A hundred years ago Leeds was awash with independently-run suburban cinemas. Saturday morning matinees were a staple part – if not the only part – of a family’s extra-curricular activity.
Cinemas in Armley, Harehills, Beeston, Kirkstall, Sheepscar, Stanningley and elsewhere were regularly packed with eager viewers waiting for the latest cartoons, news bulletins, war footage and morale-boosting dramas; indeed, any form of escapism.
Today there are only two ‘local’ cinemas left in Leeds, and they still stubbornly refuse to compromise their original style and values.
Remarkably, they stand just a mile or so away from each other in North West Leeds. Even more unusual is the fact that they owe much of their continuing success to the sad demise of a third cinema in the LS6 area, which fought long and hard against the multiscreen might of the big hitters.
The Lounge Cinema on North Lane opened 99 years ago in October 1916, but closed in January 2005 after five years of declining attendances and mounting losses. Alas, the enduring charm of its period architecture, open plan foyer and plush velvet seating was not enough. The once sweeping auditorium had been reduced from 831 seats to just 483. Not the progress that suggested a prosperous future.
At the time there was a public outcry as Headingley locals saw another piece of the area’s history swallowed up by the increasingly distasteful face of commercialism. However, this closure had appeared inevitable since The Arc Bar was opened adjacent to the cinema in 1999, even though this coincided with a major refurb of The Lounge cinema. The Arc effectively merged into the distinctive white and red brick exterior of The Lounge, and this was no accident.
The Lounge was bought by Associated Tower Cinemas (ACT) in 1970, a local group who had bought and controlled various cinemas in the region since the early twentieth century. ACT had bought The Cottage Cinema up the road in 1938, but more significantly they also ran and operated the Arc bar, as part of an expanding portfolio of businesses.
Originally called the Headingley Picture House, in a building that once housed a motor garage and bike assembly shop, the Cottage Road Cinema remains in business on, yep, Cottage Road. As the oldest independent cinema in Leeds, it opened in 1912 and still has 468 seats, complete with state-of-the-art digital projection and Dolby surround sound.
Competitive pricing means it operates profitably, despite the obvious attractions of the nearby Vue and Odeon cinemas. Along with modern mainstream films, the ‘Classics at the Cottage’ series allows iconic films to be shown in a fitting environment, even if the quality of these old classics a little wobbly these days.
The mood was very different in July 2005. Just six months after local rival The Lounge had been closed, many expected The Cottage Road Cinema to go the same way. Staff had even been issued with redundancy notices. At the eleventh hour Cottage Road was saved by the Northern Morris Group, another chain of independent cinemas who bought the cinema off ACT and still run it today.
With the Cottage Road Cinema’s future secured, events were taking a more melancholy turn back on North Lane. With ACT moving very rapidly into property development it was becoming increasingly clear that The Lounge would never re-open as a cinema.
In addition to the Arc, the ACT group currently operate a flurry of successful bars in Leeds, including The Box and Trio in Headingley, Kobe in Horsforth and The Pit and Manahatta in the city centre, all unashamedly modernist and lacking any traditional feel.
Nobody had quite envisaged this when The Lounge Cinema regrettably hit the buffers back in 2005. Looking at the site today it is hard not to sympathise with the local populace, who predicted what would happen and who see little community spirit in what remains.
Only the mixed brick façade and the oval-shaped entrance survived a 2012 demolition of the site, and these hold little of the seductive magnetism of the cinema’s heyday. Italian chain restaurant Ask occupies much of the new building, with a Sainsbury’s Local and apartments filling the rest.
Somehow escaping any knock-on effect of the Headingley Cinema Wars is the Hyde Park Picture House. Opened in 1914 – somewhat surprisingly given we were three months into the First World War – the cinema was an instant success in providing a weekly highlight amid the grim austerity of conflict.
The vivid Victorian architecture, straddling the corner of Brudenell Road and Queens Road, has seen off the 1930s-built ‘Supercinemas’ in the city centre and the modern multiplexes, as well as TV, Video, DVD and Blu-Ray. It was bought in 1989 by Leeds City Council amid threat of closure, and remains managed under an umbrella organisation preserving the heritage of this, plus the Grand Theatre and City Varieties.
In return, the Leeds public avidly supports its art house, specialist and foreign language listings, and the Grade ll listed building – which still hosts original features like an Edwardian balcony – thrives on showcasing the hidden gems that can’t stretch to widespread marketing.
Progress brings us many things that enrich our lives, thankfully it doesn’t completely erase our love of the simple treasures and a taste for all our yesterdays. The cinemas of Leeds 6 – even the story of the one that bit the dust – are tangible proof that the commemorative spirit of Leeds’ public remains.
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