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Buildings

Revealing what’s hidden behind that glass facade

Photograph: DJP/2021

It seems that nobody liked the former Odeon in Barker’s Pool. The red steel and glass facade never caught the imagination of Sheffielders. If we hated the exterior, we won’t like what was behind – plain boring brickwork – revealed in latest Heart of the City II works.

Photograph: DJP/2021

The whole exterior will be refaced to become the Gaumont Building, supposedly taking inspiration from the previous building’s origins as the Regent Theatre, later the Gaumont Cinema. The new design is by Sheffield-based HLM Architects.

Built by the Rank Organisation in 1986-1987 as a replacement, bosses realised it wasn’t cost effective to run two Odeons in the city centre, and one had to go, closing in 1994, and later becoming a nightclub.

The final use for the building has yet to be confirmed.

Photograph: DJP/2021

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

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People

J. Stuart Blackton: From Broomspring Lane to Hollywood

The land on which the Vitagraph Studios were situated can trace its motion picture history back to around 1906, when it served as a studio and backlot. In 2017 the site became an eight-story, 300-unit apartment building. Photograph: Google.

This story starts with an apartment complex in Brooklyn, bounded by East 14th Street, Locust Avenue, Chestnut Avenue, and the Brighton Line of the New York City Subway. The smart new development is called The Vitagraph, built on the site of Vitagraph Studios (1906), the first modern motion picture production company in the U.S.. Apart from the name, the only thing that survives is an adjacent smokestack on which you can still make out the VITAGRAPH name.

In 1896, James Stuart Blackton, a journalist and illustrator for the New York Evening World interviewed Thomas Edison about his new Vitascope, and the man was impressed enough with Blackton’s drawings to make a cartoon film with him: Blackton the Evening World Cartoonist. This was twenty-eight years before Walt Disney formally introduced us to Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Blackton bought a Kinetoscope from Edison and went into partnership with Albert E. Smith, and later William T. Rock, to form the Vitagraph Company.

The studio produced films in which they acted themselves. Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898), proved popular in recreating an incident from the Spanish-American war and Vitagraph went on to explore all types of filmmaking, including actualities of local events, comedy series (such as The Happy Hooligan) and adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens.

At the Vitagraph Studios, Blackton pioneered stop frame animation and shot one of his most successful films, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face (1906). He was also innovative in editing techniques and camera work and streamlined processes of the studio to supervise several productions at once.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is a 1906 short silent animated cartoon directed by James Stuart Blackton and generally regarded by film historians as the first animated film recorded on standard picture film.

This was long before Hollywood established itself as the centre of the movie industry and at its peak, Vitagraph was producing up to eight films a week on the Brooklyn lot, and all because of one enterprising Sheffield lad.

James Stuart Blacktin was born in Sheffield in 1875, the son of Henry Blacktin, a saw-maker, and Jessie Stuart, but weeks after his birth his mother filed  for divorce.

“She had been beaten regularly by a drunken Henry Blacktin prior and during her pregnancy, he raped her when she refused sex, denied her food at home if she didn’t put in slave hours at the saw-making shop, was told she would have to become a prostitute if that was the only way he could get back money to pay a loan to her father, threatened her with death if she informed her family of the state of her marriage, and cut her off from all her friends.”

Mother and son moved into her family home at 121 Broomspring Lane, and James attended nearby Eton House Collegiate School. In 1886, when he was aged 11, they travelled from Liverpool to New York aboard the SS Celtic to start afresh. He changed his surname to Blackton and ten years after arriving met up with Thomas Edison.

Broomspring Lane, Sheffield. James Stuart Blacktin lived here with his mother’s family before emigrating to New York and setting up Vitagraph Studios. Photograph: Google.
James Stuart Blackton (1875-1941), the British-born U.S. film director and producer who introduced animation and other important film techniques that helped shape and stimulate the development of cinematic art.

Blackton left Vitagraph in 1917 selling his stock for $1.5million and became an independent producer making four big productions a year that were released through Paramount.

In 1920, Blackton visited Sheffield for the first time in 34 years and presented a private showing of his latest picture Passers-By at the Electra Palace in Fitzalan Square (later to become the Classic).

Accompanied by his beautiful young wife he had been looking around the country with an eye to producing pictures here.

“I think there is a splendid opening, and I expect to be over again by the New Year ready to start work.” he said. “I shall never produce a photo-play that I would not like my wife and children to see. I want all screen plays to reflect the beauty of the home, of motherhood, and of life, and to appeal to clean-minded people.”

In 1921 he came to England, where he directed three lavish costume dramas in ‘Prizmacolor’. The Glorious Adventure (1922) and The Virgin Queen (1923) both starred the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper (billed as Diana Manners); Gypsy Cavalier (1922) starred the world light heavyweight boxing champion, George Carpentier. 

Blackton returned to the US in 1923 and directed several more films, including Beloved Brute (1924) starring Victor McLaglen, who he had used in The Glorious Adventure.

In 1927, Hudson Maxim, the U.S. inventor and chemist, visited his ‘young’ friend James Stuart Blackton, who had invented a stereoscopic film, to examine the latest development in motion-picture technique. He was seen comparing a film of the new ‘natural vision’ negative with an ordinary roll of film. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

His world came crashing down after losing his fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He then made a living from showings of his old films and giving lectures about silent movies.

He ended his days working for the Anglo American Film Company and died in 1941 when he suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a car while crossing the street with his son. He was buried at Glendale, Los Angeles County.

Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers in 1925 and the name was briefly resurrected from 1960 to 1969 at the end of Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, with the end titles reading “A Warner Bros. Cartoon/A Vitagraph Release”
The Vitagraph Studios were bought by NBC in 1951 and later used to film The Cosby Show, and soap operas Another World and As the World Turns. The famous old studios were demolished in 2015.
The surviving smokestack was part of Vitagraph Studios, which made silent films in Brooklyn, New York, more than a century ago. Actress Norma Talmadge got her start in the movies at Vitagraph’s Midwood facilities. America’s first film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays were shot there.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Buildings

Manor Cinema: The rise and fall of a 1920s masterpiece

Perhaps the biggest Poundland sign in the country. This branch occupies a small space at the front of the former Manor Cinema. Picture: Google.

A few weeks ago, I was looking at some old documents and discovered that if this shabby building at Manor Top survives another six years, it will have reached its centenary. This is one of Sheffield’s last remaining suburban cinemas but hasn’t shown a film for 52 years. People in this part of the city will be more familiar with it as a supermarket (Challenge, Frank Dee, Gateway, Somerfield, Tesco) and now Poundland. In fact, it’s spent more time as a shop than it did as a cinema. Sadly, its condition is worsening, and one suspects that demolition will be the eventual outcome.

However, the former Manor Cinema has an interesting link with an important building in Leeds. It opened in December 1927 to the designs of Pascal J. Stienlet and Joseph C. Maxwell, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, the same architects who conceived the Majestic Cinema in Leeds city centre, which has recently been restored as the new headquarters for Channel 4.

The Majestic opened in 1922 and remains a distinguished building. The Manor Cinema opened five years later, cost much less to build, and was praised for its smart appearance at one of the highest points in the city.

It was the idea of Thomas Francis McDonald, one of cinema’s pioneers, who had been in business in the United States, and realising the future of the film industry, rushed back to Britain and built his first cinema at Wallsend-on-Tyne in 1904. Afterwards, he was owner or lessee of houses at Gateshead, Blaydon, Mexborough, Worksop, Edinburgh, Shirebrook, Ripley, Heanor, and Coalville. Until the intervention of World War One, he was in the film-renting business, under the title of Photoplays Ltd, based in Sheffield and South Shields, buying films from America, and renting them to cinemas.

In 1927, following expansion of housing estates in the Manor area, McDonald went into business with Michael Joseph Gleeson (the builder) and George W. Dawes (plumbing contractor) to form Manor Picture House Ltd. It acquired a site on sloping land at Manor Top to build a ‘super-cinema’, the largest in South Yorkshire, accommodating 1,700 people.

A sketch of the Manor Cinema that appeared in newspapers when it opened in December 1927. Picture: British Newspaper Archive.

M.J. Gleeson were responsible for main construction, including excavation reinforced concrete, brickwork, carpentering, joinery, and roofing.  

The façade of the cinema was faced with rustic brick and coloured cement rendered dressings with the ‘MANOR CINEMA’ name in the brick work above the entrance doors. Its exterior was lit by floodlights mounted on concrete pylons.

The entrance to the cinema was through an 18 foot wide vestibule into a spacious foyer housing the pay box. Because of the hillside, the circle, often referred to as the first balcony, was on the same level as the entrance. Stairways led down to the stalls and up a second balcony. The auditorium was decorated with fibrous plaster pilasters, coffered ceiling and beams with a proscenium opening of 23 feet. The decoration was by Frank Flint of London Road with a scheme of pastel shades, not too strongly contrasted, together with an original stipple effect on the wall panels.

The screen was hung in front of a curtain that covered the whole of the back of the stage. The projection room, with two Kalee projectors, was outside the building, at the back of the second balcony. In the basement, under the main entrance, was a 10-table billiard room, and three private rooms, the table supplied by Fitzpatrick & Longley, one of the country’s oldest and reputable manufacturers.

An aerial view of Manor Top taken between the wars. The Manor Cinema is at the bottom of the photograph. Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

The Manor Cinema turned out to be one of Sheffield’s finest cinemas and was later joined by the Paragon at Shiregreen and the Ritz at Southey Green. Sound was introduced in the 1930s, and a canopy was erected on the outside, running the entire length of the façade.  Thomas McDonald died at Montgomery House, Sharrow Lane, in 1946, the business carried on by his two sons.

A canopy was added to the outside of the Manor Cinema in 1936. This image of the cinema was taken in 1963. Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

In 1950, a more modern style proscenium was fitted and in 1955 a new projection suite was fitted at the back of the stalls.

The Manor Cinema was sold to the Leeds based Star Cinema Circuit in 1958 who closed it to carry out further improvements including the installation of a new sound system. The reopening was celebrated in style with a grand fireworks display, when 120 rockets were set off, one for each of the cinemas on the Star Circuit.

It closed as a cinema in 1963, reopening three days later as the Manor Casino – Star Bingo Club. However, films returned on a part time basis along with some bingo sessions, but finally closed in 1969 after being sold to Challenge, a Sheffield-based supermarket group.

The Manor Cinema closed for good in 1969 and was sold to Sheffield-based supermarket group, Challenge, which removed the outside canopy and built a new ground-level floor above the former stalls. Photograph: Picture Sheffield.
It is hard to believe that the Majestic Cinema in Leeds was built a few years before the Manor Cinema. Both buildings were designed by Stienlet & Maxwell of Newcastle-on-Tyne. The Majestic is now Channel 4’s new HQ while the Manor Cinema is a pale shadow of its former self.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Buildings

Old name, new look: the Gaumont Building

How we’ve loved to hate. The Odeon Building built in 1986-1987.

Back in the 1980s it was an important part of Sheffield’s regeneration, but after completion was universally hated. The steel and concrete building in Barker’s Pool opened as the Odeon, replacing the Gaumont Cinema, built in 1927 (as The Regent) for the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres circuit, and demolished in 1985.

A tear or two was shed, but its severe appearance could never keep up with the go-getting eighties.

We enjoyed its bright new replacement, but it didn’t last long, closed in 1994 in favour of Odeon’s multi-screen complex on Arundel Gate. And then came its reincarnation as a nightclub.

The Regent Theatre was built in 1927 for Provincial Cinematograph Theatres and was the first major cinema designed by architect William Edward Trent. Taken over by Gaumont British Theatres in 1929 it retained the Regent name until 1946. (Picture Sheffield)

If memory serves correct, it was vilified by Prince Charles, but fiercest criticism came from Sheffielders. It was considered downright ugly.

Over thirty years later, disapproval never waned, and the once-futuristic appearance looks as much out of place as it did then.

But that might be about to change.

A planning application proposing a significant facelift to the Gaumont building (as it has wistfully been renamed), has been submitted to Sheffield City Council.

The improvement works fall within the wider Heart of the City II development scheme – led by the Council and their Strategic Development Partner, Queensberry. Plans would see the building’s current red steel frame completely removed and replaced with a contemporary design.

The new façade proposals for the building, designed by Sheffield-based HLM Architects, who are also working on the Radisson Blu hotel, take inspiration from the building’s origins as the Regent Theatre (although I see no resemblance whatsoever).

Gone is the glass and steel. An artist’s impression of the new design of the Gaumont Building. (Sheffield City Council)

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.