Odeon Cinema, Blossom Street
Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant (1937)

Reel Beauty

The Ticket Booth In The Entrance Foyer
Fig. 1: the ticket booth in the entrance foyer, 1937. Photo: © John Maltby / RIBA Collections.

The Odeon Cinema on Blossom Street in York was originally built in 1937 by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant. It was given a Grade II listing in 1981 for its exemplar use of the Art Deco style and as an example of Odeon cinema design.1 It is notably one of the last Odeon theatres still being used as a cinema and retains much of the original layout.2 A favoured landmark in York (if the petition of nearly 14,000 York residents upon threat of closure in the mid-2000s is anything to go by), the story of this movie theatre dates back nearly a century and was at the centre of a new architectural and art movement in the twentieth century.3

The story began in 1928, when a man named Oscar Deutsch, the son of a Hungarian immigrant and Jewish scrap metal merchant, built his first theatre the Picture House in Brierley Hill in Staffordshire and a second in 1930 in Perry Barr, north Birmingham.4 For this second cinema, the Picture House name could not be used due to the objections of the nearby Birchfield Picture House.5 Deutsch and his business partners deliberated over names for the nascent cinema chain. Business partner Mel Mindelsohn was credited with suggesting “Odeion”, the Greek name for the ancient amphitheatres, after a trip to the Mediterranean.6

It was anglicized to Odeon, deemed especially appropriate since the first two letters matched Deutsch’s initials (becoming the basis for the slogan “Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation”). It was with his fourth cinema that the Odeon “house style” came into being.7 Architect A.P. Starkey and his assistant, Frederick Adkins’ designs included the use of faience tiles, a streamlined aesthetic, and a recessed entrance with two wings on either side.8 The cinema was a success and Deutsch cemented the “house style” with and its combined modernist, expressionist, and Art Deco inspirations.

Modernist cinemas were increasingly in vogue in Europe at the time and the new style influenced the recently built underground stations in London designed by Charles Holden like Boston Manor, Southgate, and Arnos Grove.9 The new cinema style focused on “new materials, rational form, and the removal of ornament.”10 Expressionist architecture originating from the Netherlands focused on brick construction, complicated masonry and rounded streamline forms.11 And, the Art Deco style showcased “a great menagerie of progressive design and decoration borrowing forms and motifs from Egyptian and Assyrian archaeology.”12

Deutsch’s gallery of architectural collaborators continued the use of the Odeon house style including Starkey, John Cecil Clavering, Robert Bullivant, George Coles, P.J. Price, W. Calder Robson, Andrew Mather, Thomas Braddock, and Thomas Cecil Howitt.13 Inside, the Odeons often had atmospheric lighting arrangements including “illuminated ceiling coves, linear lanterns, and coloured floodlights paired with reflective surfaces served.”14 Seating, carpets and curtains were fairly standard Odeon to Odeon and there was a “technical manual to help architects lay out the projection box, position admission points and advise on wall finishes.”15

Odeon cinemas were often the only piece of “progressive” architecture in many of the towns they were built, especially those beyond the transport network of London.17 Odeons could seem very out of place in their surroundings, a spot of futurism in British towns. This was part business strategy as Deutsch felt Odeons had to be grander than their counterparts to draw business.

Deutsch formed a long-term professional relationship with the architect Harry Weedon who had begun working for the Odeon chain by designing the interiors for cinema at Warley, Staffordshire.18 Weedon often delegated design work to his staff, including John Cecil Clavering and later Robert Bullivant.19

Fig. 2 The Entrance Canopy 1
Fig. 2: the entrance canopy, 1937. Photo: © John Maltby / RIBA Collections.

It was Weedon who oversaw the design of the York Odeon in 1937, with Bullivant doing the heavy lifting. This process got off to a rocky start. The local authorities were entirely against the idea of a modern cinema being located within the historic city walls.20 Eventually, a place a few blocks from Micklegate Bar (and therefore beyond the walls) on Blossom Street was agreed to.21 Even then, the City of York Council would only consider more conservative Odeon designs.The final plan harkened back to the Odeon in Chester whose development had a similar story.22 There was no faience tiling or octagonal branding. Instead, there was intricate brickwork, decorative banding, and, rather than the standard Odeon lettering invented by Pearce Signs, Trajan style lettering was used.23

When work finally began on the site (formerly occupied by the Crescent Cafe and Dance Salon), it was abruptly suspended after builders discovered Roman and medieval pottery on site; some of these artefacts were moved to the Yorkshire Museum.24 After work recommenced, the finished building comprised a tall, brown brick-clad tower carrying the Odeon name with prominent brick fins extending upwards from the first floor.25 The brickwork varied in colour with intricate banding with the round-ended two-storey extension. The ground-floor shop areas were also highly Odeon-like, and the authorities did allow the use of neon to highlight the building at night.26

The balcony foyer inside the Odeon displayed a frieze of figures in costume, film crew members and studio equipment.27 The auditorium was relatively straightforward with its typical use of cove lighting in a descending ceiling. The cinema was nicknamed “Hades!” for its auditorium colour scheme of black, red, and gold against cream and the striking screen curtains showing two mythical beasts with spiked heads and fearsome claws grinning at the audience.

Fig. 3 The Circle Foyer
Fig. 3: the circle foyer, 1937. Photo: © John Maltby / RIBA Collections.

The cinema opened as The Odeon on February 1, 1937, as a stream of expensive cars delivered VIP guests to its doors including Oscar Deutsch himself.28 The 1,484 seats were sold out within two hours from the box office opening and the first person in the queue to buy a ticket was gifted a bottle of champagne by the cinema’s management. The first films shown at the new cinema were The Man Who Could Work Miracles and They Met In A Taxi.

York became a town awash with cinemas, with ABC’s Regal and the Clifton also built within the year and four further venues already established.29 However, the Odeon ran strong, and in 1972 the cinema boasted three screens.30 Unfortunately, by the early twenty-first century — circa 2004 — the Odeon York and the City of York Council were arguing over the Odeon’s architecture once again. The Odeon had applied for permission to conduct certain renovations in updating the building, including removal of the original Odeon sign on the building’s exterior.31 The chain threatened closure if permission was refused for the removal of the old sign.32 There was a groundswell of support to keep the building open with 13,600 York residents signing a petition to do so and the formation of a Save The Odeon Cinema Club.33

Alas, it was not to be and the Odeon shut down in 2006, only reopening when independent cinema chain Reel Cinemas purchased the Odeon York in 2008 after completing a number of renovations.34 In 2017, Reel Cinemas closed the cinema’s doors once again, selling to Everyman for an undisclosed sum.35 It would remain closed for three months to allow a complete overhaul of the building. Everyman renovated the foyer, removing a false ceiling in the first-floor lobby; installing a Spielburger restaurant associated with the cinema chain; adding a bar in the foyer; and replacing seating with fewer, larger, sofa-style seats. The new interior has been heavily influenced by the Art Deco exterior full of geometric designs, dark colours, and gold finishes.

Fig. 4 View Of The Odeon From Blossom Street
Fig. 4: view of the Odeon from Blossom street. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

The fact York’s Odeon remained an active cinema into the twenty-first century — and is still used as a one in 2021 — is impressive in its own right. Odeons were being sold off as early as the 1950s.37 31 years after opening, Deutsch’s first cinema at Brierley Hill was demolished and replaced by a supermarket. Today, twenty Odeons are listed, but ten of these are no longer in use as cinemas and are instead standing vacant or acting as churches or bingo halls.38 Unlisted Odeons have been subject to much more extensive alterations such as the cinema in Balham, London, or completely demolished such as the cinemas at Ramsgate, Burnley, St Austell and Erith. The longevity of York’s Odeon is a delightful example of the sustainable reuse of a cherished historic building.