering the places where the magic of the pictures played out. From abandoned or bulldozed sites to modern multiplexes, and from dusty photographs to architectural plans, this exhibition explores Leicester's own cinema history.
Leicester is full of historical cinemas, but how many do you walk past each day and never notice?
Square Mile Cinemas
The 1910s witnessed an expansion of cinemas in Leicester. In addition to the Empire cinema in Wharf Street, which began to screen films in the 1890s as a variety theatre, nineteen other cinemas opened across the city during this period. Of these twenty cinemas, eight were situated within the city centre and twelve in the developing suburban areas - all within roughly three miles of the centre of the city.
One of the earliest cinemas to emerge during the period was the Boulevard cinema on Western Boulevard. Built adjacent to the Boulevard Roller Skating Rink (now De Montfort’s event centre The Venue@DMU), The ‘Boulevard Electric and Variety Theatre’ opened in July 1910. Both commercial entities were owned by the Leicester Boulevard and Nottingham Empress Rinks Company.
In contrast to most of the city centre cinemas, which were operated by national London-based or provincial Midlands-based companies, the Boulevard cinema was more of a local affair; its first two directors, in fact, were both from Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire. The venture, however, was (for a reason yet to be fully uncovered) short-lived in comparison to the other city centre cinemas, which continued to operate beyond the silent cinema period into the 1930s. Little is known about the closure of the Boulevard cinema, although an advert was placed in the Leicester Mercury in October 1914 for its sale, and company records confirm that in December 1914 a solicitor was appointed to wind up the Company.
Suburban Cinemas: Oadby Cinema
The 1930s saw a boom in cinema construction and in Leicester large numbers of cinemas opened in the suburbs and surrounding towns. Oadby, located five miles south east of the city, got its own cinema in 1937 creatively titled Oadby Cinema. On opening night it showed Good Morning, Boys, a British comedy set in a boarding school.
The building itself was a lovely example of art deco architecture, with a central tower and stepped façade. Though it looked relatively squat from outside, it housed both stalls and a circle.
The cinema was owned by a businessman who also ran two other cinemas in nearby towns, the Magna Cinema in Wigston and the Lawn Cinema in Birstall. It was a canny investment as it lacked any local competition. The nearest rival cinema was the Knighton Kinema in Stoneygate, two miles away. As a result of this and the town's comparatively large population, the Oadby survived the economic problems that plagued many other suburban cinemas in the 1950s and 1960s.
It finally closed in 1981 with a screening of The Cannonball Run starring Burt Reynolds. The building was purchased by a local undertaker and still stands, but its art deco architecture was destroyed by numerous refurbishments.
ABC - Associated British Cinema
Opening in 1937, a year before its city-centre rival, the Odeon, the 2,400-seater Associated British Cinema in Belgrave Gate was initially called The Savoy.
Boasting a rise-and-fall illuminated Compton organ (later relocated) to delight its patrons at Sunday matinees and between shows, the swish new cinema offered deadly competition for the aging-but-elegant Palace Theatre and Floral Hall a few yards down the road. However, after a few years, they returned to variety programmes and finally nude revues before closure in 1959.
The Savoy’s older sister was The Trocadero, an entertainment complex on Uppingham Road. When ‘The Troc’ was turned over to Bingo and consumed by fire in the 1960s, the Savoy became the ABC and was converted into two screens. By the time the Cannon Organisation took it over in the 1980s, it was a three-screener, but it reverted briefly to ABC ownership just before its closure early in 1997.
After remaining forlorn and empty for a decade, it was finally demolished in 2007 – a sad way to mark its 70th anniversary.
When the ABC closed, a distraught Wayne Spencer of Anstey Heights described it to the Leicester Mercury as his ‘favourite building in the world’. His mother had worked in the cinema’s confectionary kiosk for the previous 26 years and had been taken there on her first date with Wayne’s father. Wayne had practically grown up at the cinema and confessed.
‘Almost every memory I’ve got is somehow connected to the place'
Odeon Queen Street
The 1938 Odeon Cinema on the corner of Queen Street and Rutland Street was probably the finest picture house built in Leicester, and remains one of the city’s most iconic buildings.
Having narrowly missed being destroyed by the Luftwaffe during WWII, it has happily survived, unlike so many of Leicester’s other cinemas.
As the Athena, a venue for all kinds of functions and events, it now stands in the shadow of the towering Curve theatre, but it retains the Art Deco glamour of its days as a true picture palace.
The building was designed by Norman Bullivant of the Birmingham-based Harry W. Weedon architectural practice, the firm favoured by the Odeon chain’s owner Oscar Deutsch (Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation). For most of its life, it was part of the prestigious film distribution circuit of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation, and originally seated almost 2,200 people in its giant two-tier auditorium. Like other Odeons across the country, this one staged occasional music concerts as well as regular film programmes. Before being replaced by the Odeon Freeman’s Park in 1997, it was converted into a multi-screen venue.
Multiplexes - Vue Meridian Park
Formerly known as the Warner Brothers Cinema, this nine-screen complex was the first multiplex in Leicester. It was opened on 12th July 1995 with the UK premiere of Batman Forever, attended by the film’s star Val Kilmer and director Joel Schumacher. In 2006 it was rebranded as a Vue cinema.
The architect was US-based Ira B. Stiegler, who had designed shopping malls in the USA as well as a series of multiplexes before working exclusively for Warner Bros Cinemas.
The building is made of steel frame construction and brick cladding, with a symmetrical frontage incorporating a central ‘marquee and tower’, which echoes the Art Deco cinemas of the 1930s. Warner Bros characterised this as ‘entertainment architecture’, with the bright decor and overhead lighting gantry in the ‘Hollywood Studio Set’ foyer, the other key innovation.
The nine screens incorporated the new stadium seating layout, arranged as to incorporate one projection room. Leicester’s design was adopted as the blueprint for subsequent Warner Bros multiplexes across the UK. Leicester’s design was adopted as the blueprint for subsequent Warner Bros multiplexes across the UK.
In 2016 the cinema had a facelift with new cladding to the central tower and on the front elevation, and new signage. In addition, Screen 1 was closed and converted into two restaurants.
Independent and Arthouse Cinemas - The Phoenix (Old and New)
The Phoenix Theatre on Newark Street opened in 1963 and screened occasional films in partnership with the Leicester Film Society from 1973. It became an arts centre in 1980 and part of the British Film Institute’s Regional Film Theatre movement, with a regular programme of international cinema and events.
In 1988 it was refurbished to its current form and ran as a partnership between Leicester Polytechnic and Leicester City Council until 2009. The site is now operated by Leicester College as the Sue Townsend Theatre.
In 2009 Phoenix is established in its new location as a thriving centre for independent cinema, art and digital culture.
Opening in November 2009, Phoenix Square is one of a number of flagship buildings created to develop Leicester’s Cultural Quarter.
The area was once the bustling industrial district of St George's, home to numerous hosiery and footwear manufacturers. Phoenix Square is Leicester’s independent cinema, art centre and café bar. The eight-story building also houses 37 offices and creative workspaces, as well as 63 private apartments. Phoenix is established in its new location as a thriving centre for independent cinema, art and digital culture.
Bollywood Indian Cinemas - Natraj
South Asian Communities have always found ways to express their own culture regardless of where they are located, which has helped to maintain a bond with their countries of origin.
Following the large migration of South Asians to Leicester between 1968 and 1978 and the establishment of Gujarati gold merchants and jewellers, which led to a portion of the city being nicknamed the Golden Mile, the number of cinemas screening Bollywood films mushroomed.
One such cinema, strategically placed within the heart of the Golden Mile on Belgrave road, the Natraj was owned by the Amrat brothers. They invested half a million pounds in 1974 and opened the largest South Asian owned Indian cinema in the country.
According to the memories of audience members, it offered 4:30pm 'ladies only' screenings; in this way, the Natraj can also be seen as a symbol of the developing independence and empowerment of South Asian women in Leicester at this time.
Exhibition curated by Elizabeth Wheelband (DMU Heritage Centre Curator) in partnership with the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre and the Steve Chibnall Collection.
Special thanks to the following CATH academics for preparing exhibition text:
- Professor Steve Chibnall
- Dr. Matthew Jones
- Dr. Pierluigi Ercole
- Dr. Clare Watson
- Dr. Stuart Hanson
- Laraine Porter
- Monia Acciari
Thank you to the following for their time and support:
- Kathryn Collinson, DMU Frontrunner
- Steven Peachey, DMU Museum Assistant
- The Leicester Mercury Archive
- University of Leicester Special Collections
- Robert Harris, graphic interpretation
- Jim Birch (J. Birchwood), Museum Fitter
Printed by the DMU Print Centre