Keighley Picture House in 2006 with its birthdate proudly presented to the world
The focus for film scholarship should be global – and local. I’m delighted then to celebrate the 100th birthday of my local cinema. The Picture House in Keighley opened its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday 10th May 1913 and it’s still showing current releases today on its two screens. Unfortunately there were a couple of periods in the 1980s and 1990s when its doors were closed for repairs with the building changing ownership, but it has seen more than 90 years of film projection as well as occasional variety performances and pop concerts.
The Picture House wasn’t the first cinema in Keighley. It wasn’t even the first purpose-built cinema, but it was the first to fully embrace the possibilities of cinemas as distinctive architectural expressions of a new entertainment form and as important social amenities. The period from roughly 1910 to 1914 is recognised as the beginnings of the cinema industry that would come to dominate mass entertainment for the next fifty or sixty years. During this period films developed rapidly in terms of production, distribution and exhibition and it is interesting to place the emergence of the Picture House in this context.
In the 1890s Keighley was a thriving manufacturing town with significant employment in textiles mills and engineering. The population of the town, which is located at the confluence of the Rivers Aire and Worth in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, grew rapidly and reached 43,000 by 1911. It had become a municipal borough in 1882 and it had all the ambitions of a modern urban community. Bradford, some ten miles away, became a city in 1897 and an early centre for entrepreneurship in cinema (See Mellor 1996). Keighley was determined not to be left behind. Films were first shown in Keighley in the autumn of 1896 and filmshows became part of the mix of programmes at the Mechanics Institute – the centre for all kinds of activities in the industrial towns of Northern England and elsewhere in the anglophone world. The first purpose-built cinema in Keighley was the Picture Palace in Russell Street that opened on 27 December 1909. A year later the same entrepreneur, Walter Pallister, opened a second cinema in Cavendish Street, just days after the opening of the Theatre de Luxe in Market Street by John Watson. This latter cinema was financed by the London Animated Film company which had previously shown films at the Mechanics Institute. In March 1911 the Oxford Hall opened on Oakworth Road and in 1912, the Cosy Corner in an alleyway off Low Street. These cinemas were located within a few hundred yards of each other in Keighley’s town centre (with the Oxford Hall slightly further out). They also competed with the town’s Frank Matcham-designed theatre, the Hippodrome – previously the Queen’s Theatre.
With all these local attractions, the new Picture House had to be something special. It was funded by a group of local business people including the Smith family of ‘Dean, Smith and Grace’, one of the town’s major employers. The cinema was built on North Street, one of the two main streets in town. It was conceived as a ‘superior’ amenity with specialist cinema contractors brought in to create an 800 seat cinema with a balcony (a ‘grand circle’) and two cafés, a small one in the foyer which had an Italian mosaic floor and a larger one upstairs with ‘wicker furnishings, potted plants, best cutlery and Foley china’ (Liddle 1996). The cinema had its own four-piece orchestra and a stage for live events. The local newspaper’s coverage of the May 10th opening emphasises the lavish decorative work and the safety features (fire hoses and ‘chemical extinguishers’ – fires were a major problem in early cinemas), the new electric lighting and the electric fans that drew out the smoke from all the pipes and cigarettes smoked by audiences. Local historian Cathy Liddle suggests that Keighley cinema audiences were predominantly working-class until after the First World War but the descriptions of the Picture House appointments suggests an attempt to attract the gentry. The opening programme ran from 2.30 on the Saturday afternoon for two and a quarter hours and from 6.30 for four hours. Tickets were 3d and 6d in the ‘Body of the Hall’ in armchairs and 9d and 1/- in the Grand Circle.
Liddle goes on to suggest that the Picture House did not take customers away from the existing five cinemas, but that eventually it was forced to lower its prices (which elsewhere were more like 2d, 4d and 6d). After the war Keighley got another new cinema, the Regent Picture Palace built almost opposite the Picture House in 1920. It proved to be very popular and the building survives today as a nightclub. In the 1930s the Picture House also hosted live variety performances by the Arcadian Players from Morecambe – and later in the 1960s, pop music concerts. Keighley’s last new cinema, the Ritz, was built in 1938 for the Union circuit but by the time it opened Union had been bought by the ABC chain. The Ritz was the ‘next step’ up from the Picture House with seating for over 1500 and a ‘mighty organ’. It also had the advantage of being able to take the circuit releases from ABC which by the late 1940s had become part of the duopoly of British cinema production, distribution and exhibition with only the Rank Organisation as its major rival. However, the Ritz was tucked away in a back street round the corner from the Picture House and behind the old Keighley Grammar School. I don’t know how well it did compared to others in the chain, but it was closed as a cinema by 1974, switching to bingo (which still operates today). When I researched Keighley’s cinemas operating in the early 1950s, most of them were still open with only the two earliest, the Russell Street and Theatre de Luxe having closed. The Picture House was eventually sold to the Essoldo chain and then became a Classic briefly before closing first in 1983. By this time the upstairs café had become a second small screen and the Picture House was the only survivor of the original eight cinemas. After some extensive repairs paid for out of public funds it re-opened in 1984 as a workers’ co-operative, only to close again in 1991 when it was proving difficult to get new releases and even the addition of a video rental business wasn’t enough to keep the operation afloat. Bradford Metropolitan Council bought the building and sought to find an exhibitor to take it on after further building repairs. At one point it looked like the building might become parts of an arts complex linked to the town’s Central Hall, but in 1997 the cinema finally re-opened as part of the Northern Morris chain run by Charles Morris. The 1913 Picture House joined three 1912 cinemas in Skipton (Plaza), Elland (Rex) and Leeds (Cottage Road) plus the Royalty in Bowness (1926) and the Roxy in Ulverston (1937). Keith reported on the Centenary of the Cottage Road cinema last year and a history of the Rex is available from the cinema.
Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any signs of celebration at the Picture House this week, though the ‘100 Years of Cinema’ banner did figure in the cinema’s advertising for a few weeks. For the record, this week the cinema is showing Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness with matinees/early evening showings of All Stars and The Croods. Cinema 1 has 300 seats and Cinema 2 has 93 seats. The lack of celebration is perhaps explained by the uncertainty surrounding the cinema’s future. Cineworld have been announced as one of the the tenants of a new development in Keighley with plans for an 8-screen cinema. The site has been cleared and the development is scheduled to be built over the next two years. Charles Morris has reportedly said that he will end his lease with Bradford Council as soon as the Cineworld operation becomes a reality – leaving the council with an empty 1913 building. Let’s hope the building, now the oldest working cinema in Bradford can find a suitable new purpose for many years to come. In the meantime. Happy Birthday!
Mellor, Geoff (1996) Movie Makers and Picture Palaces: A Century of Cinema in Yorkshire 1896-1996, Bradford Libraries
Liddle, Cathy (1996) Picture Palace: Cinema and Community, Silsden, West Yorkshire: Sleepy Heron Publishing
Keighley News Archives
[For various reasons I haven’t been able to finish my research on the cinema’s opening programme in 1913, but I’ll try to add further details later.]