By Paul Smith
My interest in Art Deco lies in the architecture of the period. I am also a passionate railway modeller and enjoy creating unique ‘scratch-built’ structures for my layout, and sometimes these two interests overlap.
One building that I was keen to model was the long-lost Rio cinema in Sheerness, one of a handful of Art Deco buildings in my home town. Usually, while researching interesting buildings to put on my layout, I will examine period photographs to get the features and proportions right. As I was to discover though, very few photographs exist of the Rio in use as a cinema. Ironically, it seems that more photographs were taken in the months prior to its demolition than at any other time during its existence. Whilst researching it, I discovered its history and sad demise. Here is that story and how I went about recreating it in model form.
The Rio Cinema
Sheerness is the principle town on the Isle of Sheppey, a small island off the north Kent Coast. In 2018 the island had a population of nearly 38,000 with no purpose-built cinemas in operation. However, in mid-1937 when the population was a mere 23,000, there were five cinemas, and Sheerness was about to get a sixth.
Pubic houses aside, the late Victorian and Edwardian period saw the first places of entertainment built in Sheerness. The Victoria Hall had opened in 1872 as a theatre, later to be redesigned and reopened as the Hippodrome Theatre which also showed films. The Electric Theatre (1911) was the first purpose-built cinema, swiftly followed by the Oxford Cinema, built for the Oxford Electric Company in 1916.
Further housing developments had been built during the 1930s, and Sheppey’s popularity as a seaside resort was growing, leading to a seasonal influx of visitors; with them came an increased demand for entertainment.
The first flourishes of Art Deco came to the town in the form of the Argosy Cinema in January 1936. It boasted a hexagonal tower, a café and a seating capacity of 1250. The smaller and less prominent, though equally futuristic Ritz Cinema opened in March the following year.
The last, and most impressive by far to open, was the Rio in June 1937. It was designed by prolific architect George Coles, a well-known cinema designer of the time, having worked for both chains like Odeon and independent operators alike. Its position at 27, The Broadway was right in heart of the town, directly opposite the Hippodrome Theatre, and a mere 100 yards from the Argosy.
The Rio had a 70′ tall façade and was built on 130 piles for support. Covered in a white render, the front of the building curved out towards the sides, and a fin rose from the centre of the canopy to a ‘lookout tower’ at the top of the building, before continuing over the roof. This was to be the highest point on the Island. The very top of the fin included the name R I O in red illuminated lettering. Six long thin windows each containing six panes of glass were installed above the canopy, three each side of the fin. Entrance to the foyer was via five pairs of wooden doors. It was designed to be the most comfortable and attractive cinema in Sheerness and boasted the largest seating capacity, 1546 cinemagoers. Competitors had fewer seats, with The Hippodrome accommodating 918 customers, the Ritz 1245, and the Argosy 1250. The Rio could seat 500 people in its lower foyer alone. The films may have been in black and white but the Rio’s décor had a rich Art Deco colour palate. Entrance walls featured a colour scheme of red, orange and primrose, decorated with mirrors and display frames. Sea-green coloured carpet was laid in the foyer. The auditorium had ribbed plaster walls painted in rose and turquoise speckled with gold. The proscenium had concealed lighting behind coves and delicately defined columns. It also featured the most up-to-date air conditioning system of the day. Upstairs, on the first floor, there was a circular tea-room and dance floor. The inner foyer also had space to hold exhibitions.
This truly was the ultimate, de luxe cinema in Sheerness, and I wonder what the public’s reaction to the building was, as there was no other building like it in the town.
World War Two and Decline
In September 1939, two years after the Rio opened, Britain was plunged into war. The Isle of Sheppey was in a prominent position in the Thames Estuary, as the Luftwaffe would pass overhead on bombing raids to London. During this time the RIO sign was removed from the fin as it was thought that it might be mistaken for a factory by enemy aircraft and become a bombing target. Thankfully all the cinemas escaped undamaged.
At the end of the war there was a period where these cinemas changed hands. They were all built for different companies, but within two years they were all in the portfolio of one company – Essoldo, though the Rio wasn’t rebranded.
Though the heyday of the cinema was in the early post war years, television ownership and a new Independent Television channel (ITV) would quickly see cinema attendances fall dramatically towards the end of the 1950s. This, in combination with the fact that Essoldo owned three cinemas in Sheerness, led to the closure of the Rio on the 14th June 1958. The largest super cinemas were usually the first to close as the industry rationalised.
A New Life for the Rio
The Rio started a new life in 1958 as a factory. Acquired by the Lilliput Toy Company, it made toys such as children’s typewriters in the old cinema building. It is not clear in which part of the building manufacturing occurred; or what happened to the fixtures and fittings of the cinema during this time.
A change of ownership came again during the 1970s when Thorn-EMI started assembling its Klippon Electrical components there.
The Rio’s end came in April 1987, when the building finally closed and planning permission was granted for sheltered housing to be built on the site. Councillor Peter Wilks commented at the time “It is a ghastly building. It is like a wedding cake gone wrong and I cannot think why anyone should want to preserve it”. A report by Borough Planning Officer Dick Harman, said the cinema was not of sufficient architectural or historic interest to refuse consent to demolish it.
Photographs taken during 1988 show ‘Save the Rio’ sprayed on the brickwork and walls in a vain attempt to save the building. Apparently, there was a local campaign to save the building, but sadly it came to nothing. Demolition took place in 1988, though the building of Ravelin House and Jacob’s House flats didn’t begin until 1993. They still stand today.
The below stills are from a short video on the BFI website shows the exterior just prior to demolition.
I wanted to build a representation of Sheerness on my model railway. It already featured kit-built Victorian terraces similar to those in the town, and a 1930s Burton Tailors based on the Sheerness branch; but I wanted something more personal and unique. The challenge would be to find such a building and make it. I decided on the Rio cinema for several reasons: first, it no longer exists; second, it was Art Deco. Third, I could dress it with period film posters and vehicles and photograph it, as no one else had modelled it before.
I had to rely on the poor selection of photographs available to work out rough dimensions. Drawing up the scale plans to oo gauge, or 4mm = 1′, was relatively easy, but incorporating that fin and look-out tower would be tricky.
Having done the research, I realised that there was a story to tell with this building. It was a flagship cinema and looked sensational on its opening night. Cut to the end of its life, and it looked grubby, down at heel and unloved.
Initially I was going to construct one fascia in its original pristine white, and then weather it to show it in later life. Having looked at the later photographs, I could see that the entrance doors had changed, and the RIO sign had been removed. Just to complicate matters, I decided to build two fascias, to tell the story in detail. In reality, the Rio had a huge footprint, much larger than I wanted on my layout; so I used some artistic licence to construct a smaller model version.
The model is made from card of various thicknesses. Layers are added to make the features such as the fin stand out. The glass in the windows and doors are made from the lid from a box of Christmas crackers. It was then painted with several coats of white emulsion to give some strength to the card and finished with several coats of silk gloss white paint.
Making the interior has been a challenge, because the foyer can be seen through the entrance doors; and the upper foyer can be seen through the main windows. As I don’t have photographs of these areas, a little artistic licence was used to recreate these parts.
Weathering the second model was done by making a very watery black emulsion and building up layers across the fascia. The RIO name that appears on the fin, and the estate agents board were produced on a computer and printed to the correct size.
I was recently chatting with an elderly local couple who knew a great deal about the history of the Isle of Sheppey. I mentioned the Rio to see if they remembered the building and was delighted to discover that by coincidence, they both had a connection. During the Fifties, the lady had worked in the box office. She confirmed that film programmes changed every three to four days. She said working there had left her with many happy memories. The gentleman did odd jobs around the building as a young man and recalled a time when he had gone up into the look-out tower. Apparently, it was out of bounds and he got a good telling off! His brother worked there as a projectionist. He thought he had some photographs in his possession that showed the foyers; however I’m still waiting to see those as this is being written.
The Rio was a striking building and though its architecture may not have been to everyone’s taste, it set out to be the best cinema in town, and there’s little doubt that it was. Ultimately size and running costs made it unattractive to operate; maybe it was just too luxurious. It would have made a good heritage centre if it were still standing today; but the local council clearly wanted it removed and its fate was sealed. I hope my model of it pays suitable homage to this lost Kent marvel.
Sources and Further Reading
Photographs and further information can be found at-
Cinema Treasures website
Kent History Forum
Kent Cinemas Revisited by Martin Tapsell (Tivoli Publishing 2009 ISBN 978-0-9560954-0-4)
Odeon Relics by Philip Butler (Art Deco Magpie 2019 ISBN 978-1-999759612)