20th Century

Cinema Comes to York

Staff stand outside the first purpose-built cinema, Electric Theatre. (c) CYC Imagine York

The first half of the 20th century saw an explosion in cinema development.  York audiences had their first chance to see animated pictures at the Theatre Royal in December 1896.  Over the following years film shows were also staged in the Opera House, the Festival Concert Rooms, the Exhibition Buildings and the Victoria Hall.

The first building dedicated to film arrived in 1908 when the former Wesleyan Chapel, New Street Hall, was converted to a cinema.  And York’s first purpose-built cinema came soon after when in 1911 the excitingly named Electric Theatre was opened on Fossgate.  It lasted several decades, becoming the Scala in 1951, and the unusual building decorated with theatrical figures can still be seen today. 

More cinemas quickly followed the Electric Theatre.  In 1914 the City Picture Palace opened on Fishergate, later to become the Casino and eventually the Rialto.  In 1915 the Picture House was opened in Coney Street; in 1919 the Grand opened in Clarence Street, followed in 1921 by St George’s Hall in Castlegate (Fairfax House formed part of this entertainment complex).

The coming of the “talkies” stimulated another period of cinema building in the 1930s.  The new cinemas were to be bigger and better.  The distinctive Art Deco Odeon building on Blossom Street, designed by Harry Weedon, opened in 1937.  The Regent, Acomb,  the Regal, Piccadilly, and the Clifton also opened in the thirties.  The Rialto was rebuilt, in 1935, complete with specially commissioned extra-large seats.

In July 1947 York voted for Sunday opening of cinemas.  The peak year for attendances was 1949 when almost 60 per cent of the city’s population went to the movies.  But as the century came to a close competition from television and other entertainments meant that only one of these many cinemas - the Odeon – remained open.  (The Odeon closed in 2006 but was reopened in 2009 by Reel Cinemas.)

The new millenium did bring a new cinema to York when, in January 2000, the City Screen Picturehouse moved into the redeveloped Yorkshire Herald press building.


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