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James McKissack - Cinema Architect
by Tom Widdows

0. Introduction
1. Early Works
2. The First Cinemas
3. The Search for Style: Cinemas of the 1920s
4. Art Deco and Jazz Moderne
5. Streamlining in the latter 1930s
6. New Design Directions: the Aldwych and Cosmo
7. Conclusion

Kingsway, Glasgow. 1929.

The First Cinemas by James McKissack [Part 1]

In the 1911-12 period, McKissack designed his first cinema buildings, the Eglinton Electreum and La Scala in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. Cinema was still in its infancy, for it was less than 20 years since Louis and Auguste Lumiere had shown a paying audience their Cinematographe, which projected moving film onto a large screen; but was already commanding huge public attention. In designing these buildings he was taking the first steps towards a career in cinema architecture, which was to develop fully after World War One.

McKissack had a great interest in photography, which probably explains his interest in the cinema as a genre. This interest was probably encouraged by his father, whose obituary in 1915, described him as a well-known artist and photographer, in addition to his architectural endeavours.

In 1911, James McKissack was accepted as a member of the Royal Incorporation of British Architects.  At that time, he was also convenor of the photographic section of the Fine Art display at the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry at Kelvingrove in Glasgow. In this role, he was assisted by Archibald Cochrane and Frank P. Moffat, who operated the Salon Cinema in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.

It is said that he occasionally exhibited his own photographs on visits to mainland Europe and New York  and as a member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society (EPS), McKissack gave a lecture on ‘Rothenburg and other Bavarian Towns’ in 1912, where his architectural knowledge must have added a further dimension of interest for the audience.  Later, in 1916, it is recorded that he lectured to them on ‘Exhibition Pictures and how they were shown’. This interest in photography must have been sustained throughout his life, as in 1935, five years before his death, he was the Open Exhibition Judge for the E.P.S.

At this time many buildings were adapted for use as cinemas, rather than entirely new ones being built. This was not surprising given that, at that time, the cinema remained something of a fairground novelty; films spools were relatively short and silent (except for musical accompaniment), and so the cinema venue might have been expected to have had a lifespan no longer than a leased shop unit. Larger venues could be fashioned from churches, factories, music halls and even roller skating rinks; once that Edwardian pastime fell out of favour. Showmanship was all important, however, and one of the architect’s most important jobs was to design an entrance façade, which promised romance, mystery and escapism from the hard life many of the cinema’s patrons lived and worked in.

McKissack’s first cinema design was indeed a conversion of a shop unit, located beneath tenements in Glasgow’s populous Laurieston district. Its frontage certainly was eye-catching, it being in a debased version of, the then fashionable, Art Nouveau style. Glasgow, being a forward-looking industrial city, has always adapted to new design trends. Although Art Nouveau is nowadays most associated with such distinguished architects as Mackintosh and Burnet and their celebrated works, as a style, it was used equally to adorn such ephemeral premises as shop facades and public houses, many of which have since been lost.

The frontage of the Eglinton Electreum appears to have been vividly coloured with an ornate timber-framed arcade to give some shelter to those waiting outside. The name sign above used a typically Art Nouveau font.

Two circular windows on either side of the main entrance appear to be similar to those on Mackintosh’s country houses. Could it be that McKissack was inspired by his work? Certainly, he was acquainted with Miss Catherine Cranston, the Glasgow tearoom owner and hotelier, for whom Mackintosh designed several premises.

The Eglinton Electreum’s interior consisted of a small entrance hallway under the front third of the tenement block with a staircase descending to the rear. The auditorium filled the remainder of the space and extended into the back green. This steel framed structure was two storeys high, but with only a single level of seats on a gently raked floor. The seating consisted of wooden forms in the front section with leather-upholstered tip-ups behind. The Eglinton Electreum was one of a number of cinemas in Edwardian Glasgow built in this manner and occupying the back courts of tenements.

Cinemas in these locations not only robbed the occupants of the surrounding tenements of their drying and playing areas but also blocked out daylight and prevented fresh air from entering into their homes. Nevertheless, permission was usually granted for their construction by local authorities as cinemas offered cheap local entertainment for poorer citizens and provided a warm sheltered place away from the cramped conditions of many homes. They kept some out of pubs and others out of trouble. Perhaps these considerations were felt to outweigh any possible nuisance factors for their neighbours.

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