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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.

Art Deco and Jazz Moderne [Part 2]

In appearance, the New Tivoli in Edinburgh (1934) followed a similar pattern, but appears to have been more generously financed as its equally lumpish façade to Gorgie Road was faced with red sandstone.

The interior of this cinema (now a bingo hall) remains in excellent near-original condition, however, with acid-etched in ‘jazz moderne’ style in the door architraves and many other period details. As with the Mecca, the auditorium of this cinema was largely clad in asbestos cement panels, but this was buried from view behind a continuous street frontage.  

McKissack’s other main client, George Singleton, was a man of advanced ideas. Describing his first purpose-built cinema, the Broadway in Shettleston, Singleton explained his own philosophy about cinema design:

We found a site just off Shettleston Road. It was cramped and on an awkward corner and James McKissack was asked to make a very conspicuous entranceway that could be seen from Shettleston Road. It didn't matter what it looked like as long as it was eye catching and everyone could see that it was there. He did us proud. James Welsh chose the name to match up with his other halls and it had the right Hollywood feel. I was very proud of the Broadway. It was my first big achievement when I went into the cinema trade and it cost £30,000; not much in today's terms may be, but a great deal then.

The Broadway did indeed boast the prominent corner portico ordered by its owner; almost three storeys high, it was clad in stripes of blue and cream tiling. This, however, was rather dominated by the intrusive bulk of the auditorium looming behind. As to the interiors, which were largely unornamented:

We never felt that ornate decoration would be needed because we always showed films in continuous performances and usually started them before the audience was allowed in, so they rarely saw the auditorium with the lights on. This trick also spared electricity and in that respect our cinemas were ahead of their time as simple interiors became standard practice for everyone later in the thirties…

McKissack went on to design further Singleton cinemas - the Commodore, Scotstoun (1933) and the Vogue cinemas in Rutherglen and Strathmartine Road, Dundee (both 1936). These were all similar in that they had freestanding tiled entrance porticos, flanged by shop units, with commodious entrance hallways. Their auditoria were located on vacant land some way to the rear (in the cases of Scotstoun and Dundee, these were at right angles to the street frontages). Intriguingly, and in complete contrast to the Mecca Possil, all three were solidly constructed with reinforced concrete frames containing brick infill. All appear to have had rather plain interiors, mixing neo-classical details with Art Deco motifs. As ever, McKissack tended to emphasise door architraves and proscenium arches with applied decoration as audiences in the semi-dark most readily noticed these features.

Commodore, Scotstoun

Vogue, Rutherglen

Vogue, Dundee

Also in Dundee was the Empire in Rosebank Street, a former music hall, purchased by George Singleton in 1927 and extensively modernised by McKissack in 1934. A completely new entrance was made possible by the demolition of some adjoining houses. This comprised a large yellow, cream and brown faience-clad portico with a neon-lit canopy; a large neon sign announcing the name of the theatre. The entire balcony was re-seated and the walls were decorated in a scheme of orange and brown and gold.

That September, Singleton sold his entire circuit to Oscar Deutsch’s expansive Odeon Empire, which was anxious to gain a Scottish foothold. Apart from the four modern super cinemas described above, the remainder of the Singleton circuit consisted of venerable halls – such as the Paragon in Glasgow’s Gorbals, converted from an abandoned church in the early days of cinema and subsequently little improved. Singleton later recalled that he only sent Deutsch photographs of his most recent cinemas and that Odeon paid well over the odds for the entire business, believing that all the cinemas were of a similar standard.  Scruffy as some were, they were all good earners and at least Odeon gained Scottish representation in towns as far apart as Hawick, Dundee and Coatbridge as a result.

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