Opened in 1933 for a local company, the Playhouse in Perth became the flagship cinema for the Inverness-based Caledonian Associated Cinemas (CAC), when that chain was formed in 1935. The Playhouse, like many cinemas of the time, was booked from Glasgow by Alexander B King. The architect was Alex Cattenach Jr., who worked from the Kingussie-based practice started by his father, Alex Senior. Between building cinemas, Alex Jr. managed to find time to become a Colonel in the TA.
Perhaps arising from work on a few cinemas which the elder Cattenach had carried out in his practice, his son went on to specialise in cinema buildings, and the Perth Playhouse remains as probably the best-preserved of this body of work, despite later subdivisions. Several of his cinemas were designed with help from the Edinburgh cinema specialist, T. Bowhill Gibson, (and also by William Henry Sayers, an assistant of Gibson), but it is not clear exactly how much influence they had on the final design. Construction of the cinema took shape in only nine weeks, which was thought to be a record at that time. The auditorium sat 1,687, and incorporated a café and two shops; of note was the fact that the balcony was of a cantilevered design.
The Playhouse makes good use of the broad thoroughfare on which it is located in Perth city centre with a bold, unashamedly modern design. A central tower, possibly originally clad in marble, rises to three storeys in height, with three central windows at its base, placed between the vertical buttresses which run to the wall-head above.
Externally, Cattenach would return to an almost identical, although slightly less successful, design in 1938, when he built the Regal in Rothesay for a syndicate of local businessmen. Coincidentally, this would later also become part of the CAC chain. Intriguingly, Perth’s exterior also bears more than a passing resemblance to Alister G. MacDonald’s exterior design for the Broadway in Prestwick, which opened in 1935.
Despite the addition of a new proscenium forward of the original, and a new floor from the balcony front to this screen, much remains of interest in this area of the building. The ceiling has original decorative ventilation grilles and glazed light fittings to the rear, with a ribbed cornicing along the top of the sidewalls. The sidewalls themselves have several vertical recesses running up to this cornice, flanked by a jagged deco pattern, and clearly intended to be lit by concealed illumination from above or below at some point - the current modern downlighters seem poorly positioned.
Mention is also made of some original paint colouring in an office off the main foyer, and of the original foyer floor covering surviving beneath the current carpet, but again, these could not be easily verified in a working building.
After providing cinematic entertainment for the citizens of Perth for over 70 years, the Playhouse has proved a remarkable survivor – outlasting the all of the town’s other cinemas, including the mighty Gaumont/Odeon chain. Sadly, from an empire which once covered over 30 Scottish towns and cities, it is now one of only two cinemas that still use the Caledonian name, the other being the Elgin Playhouse. The lack of any nearby multiplex has worked in the cinema’s favour until now, but the financial viability of the cinema business in general has led to the owners seeking new ways of making the building more profitable.
In 2005, permission was applied for to further redevelop the building. This was subsequently granted by Perth and Kinross council in 2006, and involves the creation of a new extension in a gap infill site to the left of the present building. This will would house two new small screens, as well as an extended bar/restaurant operation. The design of this extension came in for some criticism from several bodies, including the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the council’s own architect, centring around whether the new façade should be in the style of adjacent older tenements, the cinema itself, or be totally contemporary.
The present building, meanwhile, would be altered too under these proposals – losing the original stairs at the rear of the main foyer, which would be replaced by a more central spiral stair. Upstairs, the small Screen 2 in the former cinema café area would be converted back to an open space, whilst the largest alterations would be in Screen 1 (the former balcony area). The plan involved this being converted to a dining area with screening facilities - a process which would appear to involve the removal of the original balcony rake - although it is not yet clear whether this would involve a single, level floor or a series of terraces.
The best that can be hoped for is that these works ensure the future survival of the Perth Playhouse as a cinema, and that the works respect the original art deco interior of the cinema by making good the decoration where the rake is removed. Although the owners have kept the cinema in excellent order, both in terms of cleanliness and decoration, it would be welcome if the current, rather cold colour scheme of blue, green and grey were replaced with a warmer, more appropriate scheme which could once again highlight the banding and other 3D-effects of the ceiling in contrasting colours.
The trend towards creating dining areas with screening facilities is a relatively recent proposal by cinema operators to try to make maximum use of their larger auditoria, but it has often proved contentious, as evidenced by the recent passionate public debate over the (now withdrawn) conversion plans for the Cameo in Edinburgh. Whilst it remains to be seen which element is considered more important in Perth, we hope that the most intact area of the original auditorium will still remain a place where films - as well as food - can be enjoyed in a favourable environment.
Many thanks to Gavin MacKenzie, Denise Ewins and the staff of the Playhouse and Cairnstar Limited for taking the time to show us around.