05 October 2012

Portslade Cinemas

Judy Middleton  (2001 revised 2012)


The first cinema in Portslade stood on the corner of Albion Street and the north side of North Street, which in those days was a bustling shopping thoroughfare. The Salvation Army were the original owners of the property and the cinema was converted from their building. It has generally been assumed that the building was a Salvation Army Hall but a letter from Mr LS Wallis of the Prince’s Picture Palace Company to Portslade Council in October 1910, mentioned the proposed alterations to the Salvation Army Barracks. Probably there was both a hall and a barracks on the site. 

copyright © J. Middleton
The Salvation Army Hall in North Street, Portslade built in 1910. now in use as a business premises

 The Salvation Army started operations in Portslade on 2nd August 1882, becoming the 290th corps in the first 300 units. By 1907 three services were held every Sunday and there were weekday services at 8pm plus Band of Hope meetings for children at 6.30pm. The situation was buoyant enough for the Salvation Army to plan new premises opposite their first site and the stone laying ceremony took place on 27th August 1910. Oswald Archer of 10 Victoria Street, London was the architect of the handsome red-brick building, which still stands today, although used as business premises. 

RG Peirce of 2A Stafford Road, Brighton, was the architect for the cinema project and the plans were dated 10th October 1910. When the Salvation Army was in residence, the building had a plain exterior with a central doorway between pilasters, a window on either side and three more windows above. But when it was converted into a cinema, the appearance changed to an ornate style – in fact the embellishments were reminiscent of the Duke of York’s, Brighton, which opened in 1910.

copyright © J.Middleton
The programme for the Picturedrome North Street Portslade on the reverse of a fund raising postcard of 1916

On the ground floor there were two round windows with pillars and pilasters and a vestibule with a curved cornice. Above there was a square, false window surmounted by a cornice, and on either side there was a large round window embellished with swags and decorations.

The cinema opened on 15th March 1911 with enough seating for 450 people and it was called the Prince’s Imperial Picture Palace. 

After the First World War Sussex

Picturedromes purchased the cinema and it changed its name to the Picturedrome. Perhaps the seating arrangements had been a little cramped – at any rate by 1918 the seating capacity had been reduced to 350. Shortly afterwards the cinema was sold to FJ Freeman but he kept the Picturedrome name. Mr Freeman had been the proprietor of three cinemas but when war broke out, he sold up and joined the RNAS.
copyright © J.Middleton
The reverse of the above postcard cinema programme. This postcard was issued in aid of the Blinded Soldier's Children Fund

In November 1922 Mr Freeman made an application to the County Justices for permission to open the Picturedrome on Sundays from 7pm to 9pm. He mentioned the fact that both Southwick and Brighton were allowed to open their cinemas on Sundays. But of course he did not remind them that Sunday opening was forbidden at Hove and would remain so until 1928. The previous Sunday Mr Freeman counted 300 Portslade residents heading back home after a visit to the cinema at Southwick. George Cornish, engineer, of 32 Vale Road, Portslade, supported the application. The Bench retired to consider their decision and on their return they told Mr Freeman that he would be allowed to open on Sundays. In August 1923 it was reported that the Parochial Church Council of St Nicolas Church, Portslade, opposed Sunday opening and wanted other religious denominations to join with them and make a more effective opposition. But it seems nothing came of it.

In the 1920s Mr Willard was employed as a chucker-out to deal with juvenile rowdiness at matinees. When the film became stuck (quite a regular occurrence) the youngsters were inclined to entertain themselves by throwing orange peel and aniseed balls at each other. In the early days, the cinema had its own dynamo and when it broke down the management would refund the customer’s money or give them a ticket for another performance.

During the interval there would be live entertainment on the stage and an attendant would go around squirting a disinfectant spray. The audience sat on hard wooden benches. Vilda Barry remembered going to the cinema as a youngster with her brother to see Orphans of the Storm. There was no room on the benches and so they were allowed to sit on the steps. When the performance ended they waited until everyone had left and then took a seat and watched the film through again. Meanwhile their parents had become concerned about their non-appearance and the usherette had to conduct a search of the audience with the aid of her torch. Orphans of the Storm was a classic of the silent cinema. It came out in 1921 and was directed by DW Griffith. Lillian Gish was the star and she was famous for her large soulful eyes and small bow-shaped mouth.

In around 1926 William Terence Bradshaw purchased both the Duke of York’s and the Picturedrome. Mr Bradshaw was a partner of Stringer & Dinnick, estate agents, whose offices were opposite the Tivoli in Western Road, Hove. He was also one of the principal men in the Brighton and Shoreham Building Society. In 1928 he sold the Picturedrome to Percy Victor Reynolds who was a tall, thin, elegant looking man and lived in a house in Albion Street, next door to the cinema.

Denis William’s earliest memory of the cinema dated from 1928 when it could accommodate around 400 people and the seats were upholstered in brown corduroy. The décor of the cinema was a pretty pink to match the fragrance called June. This was a perfume that was put into an atomiser to sweeten the interior. An elegant lady dressed in a pink crinoline with a large picture hat would appear on the screen with the legend ‘This cinema is perfumed with June’. Mr Williams remembered that the perfume coupled with the tobacco smoke produced a pungent never-to-be-forgotten aroma.

There was a balcony with a stairway on the left. The screen was painted on the back wall and the two projectionists (both of foreign origin) were Eddie Schwier and Bill Criese. The fact that the projection room was underneath the balcony, provided an opportunity for inventive boys to provide some amusement. For instance, Peter Abbott remembered a pair of gloves tied to a piece of string being gently lowered so that their shadow appeared on the screen. The boys liked to choose their moment – usually in the middle of a romantic sequence. Boys were also able to take advantage of the seating arrangements because it appears the seats were not bolted to the floor. If there was nobody sitting in front of your row, you could use your foot to push the seat, and watch the satisfying reaction of the whole row of seats tipping forwards.   

In the days of silent films, there was a trio playing throughout the performance – violin, flute and piano. Mrs Williams played the piano and she earned 7/6d a day. When she worked in London in a similar capacity, she always wore a bright orange overall as a sort of badge of office – in other words she felt it defined her as a professional musician and not just one of the cinema staff. Indeed she was so professional she often did not bother with the official score that arrived with the film and would improvise her own accompaniment.

Denis Williams also remembered the Willard family who lived in Albion Street opposite Mr Reynold’s house. Pop Willard was the cleaner and odd job man, besides being chucker-out. His formidable wife, a strongly built woman of whom local youngsters were in awe, assisted him in the performance of his duties. If a child misbehaved, she had no hesitation in lifting up the miscreant by the scruff of his neck and forcibly ejecting him into the street.

The Willard’s daughter was a friendly soul, known to all as Nan although she was christened Annette Elizabeth Frederika Christina. She married a Mr Pepper who by 1943 was a prisoner of war. Nan and her 8-year old daughter had lodgings in a house in Mile Oak Road, Portslade. Unfortunately, the Canadian soldiers stationed in the village proved an irresistible attraction to Nan, especially two of them. The tragic outcome was bitterness and jealousy. In March 1943 French Canadian Charles Eugene Gauthier of the Regiment De La Chaudiere stole the Bren gun from the top of the Portslade Brewery in the Old Village and went to Mile Oak Road. Nan refused to come downstairs until he gave her his word of honour that he would not harm her. When she came down, he shot her dead. He was hanged in September 1943 at Wandsworth Prison.

In 1930 talkies arrived at the cinema. Records lasting for twenty minutes accompanied the films. It could be a tricky operation if the needle jumped because then the dialogue would not match up with the actors on the screen. In case of emergency (such as the record breaking) a sealed set of new records could be used but of course it cost more money. The cinema did a good trade because there was a large population with plenty of employment to be had at the Britannia Flour Mills, the Portslade Gas Works, the electricity works, the harbour and nearby factories whose workers enjoyed an evening at the cinema. Mr Reynolds began to consider that if the cinema were larger, it would be even more profitable. He also owned the new Kinema at Southwick (formerly the Plaza) which he rebuilt after it burned down.

On 3rd December 1931 the Picturedrome closed and demolition work began. Early one Sunday morning there was an almighty crash and people rushed out into the streets to see what had happened – it was the roof of the cinema collapsing. Fortunately, nobody was hurt but housewives had a fine old time grumbling about the dust and you could not see up Albion Street for several hours.

In order to enlarge the new cinema Mr Reynolds purchased the next-door premises and he sacrificed his own house as well. Mr H Leslie Bishop of 23A Gloucester Place, Brighton, was the architect chosen for this new project. Again there was a complete change of mood and the cinema was rebuilt in typical Thirties modernistic style. The façade was quite plain with a large flat space between the top of the windows and the top of the building. In face the only embellishment of the somewhat severe façade was the canopy on the ground floor, the broad, contrasting horizontal stripe at the top of the building, and the narrow vertical stripes at either corner.

Braybon’s built the cinema and their contract stipulated it must be completed between 1st January and 4th May 1932. It was ready on time but seats were still being bolted to the floor just hours before the first performance. Mr Reynolds was determined to cram as many customers in as possible and so he had ordered the smallest seats available with a width of seventeen inches. However, they were beautifully upholstered in green velvet and there was enough accommodation for 600 people. The décor was also emerald green, the walls being darker at the base and becoming paler towards the ceiling where it merged with an orange colour.

The screen was fitted with two sets of curtains, one being a festoon curtain of grey velvet. There was beautiful proscenium lighting in red, green and blue and there was a row of dimmer lights too. The projection room remained underneath the circle and the projector was an up-to-date Western Electric. Although no expense was spared for the décor and equipment, there were certain things lacking, such as an emergency exit from the balcony, no secondary system of lighting and no category board outside to advertise what films were being shown and whether or not the film was suitable for children. Basic comforts also left something to be desired because the lavatories could only be reached by leaving the cinema building and walking along a passage at the side.

The heating was inadequate as well; in fact the cinema earned the nickname Old Pneumonia and customers learned to wrap up well before venturing out to the cinema. The problem was that the boiler was far too small to heat such a large space. You could hear it roaring away doing its best but the radiators stayed resolutely lukewarm.
copyright © Denis Williams.
North Street in the 1940s, the Pavilion Cinema on the left, the Salvation Army Hall on the right
and the twin towered Portslade Baptist Church in the centre

The cinema was renamed the Pavilion and opened its doors on 4th May 1932 with Tell me Tonight starring Jan Kiepura, which also provided a hit song.  The whole project cost around £5,000 and it seems unlikely Mr Reynolds saw a return on his investment. Unfortunately, he had chosen a bad time for expansion. Two large new cinemas opened in Hove, the Lido in Denmark Villas in 1932 and the Granada in Portland Road in 1933, while closer to home the Rothbury in Franklin Road, Portslade opened in 1934. Added to which the Rothbury screened a better class of film while the Pavilion stuck to its guns and continued to show Westerns. It was also the case that the Thirties slump was beginning to be felt and not so many workers were required at the gasworks or electricity works.

copyright © D Lucas
Official presentation of a certificate in 1936 from the Royal Humane Society to Frank Lucas in the foyer of the Pavilion Cinema. Left to right. Philip McCarty, Frank Lucas, Albert J Stevens, Frank Lucas senior, Councillor Harry Parker, unknown.
In April 1936 there was a presentation ceremony in the foyer of the Pavilion cinema when Mr Reynolds gave three local heroes a free pass to the cinema for three months. They were council workers Philip John McCarthy and Albert John Stevens plus 12-year old Frank Lucas who also received a silver cup and a certificate from the Humane Society. What happened was that on 12th February 1936 five boys from St Nicolas’s School decided to have a sail using a homemade craft. The chosen place was a deep pool that used to exist in the area now covered by Vale Park. A five-foot fence surrounded the pool but the boys managed to gain access. One boy fell into the water, came up twice and then disappeared. Young Frank Lucas, son of the gasworks ferryman, was standing on the bank but lost no time in diving into the icy water to try and rescue his friend despite his boots weighing him down. Meanwhile, the workmen had been alerted by the children’s shouts and also went into the water. But it was to no avail, and the pool had to be dragged before the body of 13-year old Cyril James Cooper was recovered.

copyright © J. Middleton
A modern view of the former Pavillion Cinema in North Street Portslade,
now a business premises
In the late 1930s Mr Reynolds sold the cinema to John Ephraim Greaves who ran it with his daughter. Mr Greaves also owned the Kinema, Southwick. He is on record as having stated to the Rotary Club that he did not think television would make an appreciable difference to the cinema.

Mrs Wareham worked there as an usherette / cleaner and pay-desk attendant. Her son Bill remembered the cinema by its nickname of the Bug Hutch and it only cost three pennies to get in. For many years Reg Dean was the projectionist.

In 1940 the cinema appeared on a secret list as a possible place for use as a rest centre in an emergency because there were 600 seats. By 1959 Mr I Segal owned the cinema. He made alterations to the exterior wall in the same year and in 1960 installed a new first floor.   

THE ROTHBURY, Franklin Road

Mr L Middleton was a builder who hailed from Newcastle and he was responsible for building Rothbury Road, Mornington Crescent and Jesmond Road in Hove. The name Rothbury comes from Northumberland (there is also a Rothbury Forest) and perhaps Mr Middleton had fond memories of the place.

He began to build the Rothbury Hall on the north side of Franklin Road in 1933. In December of that year he submitted an alteration to his plan to Portslade Council because he wanted to place an additional exit on the north side of Franklin Road. There were three directors in this enterprise – Oscar Deutsch and F Stanley Bates plus Mr Middleton but the latter was by no means the junior partner. This can be deduced by the fact that he chose the name, and according to Alan Eyles the name on the façade was in the ‘Odeon’ style although the Odeon name was not present. At the time Deutsch and Bates were in the process of establishing a chain of Odeon cinemas. 
copyright © Reg Forrest
Silver Wedding Celebration in the Rothbury Hall 1938.

Although the Rothbury was only a cinema of moderate size, having a seating capacity of 550, it enjoyed the benefit of being designed by George Coles, one of the best known of cinema architects who was particularly associated with Odeon cinemas. Special attention was paid to the acoustics with the wall of the auditorium being covered with some sort of scientific compound while the rear wall had a two-inch layer of asbestos. The auditorium had a curved ceiling. The Rothbury had an attractive foyer decorated in dark beige and gold and there were wonderful Art Deco touches such as the large mirror engraved with a stylised fountain and a sunrise motif on either side of the double doors. It was impossibly exotic for an area like Portslade. 

On 26th March 1934 the Rothbury opened its doors to the public with a screening of The Private Life of Henry VIII. Alexander Korda directed the film with Charles Laughton providing an unforgettable portrait of Henry VIII and Merle Oberon cast as Anne Boleyn. It was a grand occasion for Portslade and amongst the dignitaries and celebrities present were Oscar Deutsch, Mr H Durrant (chairman of Portslade Urban District Council) Councillor VR Hudson (Mayor of Hove) Mrs Stanfields (mother of Gracie Fields) plus Ann Hope and Mamie Howard who were two promising young stars of the Gainsborough Company. The architect George Coles presented Mr Durrant with a gold key for the opening ceremony.

Besides the cinema screen, there was a small stage where talent shows were held. The Rothbury also provided a well-appointed café, a lounge and a ‘large assembly hall suitable for social functions’. In September 1935 the film being screened was Mills of the Gods starring Fay Wray. But there was an added bonus for customers because they could also see in the flesh, the weird and wonderful great Omi, one of the biggest sensations with Bertram Mills’ Circus. He was tattooed from head to foot and every inch of his body was covered with fantastic patterns that he had designed himself.

Meanwhile, the three directors soon parted company, leaving Middleton to manage the cinema on his own. The reasons are not known but perhaps Deutsch and Bates decided they had bigger fish to fry. In 1934 they built the Odeon cinemas in Worthing and Brighton and in 1938 they took over the Lido, which then became the Odeon, Hove. But Middleton did not wish to have the responsibility of the day-to-day running of the Rothbury and Mrs I Merriman-Langdon signed a 21-year lease in 1938. She was already the lessee of a cinema in Seaford and she ran them under the banner of Langdon Enterprises Ltd.

In 1940 in a similar way to Portslade’s other cinema in North Street, the Rothbury was identified in a secret list as a possible rest centre should an emergency arise. After the war Robert Gordon Cinemas became the new owners.

The Saturday morning film show for children was always well patronised. Beryl Thompson and Sylvia Crowe remembered the rousing start to the entertainment when everyone sang a rousing chorus of The Red, Red Robin keeps Bob-Bob Bobbin’ Along. David Broad recalled that in the 1950s there was a business opposite the cinema called Family Television with a conveniently blank wall. At night if you stood in the right spot, you could see the film being screened in the cinema, reflected on the wall.  

The Rothbury cinema lasted until the 1960s. The last screening took place on 19th January 1964. The films shown were two old ones – The Champion (1949) starring Kirk Douglas as a brutal boxer, and Where Danger Lives (1950) starring Robert Mitchum and Claude Rains, which one critic described as a forgettable pot-boiler.

In 1964 the Rothbury Bingo and Social Club opened there. Some hopeful patrons queued outside in draughty Franklin Road in order to be present on the opening night. The cinema seats were utilised plus some more from the derelict Paris cinema in Brighton. John Goatcher was the ‘caller’ on the first night and he started his career at the Odeon, Brighton. Robert Gordon was still in charge and he stated there had been many applications to join the club, which was linked to the giant Mecca Bingo organisation and prizes could mount up to thousands of pounds.

By 1977 the building was up for sale and in December that year Hove Council gave planning approval for it to be converted into a restaurant, which would feature top name cabaret artists. Then in January 1978 another plan was put forward to turn it into an Irish Community Centre, which Hove Council approved by six votes to five. But the Kearny & Trecker Marwin social club next door objected on the ground that they might lose business. For some five months the building was home to a posh nightclub until the owner went bankrupt with debts of £26,000.

For three years afterwards the building remained empty. Neighbours successfully fought to prevent it from being turned into a discotheque. In 1981 Mr T de Jersey-Pitney asked for planning permission to create a snooker club; it was granted but nothing happened. By April 1982 the building was said to be an eyesore with dead rats in the kitchen. The social club idea had fallen through because the organisers had been unable to raise £34,000 needed to buy part of the site. The entire building was priced at £65,000. Meanwhile Hove Council approved other plans for manufacturing plastic and surgical instruments and to establish a dance studio but still it remained derelict.
copyright © J. Middleton
The former Rothbury Cinema, now the studios of Sussex Heart Radio.

Then in 1982 Southern Sound won the commercial radio franchise and set about converting the old cinema into four studios, a newsroom and administration offices. There was also an outside broadcasting unit contained in a specially adapted £40,000 vehicle. Rory Macleod was the founder and managing director. On 29th August 1983 Southern Sound went on air for the first time and the broadcast covered an area ranging from Selsey Bill to Beachy Head and into mid-Sussex. By 1985 it became apparent that Southern Sound ended its first full year with a loss of £77,343, which together with start-off costs of some £225,881 put it in the red. In November 1990 it was stated the Portslade studios would close. Instead, Southern Radio took over the premises and later the company became known as Southern FM. Today there is still broadcasting from Franklin Road but now it is called Sussex Heart Radio.   


Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade Volume 3 (2001)
D Robert Elleray A Refuge from Reality (1989)
Allen Eyles Brighton and Hove Cinemas (2003)
Interview with Denis Williams
Memories of Portslade Residents
Peter Abbott, John Baker, Dave Broad, Sylvia Crowe, Beryl Thompson from mybrightonandhove website
Copyright © J.Middleton 2012
page layout by D.Sharp