by Lauren Livesey
The Stockport Plaza opened in 1932 as part of a chain of ten cinemas around Greater Manchester owned by the Read, Snape and Ward Circuit; it was intended to be their flagship cinema. The architects fulfilled their brief. The Plaza is striking and monumental on the outside. Cecil B. de Mille could have featured the facade in one of his silent epics, foregrounded by a procession of massed extras; and the cinema interior is ravishingly seductive, no doubt a sight for the sore eyes of the hat workers – Stockport’s premiere industry in those days – after a long day’s grind at the factory. The Plaza achieved a ‘Shock of the New’ impact’ on the local press, concerned that such concentrated modernity might promote juvenile delinquency and attract subversive ‘out of towners’. ‘All in all, very positive’, you are no doubt thinking; and very lucrative too, with a £5000 profit margin during the first year of operations. Let’s now literally drill down into the The Plaza, starting with the foundations, and work upwards to the tea rooms.
A challenging site, but look at the décor darling!
The Plaza is built into the sandstone bedrock at the rear of the building which saw 10,000 tons of rock quarried, then the building secured into place by 111 rock bolts – this led to limitations for the site, the actual stage area is subterranean and has a street running above it. The building seems to be fused into the core of Stockport and perhaps that is why it has survived the test of time whilst so many other local cinemas have not. Perhaps its luxurious interiors were another point for its survival. Designed to create, “luxurious, uplifting and literally fantastic surroundings,” for workers to escape the daily grit of the industrial north; attributed to William Thornley, The Plaza was like nothing local residents had seen before. The exterior design takes its cues from the silent movie era; but the cinema interior is thirties ‘picture palace,’ clearly part of the talkies dream factory era. The lush interior links The Plaza to the later Odeon super cinemas, with their luxurious interiors; but their exteriors were usually executed in the later streamline, moderne style.
Eclectic in design, the interior takes inspiration from Egyptian, Moorish and Art Deco influences using, “antique gold moquette, sumptuous hues of gold, silver and rose tints.” Thornley was not responsible for this eclectic mix, rather the Manchester firm of Drury and Gomersall; but the firm wasn’t credited for contractual reasons. Joseph Gomersall travelled around Europe to sample the latest architectural trends and had a professional background in theatre design. Like other super cinemas, live entertainment was one of the attractions: so called ciné-variety, devised to help stage comedians from the declining music hall business to find a new niche. The Plaza also had a café on site, now restored so you can lounge in Lloyd loom chairs and contemplate the perfection of the carpet, rewoven from the 1932 design, while sipping tea. This ‘one-stop’, integrated cinema entertainment concept was common in bigger cinemas across Europe and USA.
Opening its doors to the public on 7th October 1932, The Plaza offered a double bill of ‘Jailbirds’ starring Laurel and Hardy, and ‘Out of the Blue’ with Gene Gerrard and Jessie Matthews, with no doubt a newsreel and a couple of ‘shorts’. Musical interludes were courtesy of Cecil Chadwick, on the Compton organ — the first Compton organ in the world to be built with the sunburst design —featuring decorative glass panels illuminated in different colours.
The organ was designed for the cinema by Norman Cocker, resident organist at Manchester Cathedral and Arthur Ward, a director of The Plaza. The organ is still a feature of the cinema today, having been fully restored and in full working order. Those of you who watch classic British films on Talking Pictures TV will recognise it from TPTV’s promo clip between programmes.
As with many Art Deco buildings of the time, the design was so striking, and at odds with surrounding buildings, that its opening caused some controversy. Local newspapers claimed that the cinema was a bad influence on the town’s youth and pointed out that local labourers had been usurped by ‘out of towners’, leading to the papers refusing to advertise the cinema’s listings. This was all to change however with the onset of WWII. Residents flocked to the cinema, as they did in other towns, but with the added security that it was one of the safest places to be during an air raid, owing to its construction in the bedrock.
Adieu, cinema – Hello, bingo
Refurbished in the 1950s, The Plaza continued to screen films, stage variety acts, host acrobatic troupes, offer stand-up comedy, perform concerts and during Christmas 1960, staged its first pantomime. All this however could not rescue the cinema from declining audience figures in the TV era. In 1965, it was sold to the Mecca group and converted into a bingo hall with a nightclub in the once glorious café. Nearly forty years of bingo followed, but ironically this led to the building being strangely preserved and only slightly altered, albeit with copious layers of paint. there are some parallels here with a well-known pub chain buying up smaller cinemas nowadays. Whether you like it or not, bingo cards, spoons and beer mugs or whatever, can help to preserve old cinemas, until they can make a full comeback.
The Plaza redux!
By the time the bingo hall closed its doors in 1998, the building had been listed by English Heritage as Grade II* due to it being, ‘The best surviving super cinema auditorium in the north of England.’ What followed next was community spirit at its best. In 2000, the Stockport Plaza Trust was established as a charity which would go on to raise £3 million for the restoration over the coming years, with the building largely remaining open throughout. The lobby, auditorium and cafe still feature original plaster work in striking geometric designs along with original tiling, whilst previously lost features such as murals have either been restored or recreated: 2017 saw the installation of new Art Deco seating for the whole auditorium, cast from the original designs.
It is amazing to take tea in the cafe in what appears to be completely original surroundings, but know that it was once a nightclub. In fact, one would be hard-pushed to compare the current building with original photographs and find many differences. This is testament to the trust and its army of devoted volunteers who all have their own experiences to add to the history of the building. Even if you have never had the pleasure of visiting, you may have unknowingly seen it featured in Peaky Blinders, Life on Mars or the TV movie Eric and Ernie. The Plaza is fully operational, in normal times, and is known today as the Plaza Super Cinema and Variety Theatre. The Plaza website has more on the history of The Plaza and its restoration.
One doesn’t just visit The Plaza; one experiences it in the way that its architects intended. It is Stockport’s flagship Art Deco building, strongly recommended to any member passing through the town, truly a beacon of Art Deco in the North.
Acknowledgements: the Art Deco Society of the United Kingdom thanks The Plaza’s General Manager Ted Doan for making available the image of The Plaza used at the start of this article, together with the artist, Jake Green of Bigger Bang Creative.