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NEWS ANALYSIS: Phoenix cinema’s history brought to book
THE Phoenix Picturehouse may lack the vast auditoriums and blockbuster-filled programmes of the multiplex cinemas of today, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in cinematic soul.
And that is undoubtedly what has kept patrons buying tickets for the last 100 years.
One of only a handful of British cinemas to have remained active for an entire century, The Phoenix is Oxford’s oldest continuously operating cinema and those sitting beneath its silver screen say they can almost feel history seeping from its interior.
Now, for the first time, the cinema is the star of the show, in a new book: The Phoenix Picturehouse – 100 years of Cinema Memories.
Produced by Picturehouse Publications, the book features fascinating first-hand movie-goer reminiscences dating back to the days of silent movies.
It is illustrated with a collection of more than 100 images, some from the archives of the Oxford Mail and The Oxford Times, and some which have not appeared in print until now.
Part one of the book concentrates on the chequered history of the cinema, starting with its opening in March 1913 as The North Oxford Kinema – the same month that bicycle maker William Morris produced his first Morris car.
It follows its fortunes and numerous name-changes throughout years of great economic hardship – when the cinema represented an escape for its impoverished customers.
They were there for the advent of sound, colour, and even witnessed within its four walls the country’s changing attitudes to sex.
Part two of the book is dedicated to memories of cinema-goers, young and old, who have settled comfortably in its seats.
People like Jan Rae, who remembers watching iconic movies from 1955 through a thick fug of cigarette smoke. She said: “I remember the three shows in one evenings – a B feature (usually an Edgar Lustgarten crime story), the main feature, and the Pathé news.
“We enjoyed all the great French and Italian cinema– the cinema has always shown great continental films.
“No snacks or hot drinks then, just cigarettes – chain-smoked.
“But whether in a double seat or a single seat, you usually ended up reclining more during the course of the programme as the thick pall of smoke from Gitanes and Gauloises threatened to obscure the top half of the screen.”
Dr Daniela Treveri Gennari is reader in film studies at Oxford Brookes University and along with co-authors Deborah Allison and Hiu M Chan, has devoted several years of labour to researching the book.
She said: “Archiving and researching it has been a long process – since 2010.
“But my film students and I were fascinated by the stories from former and current customers.
“The Phoenix is much-loved and has played an important part in peoples’ lives.
“And as someone who came to Oxford from Italy 20 years ago and also fell in love with the Phoenix, I have been able to relate to what they say – that this place offers a familiar and very welcome backdrop to watch an exciting and varied programme of arthouse films.”
Co-author Deborah Allison said: “This has been a real community project. Most of the pictures have been shared by past and present staff and customers, or by the families of people who ran the cinema in the 1910s and 1920s.
“The Oxford Mail has also been a key partner from the very beginning.
“All the newspaper clippings and several other photos come from the Mail and The Oxford Times archives, and are reproduced with the kind permission of Newsquest Oxfordshire.
“But some of the most exciting moments came when we made new discoveries about the cinema’s very earliest years. We were worried that we might not be able to find out very much about the 1910s and 1920s but, luckily, the opposite was true. One of our biggest breaks was meeting former projectionist Martin Selwood who began work at the cinema in 1930.”
Interviewed by the Oxford Mail in March this year, Mr Selwood, now 97, lived in Union Street, Oxford, and started work in the projection room in 1930 straight from school aged 14. Mr Selwood said: “The Phoenix was called the Scala then. I started as a projectionist, but I was called a box boy until I was efficient.
“It was silent films, of course. Talkies were installed in about 1931.
“Comedies were popular, starring Chester Conklin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.
“And the early films I remember include The King of Jazz with Paul Whiteman and Smiling Through starring Norma Shearer.”
That film actually caught fire, he said. “The prints were made of nitrate stock, which has a similar chemical compound to nitro-glycerine, and if they got stuck in the gate, would be on fire in a second.
“We had to be prepared for such an emergency all the time.”
The Phoenix Picturehouse – 100 years of Cinema Memories will be officially launched at The Phoenix on November 23.
When tots could go to a horror movie
THERE are now strict rules on who can watch a film and watch it unaccompanied, but Ann Cole was only a tot when she first witnessed the cinema’s monsters.
She said: “My sister took me at four years old to see Frankenstein in 1934. I sat with my head in her lap.
“When I was about 12 or 13, in the war, I used to make myself look older so I could get in.
“I put a bit of lipstick on, and I used to put a turban on – I must have looked hideous.”
Elaine Blerkom (née Tomkins) said: “If the cinema was running an A film, or later an H, we had to ask the grown-ups if they would take us in.
“Some people were kind enough. Sometimes it took a while to get in, but we finally did.”
Patricia Marshall was an Oxford University student and credits the Phoenix with widening her horizons.
She said: “We used to go once or twice every week, sometimes more when there was a special week of films changing every day. I saw films like Les Enfants du Paradis, which I have always loved since and now have my own copy.”
Current manager of the Phoenix, Kenny Gold, thinks the book will have a large audience.
He said: “We’re already getting lots of inquiries and I think it’s going to be something people really enjoy reading or giving as a present.
“I for one am very happy to be part of the Phoenix’s ongoing history.”
Changing faces of a much-loved venue
THE cinema was designed by local architect Gilbert T Gardner, and its ownership changed regularly in its early years.
In 1920, under Poole’s, it became The Scala and briefly the New Scala under Ben Jay in 1925. Then in 1930, the lease was bought by J R Poyntz, who installed sound equipment and screened subtitled films for language students.
The cinema remained in the Poyntz family for 40 years, during which time it became one of the country’s most important arthouse venues outside London.
In 1970 it was taken over by Star Entertainments Ltd and converted into Studios One and Two and, for a time, its Studio X showed adult films.
It was renamed again in 1977, this time as the Phoenix Cinema, and in 1989 it became the first cinema to be owned and run by the newly-formed City Screen Ltd which installed a roof-top bar in the 1990s.
The independent Picturehouse chain was founded when it bought the Phoenix in 1989 and went on to own 21 cinemas, all of which were bought by the Cineworld stable in November last year for £47.3m.
OXFORD Mail readers can buy The Phoenix Picturehouse – 100 years of Cinema Memories at a reduced price (£7.99 instead of £9.99) from November 23. Readers need to quote the discount code “Oxford Mail Book” when buying it from The Phoenix kiosk.
The discount code is also available for telephone purchases, when the number to call is 0871 902 5736. A UK P&P charge of £2.95 will be added to mail orders. The code is valid from November 23 to December 31 inclusive.
Please note that this readers’ discount is only available when purchasing from The Phoenix (either in person or by phone) and does not apply to purchases from any third-party retailer.
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