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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 2]

The next cinema in which McKissack was involved was both more substantial and salubrious – indeed it was an early example of a city centre ‘picture palace’, complete with an orchestra, tearooms and luxurious appointments. Opened in 1912, La Scala was located in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, a bustling and fashionable thoroughfare containing some of the city’s finest department stores, theatres, several pre-existing cinemas and Hengler’s Circus, an indoor circus amphitheatre. Thus, the street was at the heart of the Glasgow entertainment scene and almost every tram service was routed through it. Almost directly opposite La Scala stood The Picture House – Scotland’s first true ‘picture palace’, opened in 1910.

La Scala was converted from a large shop and warehouse retailing music and musical instruments (which explains the excess of windows in its sandstone frontage). The rebuilding involved something of a ‘façade retention’ many decades before such tactics became commonplace and this was probably to save money, rather than for any more selfish reasons (like building conservation). On this project, McKissack worked alongside another Glasgow architect who had found a niche in cinema design work, Neil C. Duff of Duff and Cairns. As with McKissack’s firm Duff’s had previously specialised in churches, but went on to design cinemas almost exclusively. 

Incidentally, Duff had only recently designed a smaller cinema for the same owners as La Scala, Glasgow Photo Playhouse Ltd. This was the Regent (opened in 1911) in the city’s Renfield Street.

The architects inserted a relatively narrow entrance to La Scala between shop units (a frequent ploy in such city centre locations either to make extra money through leasing out the shops or to lessen the cinema’s rateable value by using less expensive street frontage space). Even so, advertisement was required to tell passers by that this was a venue of luxury, taste, refinement and, above all, respectability. Thus, the entrance portico consisted of mahogany doors, flanked by ivory-painted cast iron composite columns with enriched shafts featuring strap-work in low relief. Above, there was an arch containing a leaded glass window and the whole ensemble was brightly illuminated by white electric bulbs. Signage was also important and so the cinema’s name was spelled out both horizontally across the façade and vertically by means of a protruding sign, thus enabling the cinema to be pinpointed from up and down Sauchiehall Street, amid the maelstrom of tramcars, traffic and pedestrians.

The design incorporated a large entrance hall with a carved wooden pay- box; from this a warren of passageways and staircases took the patrons to the auditorium, much like many theatre designs, which still exist today such as HMS Theatre, Aberdeen.

The auditorium was rectangular and airy, with a balcony, with side- slips, suspended on columns, which must have spoiled the view of the screen for those in the rear stalls.

The building was, of course, a compromise and there may have been a limit to how large a span could have been accommodated in an existing structure. Even so, The Glasgow Herald of 18 October 1912, recording the opening, noted the otherwise excellent appointments:

‘At the rear of the central gallery, commanding an excellent view of the screen, boxes have been fitted ... There are tea rooms and tea lounges both in the area (stalls) and in the gallery (balcony) so situated that patrons can enjoy the entertainment while partaking of the refreshments.’

It was thought romantic to take high tea while watching a film, and the tea rooms with their shaded lighting soon became popular with courting couples. As Scottish Country Life noted in 1928, this feature became the outstanding attraction of La Scala:

‘When the theatre was opened, one heard the remark that its catering department would not pay. That prophecy has been entirely falsified as the cafe at La Scala has proved a most popular rendezvous not only with residents in the city but also for their country cousins. It is a decided advantage for busy people to have luncheon or tea and at the same time to see what is being portrayed on the screen ...’

Cinemas such as La Scala aimed to attract an upmarket audience from Glasgow’s more salubrious areas – patrons who would never have considered visiting premises such as the Eglinton Electreum, but rather whose points of reference for design values appropriate to an entertainment venue would have been a theatre or concert hall. Comfort was of great importance, as was cleanliness and a high quality of furnishings and decoration.

Little survives to show how La Scala’s interior originally looked as the building was totally reconstructed and enlarged in 1936 to a design by Alister G. MacDonald (the son of the Labour prime minister).
The original decoration, however, was by Guthrie and Wells, a fashionable Glasgow firm that also decorated Cranston’s premises in Renfield Street (within a shell by James Miller).

La Scala survived [after a tripling] until mid-1984 and the Glasgow branch of Waterstone’s has replaced it, behind the same Victorian façade, which of course pre-dates the cinema.

McKissack’s next cinema was an entirely new building – the Silver Cinema in Nicholson Square in Edinburgh. Although little evidence has been found about this venue, The Last Picture Showsby Brendan Thomas records that it too was rather upmarket and seemingly aimed to attract ‘posh Southsiders.’ Its façade was symmetrical and of Craigleith stone. On either side of the arched entranceway, there was a bell tower. One year after first opening, the cinema was re-named the Lyric and continued as such until its closure. Plans were lodged, however, in 1934 for a proposed rebuilding and enlargement, but these were never carried out. It is not clear what architect was involved in this abortive scheme.

In 1916, McKissack was employed by Miss Catherine Cranston, the doyenne of Glasgow tea room owners, to act as ‘ Film Advisor’ to her new cinema venture in Renfield Street. The cinema was part of an entertainment complex called Cranston’s De Luxe which contained several tea rooms, a restaurant, billiard rooms and a cinema, all within a beaux arts style block faced in white faience tiling and designed by James Miller.
McKissack must, therefore, have been rather a well – known film enthusiast for her firm to rely on his selections, as she promoted an upmarket image for this her only cinema using the slogans ‘Cranston’s Programmes are Always the Best’ and ‘Cranston’s Pictures are First Run Glasgow.’ 

A person with a wide range of talents, or interests can be described as a renaissance man, a description which certainly seems appropriate when applied to James McKissack. It would seem, however, that his chief interest was cinema, and he was to channel much effort into designing buildings, which would in different ways attempt enhance the film-going experience for the public.

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