THE golden years of the silver screen are today recalled in this selection of vintage snaps from the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Sunderland was once home to scores of cinemas, from the splendour of Black’s Regal and the Havelock to the cheap and cheerful Cora,” said member Bill Hawkins.
“I’ve heard tales about visitors to the Coronation Picture Palace being sprayed with insecticides to keep down the bugs! The cheap seats were benches rather than chairs.”
The Victoria Hall was the first public hall to show “moving pictures” in Sunderland from 1896 – featuring films such as Operation in a Dentist’s Chair Under Gas.
But it was former waxworks showman George Black who opened Wearside’s first permanent cinema, at the old St Stephen’s Presbyterian Chapel in Monkwearmouth.
“Monkwearmouth Picture Hall opened for business on May 14, 1906. One of the first attractions was a film of the launching of the Mauretania,” said historian Bill.
“At first audiences had to sit on the old chapel pews and a sheet was fixed over the former pulpit. In 1916, after changing hands, it was renamed the Bridge Cinema.
“Three years later it was renamed again, to the Bromarsh, after being taken over by the Marshall Brothers. It eventually fell victim to a bombing raid on May 24, 1943.”
Other early cinemas included Villier’s Electric, The Avenue, The Rink, Palace, Gem, Central and Star Music Hall – which later became the Pavilion Electric Theatre.
“One of the most popular attractions at the Pavilion in the early years was a film featuring two champion fighters, which apparently attracted huge crowds,” said Bill.
“Then there was the Palace in High Street, which ran Hamilton’s Flickerless Pictures for a time, and The Rink in Holmeside – where admission was just a penny in 1908.”
As Wearsiders started clamouring for more moving pictures, so the plush Havelock was opened by Provincial Cinematograph Theatres to cater for a wealthier film fans.
“Among the films shown when it opened on December 16, 1915, were The Night Before Christmas, The Haunted Hat and The Girl Who Might Have Been,” said Bill.
“The cinema dominated Mackie’s Corner and employed a 10-piece orchestra at first. But in 1926 a Wurlitzer organ was installed – making the musicians redundant.”
The Havelock became the first cinema in Sunderland to screen ‘talkies’ in the summer of 1929, when more than 120,000 flocked to watch Al Jolson in The Singing Fool.
It was later renamed Gaumont in 1950 and closed in 1963, with the last film being A Taste of Fear. Later that year it was demolished to make way for shops and offices.
“Another of Sunderland’s best-known cinemas was Black’s Regal, which opened on March 28, 1932, and included live entertainment as well as films,” said Bill.
“A crowd of more than 5,000 gathered for the opening, which was performed by the mayor E.H. Brown, and the building was described as the last word in comfort.”
Lavish décor, luxury fittings and a Compton organ all added to the attraction of the Regal, which was the first cinema “to depend entirely on electricity for illumination”.
Opening night patrons enjoyed a dance performance by Myron Pearl and Company, as well as the sounds of tenor Hugh Ormond, before sitting back for Out of the Blue.
“The Regal quickly established itself among contemporaries like the Kings, Millfield, Bromarsh and Picture House, enjoying good times in the boom years,” said Bill.
“But, after the forties and fifties came a decline. Cinema numbers dropped from 14 in 1958 to just three 10 years later – the Regal being one of the lucky survivors.
“It changed its name to the Odeon and, in the 1960s, opened its doors to music fans – with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury performing there.”
Among the photos featured here are inside views of the Ritz and Odeon, as well as outside views of the Havelock. There are none, however, of Bill’s favourite – the Plaza.
“When I was a young lad at South Hylton, me and the rest of the gang used to jump on a Jolly Bus on Saturday mornings, which terminated at the cinema,” he said.
“But when I moved to Thorney Close in 1964, I began visiting the town cinemas, and their interiors were a far cry from the one at the Plaza – larger and more elegant.
“The first one I visited was the Odeon in Holmeside and the movie was The Beatles in A Hard Days Night. That was in 1964 and I would often go back to visit after that.
“I’m too young to have witnessed the glory days of cinema, but I was there at the tail end of the decline. I find it sad that so much of our cinema history has been lost.”
l The archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society at 6 Douro Terrace are open to the public each Saturday and Wednesday from 9.30am-12noon. Admission free.