Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Moving Picturehouse

(The following is best read if you were brought up within a few feet of Slade, the Mander Centre and the Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton.)

Your starter for 10, no conferring. What links the movies Dark Journey (a long forgotten Conrad Veidt offering) with (best forgotten) Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys in Blue?
Neither were blockbusters or achieved Avatar-style household recognition, so to cut to the chase, Dark Journey was the first movie shown at Wolverhampton Odeon in 1937 and The Boys in Blue was one of the last in 1983.
On Boxing Day, Disney’s 3D sci-fi epic Tron Legacy will hit cinemas around the UK, and as I make a seasonal trip back to Wolverhampton to see family and friends, I’ll be stung by a pang of nostalgia as I walk past the former Odeon, now better known as the Diamond Banqueting Suite.
The original Tron was the last film I saw there in 1983, a few weeks before the cinema closed for good and it was transformed into a Top Rank Bingo Club.
There are no doubt plenty of screenings of Tron 2.0 scattered around the Midlands, but 27 years on and it’s remarkable how that memory of the original lingers as I write film and TV guides for no end of websites, programme guides and newspapers.
In The Shining Stephen King suggests a building can retain memories of events that occurred there, like the smell of burnt toast long after charcoaled remains have been thrown in the bin. If that’s so, every brick of the former Odeon must be among the most magical in town.
Throughout the 1970s I was weaned on Disney classics such as Herbie Rides Again, Pete’s Dragon and the like, not to mention all the mid-seventies Children's Film Foundation offerings screened on Saturday mornings. All wholesome family entertainment but not so much pushing the cinematic envelope as nudging it gently with a stick.
However, one Friday night in 1978, my life, like millions of others, was transformed by seeing one movie on that site, a film which stretched the celluloid envelope to breaking point.
Following smuggled sausage rolls and a short film about motorbikes, not to mention obligatory ads for ice cream and peanuts, I saw Star Wars for the first time.
It was the stuff dreams are made of, and while the Odeon had already achieved a magic, Star Wars helped transform it into something special.
A few weeks later, watching the mothership rise up behind Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of The Third Kind only added to the wonder.
Even the films I didn’t see are still inextricably linked to that building.
I still remember being fascinated in 1975 by the chilling cardboard standees for Ken Russell’s Tommy which graced the foyer, or the 1976 posters for the remake of King Kong, cult football flick Escape To Victory and even Dolly Parton/Jane Fonda comedy Nine To Five that graced the outside walls.
Back in the days before internet and phone bookings, it seemed turning up on the night and hoping for a seat could mean countless hours spent queuing around the block in the hope of seeing the latest Bond epic.
In 2010 of course, you can buy the DVD or Blu Ray of 'The Next Big Thing II' within 12 weeks of the movie release or rent it online, but in those days you either saw it on the big screen or waited between three and five years until blockbusters were granted a TV premiere. (Star Wars was a Sunday night on ITV in 1982 in case you were wondering).
Would we have those days back? The tinny pre-THX Dolby sound; the humdrum projection, or the fact the right hand side of the cinema was reserved for smokers - despite the fact the smoke went wherever it fancied?
Probably not. But the Odeon had a charm that kept me - and thousands of other cinemagoers - happy for decades.
If Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud were to ring and ask what my favourite buildings were - strangely not that impossible these days - I'd have to choose New York’s Chrysler building closely followed by the much missed Odeon.
In a perfect world PJ Price and Harry Weedon's art deco, Grade II listed building on Skinner Street would have a blue plaque outside commemorating almost half a century of magic screened within its walls, but those who were lucky enough to grace those popcorn-strewn carpets carry their own happy memories every time they pass it.
Maybe that's the greatest tribute of all.

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