The History of Gaumont Cinemas

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This article details the history of Gaumont cinemas from the Victorian era through to the 1990s. It charts their highs and lows, from cinema being the 'in thing' and the emergence of colour, through to their decline following the second world war and the emergence of the new up and coming small screen known as television.

Submitted: August 04, 2016

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Submitted: August 04, 2016

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The Rise And Fall Of Gaumont Cinemas

 

 

The Gaumont name derived from the French film pioneer Leon Gaumont (1864-1946) who manufactured film projectors. In 1897 the Gaumont organisation began making films to help promote and sell its projectors. These film projectors were also supplied to Britain with Leon Gaumont personally visiting the offices of Mr Le Couteur in Brook Street, Mayfair to collect money that was owing to him. Despite his name, Le Couteur could not speak French and a member of staff – AC Bromhead acted as interpreter to the current Gaumont films that were being shown in Regent Street. From this, Bromhead became Gaumont's British agent. In 1898 other premises were sought in order to sell photographic bits and pieces, this was 25 Cecil Court which would soon become known as 'Flicker Alley' due to its concentration of film company offices.

 

Leon Gaumont had since manufactured an advanced projector which was capable of holding 200 feet of film which was the length of three short films of the era which made up a programme. Bromhead gained the British rights and offered the machine to early British exhibitors for the princely sum of seven pounds and ten shillings. Topical newsreels were popular, amongst them Queen Victoria's funeral and troops from the Boar War disembarking at Southampton.

 

In 1906 a British Gaumont company was formed to take over Bromhead's operations. Also in the same year Bromhead opened the first cinema in Bishopgate, London, this was located between a police and fire station and directly opposite Liverpool Street station. This first cinema was luxury itself, it had upholstered seating and an elaborately decorated waiting lounge. It was called The Daily Bioscope and had 120 seats at two pence and four pence and ran reels between 12.00-9.00pm, with a special show for office workers between 1.00-2.00pm. The venue could claim to be both the first news reel cinema and the first Gaumont cinema.



 

Leon Gaumont initially disapproved of the venture, but in 1910 Gaumont began operating cinemas in France. In 1907 the British Gaumont company moved premises to 5 and 6 Sherwood Street, near Piccadilly Circus and opened a branch office in Glasgow, later, also Liverpool and Cardiff. In 1908 Gaumont opened a New York office where AC Bromhead became Vice President. Bromhead was also put in charge of expanding into the British Empire and in 1909 and 1910 formed companies in both Canada and Australia.

 

As the British operation continued to grow, in November 1910, the Gaumont found itself on the move again, this time to new premises at 5,6 and 7 Denman Street, round the corner from Sherwood Street. The Gaumont company also opened a studio at Shepherd's Bush just before the beginning of the first world war and expanded their production side.

 

The French Gaumont company emerged from the war in bad shape, having lost much of its overseas market to American producers. Annual production was slashed to twelve films a year aimed at the domestic market, whilst the British arm of the company was duly left to fend for itself. In 1921 French Gaumont had amassed massive debts and its bank began to exercise control. To this end AC Bromfield saw this as an opportunity to sever ties with France and incorporate the entire French holding into the British operation. In December 1922 the Gaumont company became entirely British owned, although Leon Gaumont remained a member of the board. The buyout was achieved through the financial backing of a merchant bank – Ostrer Bros, whose family and executive staff joined the Gaumont board. The company expanded its branches, improved its production facilities and employed 500 staff, however, it never achieved what it craved overall, which was its independence.

 

Instead, under the auspicious eye of Isidore Ostrer, head of the bank, the organisation decided to build the company up into a powerful organisation which saw it acquire cinemas to supplement its activities in both production and distribution, thus ownership of cinemas guaranteed outlets for the films that Gaumont produced and distributed. Acquisitions and amalgamations began to take place and various umbrella companies began to emerge. In December 1928 Gaumont purchased Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT) and took it over in February 1929 effectively taking over the running of 96 functioning cinemas. This established Gaumont as the dominant force in British film exhibition. Auditoriums became architecturally designed to reflect various periods such as Neoclassical, Italian Renaissance and Art Deco under the architectural guidance of W.E Trent.

 

Both the parent company and various companies within the Gaumont empire built new cinemas either to replace older ones or to fill in gaps in the spread of the circuit. PCT and its related company Gaumont British Picture Corporation (GBPO) were the most active in these, continuing their expansion programme with Chief Architect W.E Trent, now in charge of all GBPC new builds and improvements. For four years these new cinemas were called Gaumont Palaces and were among the most lavish and striking cinemas built in this country. Most were equipped for live use with stages so that variety acts could be included in their programmes.

 

 

As far as cinemas were concerned, in the 1930s the Gaumont name was confined to the new reconstructed cinemas opened by the circuit and it stood for the ultimate in cinema buildings. The Gaumont name was known to all cinema goers due to the abundance of films which were produced and presented by GBPC and the Gaumont British newsreel was shown in most cinemas.

 

The majority of the Gaumonts were equipped with stage facilities, complete with theatre organ and most had cafes. The Gaumont colour scheme was red, with surrounding floral pattern. The change to blue dates from the post war period, with the staff uniform for both sexes being royal blue trimmed with light blue and silver. The text for the monthly programme was also printed in blue.

 

The Gaumont circuit suffered the most long term financial closures of its cinemas, more than any of its rivals such as ABC and Odeon, mostly due to bomb damage. Although every effort was made to keep cinemas going despite audience numbers being at an all time low, cinemas also has to contend with confectionery rationing and they were prohibited from selling ice cream between September 1942 - March 1945. Gaumont's access to top pictures also became limited, as well as various glass light fittings being removed from the ceilings of the auditorium as a safety precaution, some never to be restored.

 

On 29th February 1944 the Ostrers relinquished control of the Gaumont to Arthur J Rank, the Rank organisation subsequently becoming head of Gaumont. Four nine years post war restrictions on 'luxury' building prevented Gaumont constructing more new cinemas on its pre war sites and reconstructing those that had been severely damaged by bombing. Gaumont was, however, still keen to purchase sites for future expansion.

 

The emergence of colour was increasingly used in both American and British pictures, this went down well with audiences and helped to bolster flagging audience attendance numbers. Cinemascope was the in thing. although it was expensive to install, about £5,000 for a thousand seat cinema, half the cost going on installation of stereophonic sound with speakers behind the screen and around the auditorium.

 

In the Summer of 1954 the go ahead was given for major repairs to war damaged cinemas to commence. this helped to strengthen the Gaumont circuit and many other cinemas became modernised. However, in 1956 cinemas were dealt their biggest blow to date. bought about by the threat of television. The introduction of television led to increasing falls in cinema attendance and the final curtain came down on many. The arrival of ITV in 1956 posed a big threat as the choice of two channels would tempt more people to stay at home, These new stations were also said to be less sober and more entertaining than the current BBC. In response to declining film attendances, several of the more well equipped Gaumomts returned to live shows with pop stars of the day touring the larger cinemas from all major circuits. In some cases entire cinemas were converted by Rank into a small chain of domestic ballrooms, with the stalls being levelled and a dance floor put in. Although these were short lived, it was one of the first examples of cinemas being turned over to other leisure uses by Rank, rather than being sold off. Other alternative uses for the Gaumont buildings included bowling alleys, hotels and bingo halls. Bingo proved by far the most successful and enduring means of turning cinemas to profitable use.

 

 

With cinema in decline and the end of the Gaumont cinema release , there was no longer a viable reason to keep the Gaumont name. In October and November of 1962 a major wave of name changing took place and the Gaumont name began to be phased out. In December 1967 a number of ailing Rank cinemas were sold to the Classic circuit and immediately took the Classic name.

In the late 1960s it became evident that most cinemas were far too large. Rank decided to convert most of its cinemas into smaller units. Three screens were created by blocking off the space beneath the circle and dividing it down the middle to create two small cinemas, leaving the rest of the building to become the largest cinema, using the old screen and circle seating. These, however, had their drawbacks, namely the original side walls did not match in either decoration or angle the plain new walls inserted down the middle. sight lines also tended to be poor and screens small due to its low height. Audiences were far from impressed and numbers continued to dwindle.

 

In 1983 Rank took the decision to close the very first Gaumont building in Birmingham that still carried its name in the same scroll lettering it had on opening in 1931. Many more soon followed suit. The Gaumont era was finally over. The arrival of the multiplex in the mid 1980s led to a resurgence in attendance and prompted Rank to expand its number of cinemas, either by building new multiplexes or adding new screens within existing buildings.

 

The few Gaumont buildings that remained open in the 1990s remained in operation as Odeons. Once again the Bingo industry gave new life to expired cinemas, however, their conversion means they no longer resemble their former opulence and it is something that can never be recreated. It is ironic that money was made available to refurbish cinemas for new lives as Bingo halls that was not there to spend on them as cinemas. The only testament to the vast enterprise that was once Gaumont survives in Wood Green, North London where the name Gaumont Pa;ace has been restored at the top of the frontage on full public display, substantiating a bygone era of architectural design and development, that of which will never be seen or experienced again.

 

 

 

 

References

 

Anderson, C (1983) A City and its Cinemas. Bristol: Radcliffe Press

Eyles, A (1992/1993) The Cinderella Circuit. Picture House (18) Winter United Picture Theatres

Eyles, A (1996) Gaumont British Cinemas. London: Cinema Theatre Association

Gaumont, LE, 2016) Who's Who in Victorian Cinema. www.victorian-cinema.net

Accessed June 2016

Manders, F (1982) Cinemas of the Black Country. Wolverhampton: Uralia Press

Wood, A (1952) Mr Rank: A Study of J Arthur Rank and British Films. London: Hodder and Stoughton

 


© Copyright 2017 Val Mansell. All rights reserved.

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