The Norwood Society

Croydon Cinemas

The introduction of Picture Houses to show moving pictures, and their development into virtual palaces of entertainment in the 1930’s, left its mark on Croydon, and of course Norwood. Croydon Cinemas by Allen Eyles, assisted by Keith Stone, is a rich source of information about the change, from High Street shop front with a hastily erected auditorium behind, to the luxurious buildings of the inter-war years. The introduction of talking pictures created a huge demand for ever-larger Cinemas, as they came to be called. Individual cinema owners flourished for a time, but could not compete with the luxurious surroundings offered by ambitious (and sometimes extraordinary) buildings capable of accommodating up to 2,000 seats – the record was held by the Empire State at Kilburn with 4,000 seats! The Davis Theatre in Croydon followed closely behind, showing films, staging ballet and giving excellent classical concerts.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of the exteriors and interiors of many of them. Individual cinema-owners were gradually squeezed out by monopoly distributors of films, and claims like ABC, Granada, Gaumont, Astoria & Odeon eventually ruled the roost. Apparently the Stanley Halls served as an early cinema, and one building in Croydon in 1915 offered standing places (30) only! Needless to say it did not last long.

The cinema chains sought more and more fanciful names for their cinemas, and their internal décor was elaborate; based on Moorish, Spanish, Greek, Egyptian and Italian styles – many of them mixed. Audiences were given thick carpets, magnificent surroundings, comfortable seats, air conditioning (of a sort), central heating and continuous programmes. For many this would represent an escape from drab homes and an entry into another world, plus an opportunity for couples to sit together in privacy.

The origins of the names of some cinemas reflect the magnificence of their interiors. Granada, an historic city in Spain, and its most famous building, the Alhambra, have both been used as names for cinemas. Odeon is from a Greek word (Odeum – Oxford Classical Dictionary) meaning a theatre or hall for musical performances. Gaumont, although sounding rather grand, is no more than the name of Leon Gaumont who began the cinema business in France, and then extended his interest to this country – hence Gaumont-British. Astoria sounds as it has something do with the stars, but is actually derived from the famous Astor family.

The prize however goes to the Essoldo chain, although there was not one in Croydon. The owner, Solomon Sheckman, created the name by taking the first letters of the name of his wife Esther, his own name, and that of his daughter Dorothy. Most other names explain themselves, but the Hippodrome in Croydon, later the Croydon Empire and finally the Eros Cinema, comes from the Greek for a horse (hippos) and a racecourse (dromos). Not a good choice perhaps, given that most people might associate the name with a larger animal, and one that would not be seen at a racecourse. As for the Rialto (now a Bingo Hall in Church Road, Upper Norwood), that was named after a famous enclosed bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice - see Shakespeare’ s The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3 and Act 3, Scene 1.

The book has separate chapters covering South Norwood and Upper Norwood – it will be of considerable interest to many cinemagoers from the heyday of these palaces of entertainment.

Croydon Cinemas
Allen Eyles and Keith Stone - Tempus

(see also The Cinemas of Croydon)