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New images show Preston’s lost Empress Cinema in its last days

Posted on - 9th April, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, History, Preston News
The large auditorium of the lost Empress Cinema Pic: Preston Reunited
The large auditorium of the lost Empress Cinema Pic: Preston Reunited

Some new images of the now lost Empress Cinema in Ashton have been published on the Preston Digital Archive. They were uploaded by the Preston Reunited Facebook group.

These show the building in its last days, when it was converted into a bingo hall. That was a fate reserved for many ex-cinemas. The faded glory of the cinema sign can still be seen below. The building was also used as a roller skating rink, for a time. It closed as a cinema in the late 1960s rather than being converted into a multiplex.

The Empress Cinema in 1975 after conversion to a bingo hall Pic: Preston Reunited
The Empress Cinema in 1975 after conversion to a bingo hall Pic: Preston Reunited

There was a well-known licenced bar at the back of the auditorium. The bar originally had a swirling milk machine that fascinated children.

The Empress Cinema’s licenced bar Pic: Preston reunited
The Empress Cinema’s licenced bar Pic: Preston Reunited

Let’s take a look at the building’s history, and the pioneering Western Electric sound system that was installed in 1929.

The Empress Cinema

The Empress Cinema was opened in 1929 as a combined variety theatre and cinema. It was in Eldon Street and had dressing rooms for the performers. It also had a large stage with a projection screen at the back. The auditorium was Italianate in design and was fitted with the Western Electric sound system, also known as Vitaphone. Sound films had begun in 1926 and most cinemas had sound installed by 1930.

The central auditorium part of the building survives as an industrial unit.

Read more: Discovering Preston’s former cinema sites (part two)

The former Empress Cinema Pic: Google Earth
The former Empress Cinema Pic: Google Earth

Press promotion

The local press was used to advertise what was showing that week. Evergreen was a British film, starring the actor and dancer Jessie Matthews. She had a following in the USA but resisted moving to Hollywood. Evergreen was based on the stage musical of the same name also staring Jessie Matthews. The Outcast was also a British film, however Gambling Lady was made in Hollywood.

Newspaper cutting from 1934 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Newspaper cutting from 1934 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Vitaphone sound and giant records

The Vitaphone sound system was first developed in 1926.  The process used 16” records that ran at 33 1/3 RPM, a speed later used for LPs. The discs were synchronised to the projector motor so that the sound stayed in time with the image.

A Vitaphone sound demonstration Pic: public domain
A Vitaphone sound demonstration Pic: public domain

The Vitaphone system, which is shown above, would have represented a significant investment when new. The Empress Cinema would have had something similar to the cumbersome apparatus above. The turntable is mounted on a massive tripod mount. The operator is holding one of the 16” records. The control panel looks like something out of Frankenstein’s lab, and a classic 1920s microphone is mounted on the ceiling. You can see the large amplifier valves next to the telephone dial.

One Reeler films were shown, and these ran for about 10 minutes or the length of one reel of film. The record would have played for that amount of time. Bigger cinemas had two projectors so that longer films could be shown. This involved changing the reel on the first projector while the second projector took over.

Follow Geoffrey on Twitter for more Preston history.

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