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Stretching from Sparkbrook through Sparkhill and to the edges of Hall Green, the Stratford Road was a centre of film-going during the middle of the 20th century, with numerous cinemas serving the densely-housed and changing population. From World War Two bombings to the transition towards – and eventual domination of – Asian-language film, these cinemas have witnessed tumultuous change. Most no longer exist, their buildings either destroyed or appropriated for other use.
Sampad’s Project Manager for My Route, Urmala Jassal, comments
“The story of the Stratford Road’s cinemas sums up so much of Birmingham’s recent past: World War Two bombing and a changing population necessitated change, not just of the films shown, but eventually in the uses found for buildings. Many of the cinemas are gone now, but a hint of their lost glamour can still be found. At the cinema, for just a few pence (or for nothing if you managed to sneak in), someone could lose themselves in a glamorous world, a world of Rock around the Clock and cowboys and Indians, of Sophia Loren and Bollywood. It was a place of romance and of riots, of excitement and escape from the dullness of unemployment and the post-war grind.”
Here we summarise some of the best stories of the Stratford Road’s lost cinema past.
The Waldorf Picture Theatre opened on 29th November 1913, its name taken from the street, which houses it (Walford Road). In 1930 it became the 1000th cinema to become a ‘talkie’ – having the apparatus to reproduce sound – leading Birmingham’s audiences into a new world of cinema-going.
Don Owen used to frequent the cinema as a boy, as he recalls in his Reminiscences of a Childhood in Wartime Brum:
“Immediately across the road [from our house] was the Waldorf Cinema…where Elsie worked as an usherette. In those distant days cinema programmes ran continuously… If it was a particularly good programme or the weather was particularly bad, or the patron was a penurious unemployed workman, it was common to watch the programme again or even to remain in the relative warmth and comfort of the cinema all day long… Small boys and other miscreants used to try to sneak in through the exits as paying patrons opened the door on their way out… The consequence of getting caught in those politically incorrect days were not a great deterrent, consisting as they did of a severe bawling out and generally a ‘box on the ear’”
These days were not to last however. Bomb damage during World War Two forced the cinema into closure, re-opening on Easter Monday in 1950 complete with a new ‘Modern’ façade and a new name, the Waldorf Cinema.
The Waldorf continued to show the latest Anglo-American releases, with action-packed titles with the likes of Steve Reeves. Then in the early 1970s it was taken over by Kewal Maini, a Punjabi businessman with a string of cinemas under his belt.
Under the day-to-day management of Avtar Singh Randhawa, the Waldorf began to screen the latest East Indian releases – films that would later become known as Bollywood. The Waldorf became one of the major places of entertainment for the waves of new migrants from India and Pakistan, with many families visiting once a week to enjoy blockbusters starring the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna.
However a rise in video piracy and, perhaps, greater comforts at home led to a drop in cinemagoers and the Waldorf closed in 1983. The building was renovated into the Shree Ram Mandir, Birmingham’s second Hindu temple (the first being in Handsworth), which remains open to this day.
The Carlton Picture Theatre opened its doors in May 1928, its entrance dominated by a half-domed ceiling. It was the first cinema in the country to have a lift to carry patrons from the foyer to the circle above.
Twelve years later, on 25th October 1940, tragedy came to the Carlton when, during a screening of the Dorothy Lamour thriller Typhoon, a German bomb fell into the orchestra pit killing 19 people. This piece from the Birmingham Mail, printed in 2010, summarises the tremendous shock of that evening:
“One of the dead was a young Irishman, Ted Byrne, whose family had come to Birmingham just before the war. His dad had been in the British Army, and later his brothers fought against the Nazis. Ted and his pals, Richard Hannon and Nipper Bourke, had gone to the Carlton to see Typhoon. The night of his killing remains imprinted on the mind of his little sister, Maggie Hughes:
“And me Daddy was in the Home Guard then and they came up for him to go down and help take the bodies out. While me Daddy was down at the Carlton, a copper come to the door and he says, ‘Mrs Byrne?’ So she says, ‘Yeh’.
He says, ‘Well, would you go to Selly Oak Hospital as Edward has been brought there’… So when me Daddy came back with me brother-in-law John Devine, me Mammy says, ‘You better go to Selly Oak. Ted. Ted’s in there.’
So he went in to Selly Oak. The nurse brought him to the ward, and he went in and he just, he seen Ted there and he says, ‘Y’alright Ted?’ He opened up his eyes and he says, ‘Yes Dad’, and then he died. He was only 15.”
Source: Undaunted, Brum stands up to raids, Birmingham Mail, 6/11/10
The Carlton was repaired and reopened in 1943, again with a new name (the Carlton Cinema), and continued until 1966. It spent several years as a bingo club before being briefly reopened as an Asian cinema showing Bollywood films, and then a nightclub. The building was demolished in 1985.
But this was not the end for the Carlton: in 2007 the community came together to create a lasting memorial to the 19 victims of the wartime bomb, opening a garden with a bowl-shaped grass area representing the auditorium, a straight brick path for the screen and 19 slabs of slate in memory of each individual who lost their life in the Birmingham Blitz. A stone carving featured an Irish knotwork pattern woven around the word ‘peace’ written in Arabic, representing the changing communities living in the area.
One of the area’s less salubrious picture houses, the Ladypool Picture House opened in August 1913, later becoming the New Olympia Picture House. Affectionately known as ‘the flea pit’, the Olympia showed three films a week – unusual for the time where one film a week was the norm. Birminghamhistory.co.uk carries this evocative reminiscence:
“Our Saturday morning matinee at the pictures was at the Olympia on Ladypool Road and what a madhouse it was, too, full of shouting, noisy kids. A lot of the seats had been torn open so that sponge rubber could be ripped out and thrown around… Buck Jones always seem to be the hero who came galloping over the hill to the rescue just when the Indybugs (as we called them) looked like winning. Sometimes it was the cavalry who sorted it out….and we all stood up and cheered as the goodies won yet again.”
The Olympia’s days were shortlived however. Despite modernisation in the 1950s, it closed in 1958, first becoming a warehouse, then a TV and hi-fi shop and from 1977 became home to the Halal supermarket Raja Brothers.
Like so many of the Stratford Road’s cinemas, the Piccadilly has had a tumultuous existence. Opened as the Piccadilly Super Cinemas in May 1930, it was designed by the architect Harold Seymour Scott, who also worked on a number of other cinemas around Birmingham and the Midlands. One of the star attractions was an organ that rose up from the floor, used not only for half-time entertainment but also for the Saturday morning sing-a-longs in the 1950s.
The Piccadilly suffered damage in the same WWII bombing raid that destroyed the Waldorf. In 1961 it became the ABC Sparkbrook but sadly it did not last: its famous Compton organ was shipped to Melbourne, Australia, where it can still be seen in the Malvern Town Hall and the cinema closed in 1974, becoming a bingo club before briefly re-opening as an Asian cinema, then changing back to a bingo club.
In 1995 the Piccadilly re-opened with three screens showing Bollywood films. The Independent reported at the time that:
“A spokesman for the Piccadilly says it wants to show Indian and mainstream films but is unable to put on new mainstream releases because of restrictive distribution deals for the big American and European films – a view endorsed by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission last year.”
Source: The Independent, 19 March 1995
The cinema continued for a few more years, choosing in 1998 to introduce English-speaking films to its repertoire due to “changing tastes in the Asian community” (Birmingham Mail, 16 March 1998). It is now home to the Piccadilly Banqueting Suite, a ‘multi-use venue’ catering for weddings and other celebrations.
Springfield Cinema may perhaps be remembered by many for reasons which have nothing to do with motion pictures. Opening in 1914, the cinema was badly damaged during the war, remaining closed until the early 1950s. During this time, the seats were removed and the vast internal space used to store stacks of sugar – then of course subject to rationing. Maurice Sheppard, whose childhood home backed onto the cinema, recalled in 2006 that:
“From time to time some of the local teenagers and/or their parents would force the padlock on the rear doors and everyone in the neighbourhood had a short opportunity to stock up with a bit of “off the ration” sugar until the authorities replaced the padlocks!”
After the war when sugar was eventually de-rationed, the building was emptied, though seating not initially replaced. Again the padlocks were periodically forced and us kids would use the gently sloping floor as an unofficial roller skating rink! Sadly there were vandals even in those days and the screen, which had been left in place, was slashed with knives.”
Above the cinema was the Springfield Ballroom, a centre of youth entertainment for much of the 1940s and 1950s:
“Jive was the big thing in those days – Elvis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane – and I can remember this darkened room where we used to wear black framed sunglasses – cool dudes we thought we were!”
“In the 1940s and early 50’s ‘jitterbugging and jiving’ were frowned upon by the establishment. Certainly at the Springfield Ballroom. If you tried to do these dances, you were politely told to leave the dance floor.”
“And so to the Springfield Ballroom… There was a cinema at the front and the dance hall was at the back up a flight of stairs. If it was your first visit the door man would send for the organiser, Mr Arthur Rowberry (always wore tails with a red rose or carnation in his lapel). He would warn you that any sign of misbehaviour and ‘out you go!”
Source: Birmingham Mail, 3 January 2009
The Springfield shut its doors on 31 May 1958, with Harry Secombe in Davy and Rory Calhoun in The Hired Gun as its last films. Later uses for the building include a carpet shop and furniture outlet.
Rialto Cinema, Hall Green
You won’t find the Rialto Cinema anymore, its luxurious design now demolished and replaced by a Somerfield. Opened in 1927, its side-walls were decorated with spears and shields, with torches on poles and murals of Roman charioteers. The Birmingham Mail eloquently summarises the glamour of the Rialto:
“Situated in the city centre, the suburbs and developing arterial routes, these Art Deco picture palaces with their luxurious interiors and romantic names – Alhambra, Essoldo, Granada, Odeon, Rialto and Ritz – competed with Brum’s redbrick reality”.
These were buildings to electrify experience, not just places of entertainment. When Jean James was growing up in the 1950s, the Rialto Cinema at Hall Green, with its carpets and chandeliers, seemed a place of extraordinary glamour in contrast to the utility furniture and linoleum-clad floors at home. She recalls:
“On the main Stratford Road there was a picture house and I used to go there twice a week. I’d never seen anything other than the glass bowl around a lamp and you walked into the cinema and there it was, all those chandeliers and pictures of faraway places. It was like going into another world.”
Source: Birmingham Mail, 31 July 2000
But it wasn’t all high glamour. When Bill Haley’s 1956 film Rock Around The Clock came to the Rialto, nobody had ever seen anything like it:
“The Rialto just was not prepared for what was to come. These were the days when you still had an organist playing between films. On that infamous night my girlfriend Jan and I were in the rear stalls. As Bill bashed out the first chords of Rock Around The Clock mayhem erupted. The entire front stalls took to the floor dancing in time to dear old Bill and his kiss curl… Although we were in the rear stalls and could not see what was going on above us in the Circle I understand similar goings on were taking place…Before order was restored many seats were ripped out and I understand that so much damage was caused in the Circle it was never to reopen. The police were called and eventually calmed the situation.”
The Rialto closed in May 1959 with Sophia Loren in Black Orchid and Charles Bronson in – appropriately enough – When Hell Broke Loose.
With an impressive terracotta dome over its entrance, oak timber beams on the ceiling, the Robin Hood Theatre opened on Boxing Day 1927 with Ramon Navarro in Ben Hur. Painted panels in the interior depicted Robin Hood and his Merry Men whilst settees were upholstered in red velvet. This reminiscence, sadly without a date attached, recalls that:
“The Robin Hood Cinema in Hall Green was a meeting place for teenagers on a Sunday, the films were immaterial, we strutted around in our drainpipe trousers and drape jackets trying to attract the girls.”
Taken over by ABC Cinemas in 1929, it became a stalwart of the area, surviving until 1970s on the site now occupied by Waitrose.
We would love to hear from anyone who has memories of life on and around the Stratford Road from 1940 to the present day. Contact us on T: 0121 446 3260 or E: firstname.lastname@example.org