How a local art deco gem was saved after suffering years of neglect

For the generations that lived through the 1930s and 1940s, going to the pictures provided escape to a world of Hollywood glamour away from the harsh realities of everyday life.  A visit to the local cinema became a social occasion that people really looked forward to. Stars of the big screen such as Spencer Tracey, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney were household names – and posters promoting the latest film releases displayed outside cinemas all over Middlesex.

Sadly since those golden days, many picture houses in the area fell into disrepair and were demolished but one spectacular building somehow managed to survive the changing fashions and lack of appreciation of more recent times.

The Grosvenor Cinema in Rayners Lane designed by local architect F E Bromige (who also designed the Dominion Cinema in Harrow which still exists as a twin screen Asian Cinema and Bingo hall and The Dominion Cinema, Acton – currently used as a Bingo hall) was opened in October 1936.

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County shows and Grosvenor cinema 270First left: The Foyer – that was originally the sunken cafe area of the Grosvenor.

Second left: The front exterior

 

 

Open House Weekend

As part of the Open House Weekend 2015, I had the opportunity to get a glimpse into the building’s incredible cinematic past and discover the fascinating story of the building’s current occupants on a short tour of the auditorium and guided view of an exhibition in the foyer.

The Grosvenor Cinema building is at 440 Alexandra Avenue, Harrow (turn right out of Rayners Lane station).

During the open house event I joined a guided tour of the auditorium and exhibition in the foyer.

The auditorium is a glamorous and dramatic hark back to the hay-day of art deco.  There are still many original well-preserved features – like the columns shown below.

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County shows and Grosvenor cinema 250

 

 

 

 

The exhibition provided a background to the history of the building.  There is one particularly interesting story of a Projectionist called Eric Wrate who began working in the cinema during 1943 (Eric had originally wanted to be a film editor and hoped that working as a projectionist would carve a route out into the business).  In those days of national crisis the news was eagerly awaited – hard to imagine in our modern days of 24 news saturation!  Part of Eric’s job was to cycle over to the Odeon in Wealdstone who shared the newsreel with the Grosvenor in Rayners Lane and bring it back in time for the next showing.  This could be quite a tight schedule as there were 3 performances each day!  In those days a showing consisted of a few tunes on the cinema grand piano, a short (which could be a cartoon), a newsreel, the second feature and the main feature.

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County shows and Grosvenor cinema 268

 

 

 

 

An unsettled past – damage and decay

The building has a varied history, changing hands on numerous occasions.  In 1938 The Grosvenor was taken over by the Odeon and became known as the Gaumont between 1950 and 1964.  It eventually reverted back to the Odeon which was at that time controlled by Rank until the lease was taken over by an independent operator Ace – Alternative Cinema Entertainment in 1981.  Rank terminated the lease in October 1986 and, on 16th October 1986 (just after celebrating it’s 50th birthday), the lights went down on the final film of the house.

In 1984 English Heritage gave the building Grade II* listed status.  Around this time plans to turn the building into a snooker hall and into four shops with a pub/restaurant and cinema were turned down as they did not comply with planning requirements.

From 1990 the building entered a phase were it operated as a bar/night spot. During ownership by a company called Ace Bar, the auditorium was painted midnight blue against listing obligations, resulting in Ace Bar being ordered to arrange redecoration into a more appropriate colour.  The entire auditorium had to be repainted in just one weekend.

County shows and Grosvenor cinema 257The building then underwent several further refurbishments with various owners unsuccessfully attempting to gain a late night licence to operate as a night club.  It was during this time that I remember the premises being known as The Cine Bar and the small planes and other stuff (a helicopter, rowing skiff and life size spacemen) hanging from the ceiling. During a visit all those years ago I wondered about the history of this interesting building being somewhat disappointed that despite being called Cine Bar the interior didn’t seem to have any cinematic memorabilia.

The Cine Bar was quite successful (but not popular with some local residents due to noise and anti-social behaviour).   However, due to the lack of late night licence only ever acted as a feeder bar (pre-night club spot) from where groups were actually bused on to a proper night club.

Around the time of the closure of the bar/nightclub in September 2000, the original cinema seats had been dumped in the circle area and were covered with thick dust.  There were several leaks in the building through the roof and the rear of the circle causing plaster to break off the wall. By this stage the building had been put on the English Heritage Register of Buildings at Risk under category C (slow decay, no solution agreed).

The present owners – and a brighter future

After a time of being passed between various property companies, the building was sold to its present owners The Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe in 2000 for 1.3 m.  In addition, they spent another 2.2m on refurbishment work.  The old cinema seats were removed, hanging night club objects removed from the ceiling and roof leaks repaired.

During my visit, a member of the community took some time to explain a bit more about the Zoroastrian faith.  It is one of the oldest religions in the world and is ascribed to the teachings of the Prophet Zarathushtra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, who lived three and a half thousand years ago circa 1500BCE, revealed Zoroastrianism to the Iranian people.  For over a thousand years from 559BCE to 652 ACE Zoroastrianism flourished as the imperial religion of the empires of Achaemenians, Parthians and Sasanians.

In Zoroastrianism the purpose in life is to be amongst those who renew the world.  It’s basic message is:-

  • Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta – Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds
  • There is only one path and that is the path of truth
  • Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and then all beneficial rewards will come to you

In Zoroastrianism water and fire are agents of purity and associated ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life.  Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire. Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.

In the Grosvenor car park, the Zoroastrians had hoped to build a fire temple but planning restrictions prevented this from becoming a reality.  Instead the old cinema projection box was converted into a prayer room.

Sitting in a coffee shop on Imperial Drive looking out under the overcast surburban skies towards the Suntastic  Tanning Salon, Plaz Hair Design, Hollywood Pizzas, the Thai massage centre and the local tatooist, it is almost impossible for me to imagine the world of Eric Wrate and the Grosvenor cinema in 1940s Rayners Lane but  I feel sure that he would be pleased to see the building looking as good as it does now and reassured that it’s now in safe hands for the future.

 

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