Scottish Cinemas and Theatres

Hillhead Salon Cinema, Vincicombe Street

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Hillhead Picture Salon / Salon
17 Vinicombe Street, Hillhead

The original plans for Hillhead's 'Proposed Electric Theatre', dated December 1912, are by architects Brand and Lithgow. The resulting Hillhead Picture Salon opened in October 1913, and seated 630 in the stalls of a comfortable auditorium, and 133 in a small balcony, accessed by a stair to the right of the entrance. Projection facilities were at the rear of the stalls, under the balcony, and the screen within the proscenium was simply cement. The hand-drafted plans also include a 'stall for sweets' at the rear left of the stalls, and a lovely detail of a very posh lady with big hat standing in the main entrance... clearly a sign of the type of clientele the cinema hoped to attract, given that it was described as 'Elegantly Furnished Throughout'!
The cinema was constructed using the 'Hennebique Ferroconcrete System', and the plans note in particular its use in the roof, operators room, lavatories and gallery (including the steppings).

Extracts from the 1912 plans, which were clearly modified during building. Courtesy of Chris Doak.
The building is therefore a rare early use of ferroconcrete framing (in order to be fireproof), and the combination of this early exposed concrete structure with marvellous fruite belle epoque plasterwork makes the ceiling treatment and roof structure in particular very special indeed. This construction method did not catch on for cinemas, despite its advantages, because architects considered it slower than steel-based approaches (the only other known cinema building that did use the same method was the similarly-named Salon in Sauchiehall Street).

In the aristocratic neighbourhood of Hillhead, we are to have a luxurious picture house. It will be opened this month, and will be known as the Hillhead Picture Salon. The site is in Byres Road at the Botanic Gardens. Seating accommodation will be provided for 500 persons. The building, which is nothing if not roomy, will be handsomely furnished. A pretty colour-scheme of rose de barry and blue has been adopted. The architect is Mr George M Brand. The best pictures the world can supply will be projected in the most up-to-date fashion. Mr Herr Iff's celebrated orchestra will provide the music, an attraction in itself.
- The Entertainer and Scottish Kinema Record , October 4th, 1913, p14

One of the first suburban cinemas in Glasgow, the Hillhead Salon was also notable for housing a full orchestra, and for serving tea and biscuits to its patrons during the afternoon! Until 1914 and the outbreak of war, the orchestra was conducted by Herr Iff, and the prices of admission were 6d for the front stalls, 9d for the rear, and a shilling for the balcony.

When the Booth family ran the Salon, the entrance was wood panelled, and the ticket machine was electric - you pressed a button for one or however many tickets were required, and a motor whirred and ticket came out. Upon opening the wooden doors with scrolled brass handles, a velvet curtain on a brass tubular rail fixed on the barrier behind the back row of stalls seats was revealed.

In the centre of the auditorium ceiling there was an oval house light, and on the side walls in the middle of the plaster work panels were lights with shades with a 3D hexagonal shape with black lines round them - in the 1950s these were still gas lights, and the doorman went round with his pole to dowse them just before the main lights went up and the National Anthem was played. In front of the stage there was an orchestra pit with the rail sloping up from the centre, and at the at outer sides of the rail there were big round ball lights.



View to front

View to rear
Photos from 1982, courtesy of the Scottish Screen Archive at National Library of Scotland

To get to the projection room you had to go in through the Gents toilet door and turn right. All this was altered when it was done up in the 1970s, when Westrex projection and sound equipment were put in - two projectors then changed to a single projector with tower, and Xenon and transistor sound. Until the 1960s, the Salon was paying the next-door Western Baths 200 a year to provide steam for its heating, and had cause to complain several times of insufficient supply!

The Salon sold books of five tickets at a discount over the full price - this was a good deal, especially for students.

Salon in 1984
Courtesy John & David Anderson
Alterations took place in 1931 by James McKissack (presumably to add sound facilities), and then again in 1940 by Burnet and Boston, by which time it seated 544. By 1969 it was quite run down, and was bought by new owners Fyfe and Fyfe, who closed it for renovations (including replacing the original, leaking dome) and renamed it simply the Salon. The first film on re-opening in April 1970 was The Sound of Music.

In 1977, the Salon was listed Category B by Historic Scotland, one of the first cinemas in Scotland to be given this honour. In 1988, it was sold to Caledonian Associated Cinemas, who also owned the nearby Grosvenor.

The photos below were taken in 1990 (courtesy Bruce Peter), and show the stunning interior after being redecorated by CAC, who also installed a new screen - the original proscenium was by this time hidden by the later cinemascope screen.

The Salon closed suddenly on 12th October 1992, when staff turned up for work to find themselves locked out. Despite a huge public outcry and campaign to re-open it as a cinema, it remained derelict until it was converted into a Littlejohn's Restaurant in November 1999.

This was a generally tasteful restoration of much of the original interior - especially the barrel-vaulted ceiling and plasterwork details on the side walls - with silent film clips shown on a screen within the original proscenium.

The balcony was walled in at this point to provide toilet and office space upstairs, with kitchens and toilets downstairs. A reproduction of an earlier period canopy was also introduced to replace the more modern 1970s lightbox of the final cinema years.

Littlejohn's closed for refurbishment in April 2001, shortly after being purchased (along with the nearby Grosvenor Cinema) by the Glasgow-based G1 Group - click here for more pictures of the Salon after closure as Littlejohn's Restaurant.

The building re-opened as the Gong Bar/Restaurant on 6th October 2001. This refurbishment had installed a new lowered, neon ceiling, hidden most of the original features inside, and added 2 separate mezzanine levels inside the shell, as well as opening up a new window into the balcony where the canopy used to be. The bar at the rear occupied the space of the original balcony, with a flat floor and accessed via a new central stair. A similar raised bar area was at the screen end, with the raked stalls floor levelled.

However, according to the council at the time of these alterations, "the original raked auditorium floor, and the decorative plasterwork to the walls and ceiling are all retained in situ and are capable of being re-instated". The only original areas exposed were the fire-exits on either side of the screen, which had their wooden doors intact.

In August 2006, G1 Group filed a new planning application to further alter the building, by replacing the Glasgow-style art nouveau panels on the exterior with similar designs in back-lit glass, to open out the entrance vestibule by removing the modern glass doors, to insert three sky-lights in the ceiling to get more light into the building, and to extend the balcony level right across to the screen, creating an additional 60 square metres of floorspace for the restaurant.

Restored ceiling gallery
This application was later revised to remove the proposed skylights, scale back the floor extensions, and to reveal and restore most of the original decorative ceiling and upper side walls. The revamped venue re-opened as The Salon on Friday 20th July, 2007. With most of the original ceiling revealed and restored, a set of false illuminated windows forming a focus at the screen end, and a simplified reproduction of the original canopy above the entrance, the new Salon is set to be a success for years to come.

In 2008, Historic Scotland upgraded the listed status of the building to Category A - the highest possible level, in view of its unique architectural importance.

Official Gong/Salon website
Original Plans, Mitchell Library Ref. B4/12/1912/329
A Hillhead Album, Morton, 1973, p93
Along Great Western Road, Urquhat, 2000, p185
100 Years of Glasgow's Glorious Cinemas, Peter, 1996, p111
Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow, Williamson, Riches, Higgs, 1990, p353
Cinemas of Cinema City, Louden, 1983, p70
The Glasgow Story website, Salon page
Klondyke of the Cinema World, Doak, 1979, Fig 34
Cinemas in Britain, Richard Gray, 1996, p27
Cathedrals of the Movies, Atwell, 1981, p30
Story of the Western Baths Hillhead, Mann, 2000, p43

Thanks to Frank Watson and Jim Mitchell for their memories of the building.

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