Discovering Preston’s former cinema sites (part one)

Like many, I have long been fascinated by films, the cinema, and my family’s stories of cinema-going. I remember the distinctive sound of the Pearl and Dean introduction at the Odeon on Church Street when my mum took me to see Disney’s re-release of Dumbo. I must’ve been about three years old. It seemed so big and so exciting, I loved being transported into a different world for a couple of hours. I remember the haze of smoke hovering above the smoking section and the interval when you could buy a small tub of ice cream from an usherette at the bottom of the many, many stairs. My mum, an avid film buff, worked at the Ritz cinema on Church Street in the 1960s and I followed in her footsteps, working at the many cinemas dotted around Piccadilly and Haymarket in the ’90s, later working at the Odeon in Preston. 

A few years ago I picked up an intriguing A4-sized booklet at the Harris Museum‘s shop. Preston’s Palaces of Pleasure tells the story of Preston’s many cinemas, from rented halls to music hall shows to the purpose-built cinema. It is packed full of information, beginning over 100 years ago in London in February 1896 when the Lumiere brothers brought their Cinematograph show from Paris to the Marlborough Hall in London and played moving pictures to a paying audience. Local historian and author of the book, John Cotterall, then begins the story of cinema in Preston.

So, with John’s book in hand, I went to search for the many former cinema sites he mentions, dotted around Preston. At the height of the cinema boom, Preston had 22 cinemas. Some of the following sites you may be familiar with. Please feel free to share your memories in the comments below, it would be wonderful to read about more happy times spent in one of Preston’s many cinemas.

The former site of the Princes, on the corner of Crooked Lane and Tithebarn Street.

I started my journey at the Princes. A former theatre, it was located at the corner of Crooked Lane and Tithebarn Street was originally the Gaiety, built in 1882. Films were shown at the Princes as early as July 1913 and for many years it was leased and managed by Preston’s film pioneer Will Onda. Hugh Rain was the son of a Preston tradesman and one of four brothers, all acrobats by profession, and he later became Will Onda, filmmaker and director of the largest film rental business in the North of England, distributing films to cinemas and music halls from his office and studio at Kinema House, on Corporation Street. The building is still visible now, opposite UCLAN. From August 1914, Onda was showing the paying public at the Princes ‘real war pictures from the front’.

The former site of The Empire, Church Street (now Empire House)

The Empire Theatre was built in the ornate Renaissance style of Louise XIV and there was a view of the stage from every part of the house. It was one of the last theatres to convert full-time to showing films. Although there was an isolated week of films being shown in 1911, it wasn’t until August 1930 that the theatre switched to showing ‘talkie films’. It’s hard trying to imagine the beautiful, grand frontage of the luxurious Empire Theatre on Church Street now.

The approximate former site of the Marathon on Frank Street. Pic Lisa Brown

The former theatres were all located in the city centre. During Preston’s cinema boom a number of smaller cinemas sprang up in the suburbs. The Marathon opened in Frank Street in 1913.

Craggs Row Windmill located next to the former site of Fleckie Bennetts Electric Theatre. Pic Lisa Brown

My mum has memories of being hurried along to Fleckie Bennett’s every Saturday morning by her elder brother, around 1949/1950. She was only five at the time and he didn’t want to miss the picture show. There was a huge step into the little cinema and they sat on wooden benches waiting for the film to start. It was run by Ike Bennett who gave the children a free sweet as they left the cinema and free tickets to local shopkeepers who displayed his posters.

The former site of the Imperial, Mill Bank.

The Imperial was situated on Mill Bank and could be accessed via an archway opposite Stanley Street. It was housed in a former malt house and close to a pub called The Harp.

The site of The Victory (later the Rialto), St Paul’s Road. Pic Lisa Brown

Like many of Preston’s former cinemas, the building that housed The Victory – known as the ‘Little Vic’ – no longer exists. This distinctive looking building was a former chapel and after its cinema days, it became a centre for the deaf and hard of hearing. The first public film showing took place in 1920.

The former site of the Star Cinema at the corner of Fylde Street and Corporation Street. Pic Lisa Brown

Hopefully I have got this location correct, as the traffic system and many of the buildings around the university have changed it was difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the Star cinema. The cinema was built in an American circular style with a capacity of 1,000. Opening in the 1920s it was the first cinema to show a ‘talkie’.

Approximate site of The Guild, Geoffrey Street. Pic Lisa Brown.

Again another tricky cinema site to locate was the location of The Guild on Geoffrey Street, off New Hall Lane. The cinema was open and ready for the 1922 Guild and was originally owned by David Ainsworth, a hay and straw dealer.

The Grand (later the Regal and the Lido), Marsh Lane. Pic Lisa Brown.

The Grand, which later became the Regal and then the Lido, was opened in 1921 in Marsh Lane. The building still stands and one of the employees of National Tyres said that you can still see where the screen and projection box were situated inside.

Approximate former site of the Cosy cinema, St Peter’s Street. Pic Lisa Brown

The Cosy cinema was located in a former chapel and opened in June 1921. In his book, John Cotterall tells a number of stories associated with the cinema in his book. Quoting local resident Norman Jones, who recalled that admission to the cinema was one penny or an empty jam jar. Norman’s father gave old copies of the Lancashire Evening Post to the chip shop opposite Alan Street in return for two tickets to the cinema.

Part two of Discovering Preston’s former cinema sites will feature the Ritz, the ABC, and the New Victoria. Do you have any memories of the cinemas mentioned in this article? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Discovering Preston’s former cinema sites (part one)”

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