Heritage: Frequent change in Wimbledon's century of cinemas
Wimbledon is lucky to have two multi-screen cinemas today, the Odeon and the HMV Curzon. Unlike many other towns which now have no cinemas at all, local residents have been able to enjoy the silver screen virtually uninterrupted for more than a century.
But there have been many changes since the first cinema – the Kings Palace Theatre - opened in the Broadway on 18 October 1910 next to Wimbledon Theatre. One memorable event occurred exactly 48 years ago this week on 12 September 1964 when Alderman A E Ayres, Wimbledon’s last Mayor before the creation of Merton Borough, gathered alongside a group of film stars at the formal re-opening of the nearby Elite Picture Palace under its new name, the ABC Wimbledon.
Located in the Broadway near today’s YMCA building, the Elite had opened originally on 7 February 1920 with 1005 seats and a small organ to accompany silent films. Its name was inscribed in stone at the top of the building. After various improvements, it was bought by the giant ABC cinema chain in October 1935 and nearly 30 years later underwent major structural alterations between March 1964 and the re-opening ceremony. Seating was now provided for 1030.
On that day, Alderman Ayres was accompanied by trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall and stars who put in appearances included Charles Hawtrey, Ronald Fraser, Jess Conrad, Melvyn Hayes, Richard O’Sullivan, Stefanie Powers, Julia Foster (mother of today’s TV personality Ben Fogle) and Wimbledon’s own Oliver Reed (see Heritage story 17 February 2012). Cliff Richard and The Shadows starred in the opening film, Wonderful Life.
But despite the fanfare, the ABC Wimbledon lasted less than 20 years. On 26 February 1983, after showing Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, the curtain closed for the last time. The building was boarded up and demolished two years later.
A similar fate befell all of Wimbledon’s other earlier cinemas. The Kings Palace Theatre was expanded in 1914, closed briefly during World War 2 and then reopened from 1942 until 1955 when it was converted into a roller skating rink, later demolished. The site is now Wimbledon Theatre’s car park.
Others had opened in the era of silent films. They included the Apollo, the Princes (next to the Labour Hall), and Wimbledon Picture Playhouse in Hartfield Road (lasting only from 1911-1914). The Queens Picture Theatre in Worple Road opened in 1914 and between 1925 and 1932 was renamed successively the New Queens Cinema, the Phoenix and the Savoy Cinema. It was demolished in 1935 to make way for a newly built Odeon Theatre with 1501 seats which opened in 1936. This lasted until November 1960 when it closed after showing Donald Sinden in The Seige of Sydney Street. The Lidl supermarket now occupies that site.
At the other end of Worple Road, the Raynes Park Cinema opened in 1921 and was renamed the Rialto 12 years later. Film-goers were offered “dainty teas” served at their seats during performances. Although expanded in 1955 with a new Cinemascope screen, it closed in 1978 and was demolished. Today’s 12-screen Odeon in the Piazza opened in December 2002, replacing the earlier Odeon which had stood directly opposite the ABC down the Broadway since November 1933. Older Wimbledon residents remember that as first the Regal and then the Gaumont from 1949. It became the Odeon on 9 September 1962 following the Worple Road Odeon’s closure two years before. Designed in Art Deco style, it seated 2000 people, had a café, and boasted 12 dressing rooms from the days when live variety acts complemented the films programme.
Between 1972 and its closure 30 years later, the Odeon saw various expansions to meet changing audience demands. It was finally demolished in summer 2003 to be replaced by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development building.
When the three-screen HMV Curzon opened on 23 October 2009, showing art films as well as blockbusters, it marked another major step forward for Wimbledon cinema-goers who now enjoy live opera from New York by satellite and other special events unimaginable on Alderman Ayres’ big day in 1964.
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