Leeds nostalgia: When there was a cinema on every street corner

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Just a few doors up from the Co-operative Funeralcare and a wobble from the West End pub in Kirkstall, there stands Abbey House, a largely unregarded building today but one which has a colourful past.

It bares the name ‘De Lacy House’ but its original use was as a cinema.

Leeds cinemas. Rialto, Briggate''unknown date

Leeds cinemas. Rialto, Briggate''unknown date

It opened, on September 22, 1913 when cinema was in its ascendancy. It was advertised as having 520 seats, five exits, and fifteen ventilators. There was, as originally advertised, an orchestral balcony with music provided by a piano and violin under the direction of Mr Will Nettleton. It was one of the smaller cinemas - at the other extreme, the Majestic, which opened in City Square in 1922, had 2,500 seats.

The original investors and owners were John Briggs, Miriam Ransley and Martha Dealey.

In the first two decades of 20th Century Leeds, it witnessed two major changes. In Leeds, the first purpose built cinema, also known as the Picture House (later becoming the Rialto) opened in Briggate in April 1911. Across the city, there were 56 cinemas, rising to 68 in 1931, with at least eight in Headingley-cum-Burley: four in Kirkstall Road, two in Burley and two in Headingley.

Back then jam jars were accepted as entrance fee. In those days cinemas were much more common, with one almost on every street corner, with films changing twice a week. Some were also renowned for their uncleancliness and the abundance fo fleas.

There was also The Atlas, which in 1935 became The Embassy and had 800 seats. For many children, a trip to the cinema was known as ‘the penny rush’, that in general being the price of entry and it was the highlight of their week.

Some cinemas had a piano, complete with a pianist sitting towards the side of the screen, who had to have a most diverse and prolific selection of tunes because he had to try to play something which would convey in music whatever was being enacted on the screen.

By 1960 the television was arriving and cinemas, like the Abbey, being turned commonly into Bingo Halls until Bingo too gave way to the television age.

The second major change was that Kirkstall was changing, from being part of the largely agricultural fiefdoms of the Brudenells (the Earls of Cardigan – the seventh Earl, being he of the ‘Valley of Death’, and the Balaclava folly) and the Grahams; and becoming a residential suburb of Leeds, with its rows of through and back-to-back, red brick terraces; a suburb of owner-occupiers (or at least, tenant-occupiers). The ambience of the Normans (and the Abbey Picture House is in Abbey Road, immediately next to the block of streets known as the Normans.

That the first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed the blossoming of the cinema in Leeds (and elsewhere) is testified to by the passing of the Cinematograph Act 1909, the introduction of a regime of general regulations made by the government acting under the Act and the additional local regulations such as those for Leeds formally approved by the Council on December 3, 1913, by the founding of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland;and by the large number of applications to the Watch Committee for licences in this period. The Abbey Picture House closed on October 8, 1960, after which it was turned into a bingo hall.

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