Star of the Show

By the time I was allowed to go to the cinema on my own or with friends, the ABC on Chapel Bar, the Odeon on Angel Row and the Classic  on Market Street had all been converted into multi-screen cinemas. The Odeon had actually been twinned before I was born, and I don’t remember visiting either the ABC or the Classic with my family when they were still single-screen venues.

I only became aware of the Elite on Upper Parliament Street, which remained a single screen cinema until its closure in 1977, much later in life, but it has fascinated me ever since.

The Elite Picture Theatre, to give it its full original name, was Nottingham’s first ‘super cinema’, offering features and facilities above and beyond those of its local rivals, and it was opened on Monday 22 August 1921 by the Mayor of Nottingham, Alderman Herbert Bowles.

In an article about the opening, the Nottingham Journal reported that, ‘The Mayor expressed the hope that the people would support the promoters to their utmost capacity. He was one of those who firmly believed in the old adage: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” ‘

The Mayor was presented with a ‘suitably inscribed’ gold cigarette case, which is presumably still in someone’s possession to this day. The opening film was Pollyanna, starring Mary Pickford and based on the novel by Eleanor H Porter.

The Nottingham Evening Post noted that, ‘The picture…is still “the thing,” but the big house at the top of King and Queen-streets also comprises beautifully furnished writing rooms, lounges, and restaurants, and in the largest of these, the delights of dancing may be enjoyed. There is a Jacobean restaurant, a French café (in the Louis Quatorze style), and a Georgian tearoom. Electric elevators give access to each of the three floors, there is comfortable seating accommodation in the theatre for 1,600 people, and such items as a full orchestra and the newest type of organ – a magnificent instrument, which alone cost £10,000 – will add to the enjoyment of the visitor.’

Illustrated weekly The Bioscope added that ‘…it is the intention of the managing directors of the Elite to encourage the production of British films in every possible way. Mr. Finch [one of the managing directors] is convinced the best British productions can hold their own with any in the world, and in the future he thinks their superiority will be undisputed.’

After epitomising the glamour of cinema in its golden age, the Elite’s trajectory over time was to follow that of many other picture houses.

Cinema admissions went into decline from the 1950s onwards, mainly as a result of TV ownership, but also due to other factors such as diversification of leisure interests and the growth of consumer culture more generally. The Elite, which had been taken over by Associated British Cinemas in 1935, having shown the first ‘talkie’ in Nottingham in 1929, limped into the 1970s and survived a demolition proposal, before being converted into a bingo hall in 1977. The bingo hall remained open until the early 1990s.

The cinema closed with an X certificate double-bill of Erotic Young Lovers and Take an Easy Ride. The former was presumably the 1973 West German film of that name, while the latter, although a British production, was possibly not one that would have contributed much to Mr Finch’s sense of national pride.

The Elite building’s exterior remains impressive and has had a restoration and clean-up. The interior, meanwhile, retains some of its original features, including elements of the ornate auditorium, which was eventually converted into (and seemingly still is) a nightclub. Street-facing businesses remain on the ground floor, while there appear to be (or have been) offices and other businesses in the rest of the building. 2019 saw proposals to convert vacant office space on the first, second and third floors into student accommodation, which is good news for the future viability of the building and a hopefully sympathetic treatment of the remaining original features.

Cineworld lies a stone’s throw away, offering a contemporary cinema experience to the masses. Will home streaming of films prove to be the kiss of death for such venues in much the same way that television and other factors were for the traditional cinema? Only time will tell. One encouraging sign, though, is that a small chain called Arc Cinemas is part-way through a programme of opening new sites, including two locally, in Beeston and Hucknall (the former an 8-screen new-build due to open later this year, the latter a classy 4-screen resuscitation of the Byron).

But let us return one final time to the Elite, where a mystery presents itself.

There are twenty five niches at the top of the building that originally (and until relatively recent times) contained statues. When I looked at the building recently, only three statues remained. Initial research seemed to indicate that at least some of the statues were found to be unsafe during the restoration/cleaning works and that one or more of them had suffered damage over time while in situ. Details still seemed to be thin on the ground, though, until further digging unearthed more information.

It seems that safety concerns were indeed the primary reason for the removal of most (possibly all) of the statues. In fact, the upper section of one statue had fallen off, due in the main to rusting of the iron bar that secured it to its niche.

The statues that are not currently present are said to be inside the building and the intention is that replacements will be commissioned where necessary (presumably where restoration/repair is not feasible). This will result in a mixture of original and new statues at the top of the building.

In fact, one of the three statues that are in place at the moment was the first replacement to be commissioned and completed – a Shakespeare (or Shakespeare-esque) figure created by a company that has links to the organisation involved in the original work on the building. The original version of the figure was returned to the Elite’s owner/developer after being used to model its replacement.

So let’s raise a glass to this continuing, very worthwhile project to restore one of Nottingham’s most respected buildings to something as close to its former glory as can possibly be achieved in this day and age, with 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the opening of what was once one of Nottingham’s finest picture palaces.

Selected Sources:

Going to the Pictures: A Short History of Cinema in Nottingham – Michael Payne
Ninety Years of Cinema in Nottingham – Brian Hornsey
Cinema Treasures – Elite Picture Theatre – http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/21746 (accessed 20/02/21)
Nottingham Journal, Saturday 20 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)
Nottingham Evening Post, Saturday 20 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)
Nottingham Journal, Tuesday 23 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)
The Bioscope, 25 August 1921 (via https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/)

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