Granada Tooting: A neo-renaissance cinema masquerading as a bingo hall
In cinemas’ heyday in the early half of the 20th century, there were film theatres on every high street, often several on the same road. However, in recent decades, a host of cinemas have been bulldozed or converted into bingo halls, churches and even pubs. However, while one such venue is no longer screening movies, the stunning, original interiors have been largely preserved.
In the heart of Tooting stands a very grand branch of Gala Bingo. Located on Mitcham Road, Gala is residing in the former Granada Tooting, a Grade I listed, Art Deco cinema. Although bingo players are welcome to visit during game-playing hours, I joined a guided tour early one Sunday morning during Open House London for a more in-depth look and to find out about the history.
The cinema was originally built as one of a chain, owned by Essex-born media baron Sidney Bernstein (1899-1993) and his younger brother Cecil (1904-1981). After his eldest sibling Selim was killed during World War I in 1915, as next in line Sidney inherited the family business following the death of his property tycoon father Alexander (1870-1922). The business included several music halls and the Empire group of ‘Kinemas’ in Ilford, Plumstead, East Ham, West Ham and Willesden. Together, Sidney and Cecil established the Granada Cinema chain – named after the Spanish city of Granada after the former had been there on holiday. Granada is home to the stunning Alhambra complex, so the name would have sounded very exotic to the average early 20th century Brit, most of whom would have never been abroad. Sidney wanted people to be drawn to the cinema itself, rather than the film, and thought of his businesses as temples of entertainment. Although his initial ‘Kinemas’ were converted music halls and theatres, his first purpose-built cinema was the Granada Dover, which opened in January 1930 (it was demolished in 2014).
Rival cinema mogul Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941), who founded the Odeon chain, was building Art Deco cinemas around the same time. However, it appears that Sidney wasn’t so fond of Art Deco and although many of his cinemas feature the style on the exterior, the interiors tended to be Neo-Renaissance. After the opening of the Granada Dover and subsequently, the Granada Walthamstow (now the Mirth, Marvel & Maud arts centre) in 1930, the Bernsteins enlisted the same architect Cecil Audrey Massey (1880-1960) to design the Granada Tooting – the flagship of the chain. Massey was also responsible for the New Wimbledon Theatre (1910), the Phoenix Theatre (1930), Odeon Ealing (1932), Granada Woolwich (1937) and the Granada Clapham Junction (1937). Construction began in May 1930 and was completed in September 1931 at a cost of around £145,000.
Standing across the road from the building today, you can really survey the grand façade of the building. Four Corinthian style pillars stand over the entrance canopy, giving an impression of grand things to come. While going to the cinema is pretty commonplace today, to early 20th century Brits it was a new and exciting experience to watch moving pictures. Massey designed the cinema’s exterior in an Italianate style, which gives no clue to the drastically contrasting interiors. Russian-born theatre designer Theodore Komisarjevsky (1882-1954) oversaw the inside, having done the same for the Bernsteins at the Granadas in Dover and Walthamstow. While the first two purpose-built cinemas featured Moorish influenced design, the Tooting branch was to showcase a quasi-Medieval style. The entrance foyer features grand marble staircases, Gothic windows and mirrors and chandeliers. On the first floor, guests enter the balcony seating via the ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a long room full of arches and mirrors, creating a sense of grandeur for patrons as they waited to enter the auditorium. Today, the seating arrangement on the balcony remains as it would for a cinema, while down in the ‘stalls’, the forward-facing seating has been long removed and replaced with tables and chair booths for bingo playing. Meanwhile, entering on the ground level, you are struck by the grand arches, deep ornate ceilings, doorways and balconies either side of the stage. The side gables feature Medieval-style paintings by Alex Johnson, taken from smaller originals by Lucien Le Blanc. Meanwhile, Clark & Fenn (Joseph Bernard Clark and Harry Fenn) were responsible for the ornamental plasterwork. When it opened, the cinema contained seating for 3,000 patrons. While the cinema screen is now gone, the original Wurlitzer organ remains in situ on stage, although it is currently out of action following water damage from a flood in 2007.
The Granada Tooting opened its doors on 7 September 1931 with screenings of Monte Carlo and, the short film, Two Crowded Hours. Double features such as this were a popular screening format at Granada cinemas. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Granada also became a popular venue for concerts, with Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Little Richard and The Rolling Stones performing. The last big name to sing at the Granada Tooting were the Bee Gees in April 1968.
Meanwhile, the Bernstein brothers continued to expand their cinema chain and by the mid-1950s, owned over 60 branches. Aside from the family business, Sidney’s interest in entertainment was expanding, with him enjoying a spell in Hollywood. Having been born to a Jewish family, Sidney was an anti-fascist and produced and screened many anti-Nazi and pro-British films to US audiences in 1939-1941 when Britain was trying to persuade the then-neutral USA to join the fight against Hitler. Alongside the cinema chain, savvy businessman Sidney recognised the rising popularity of televisions and launched his Granada Television company in May 1956, which is now part of ITV. Focusing his attention on the burgeoning TV industry, he left Cecil to look after the cinema arm of the family business.
With the huge success of TV, cinema attendance across Britain declined dramatically in the 1960s. The balcony café overlooking the grand foyer had closed in 1954 and by 1971, Granada Tooting was only entertaining an average of 600 customers a week. Despite the Bernsteins’ wish for it to be demolished as, to them, it had outgrown its money-making purpose, local councillors fortunately disagreed. They stuck a preservation order on it and it became Grade II listed in 1972. However, the cinema’s declining fortunes were dealt a further blow in July 1973 when heavy storms flooded the building and damaged the organ. A few months later, the cinema screened its last films – The Man Called Noon and Perfect Friday – on 10 November 1973. The building was left unused for a few years, before it reopened as the Granada Bingo Club in October 1976. The Granada firm – still in the hands of the Bernstein family at the time – ran the bingo hall until May 1991 when it was taken over by Gala Bingo, the current owners. The same year, the Bernsteins sold Granada Theatres Ltd to Bass for £147 million. In October 2000, the building was relisted as Grade I. Historic England consider the building to be ‘a world class cinema – without doubt the most lavishly decorated interior of any cinema in Britain and among the most lavish in Europe; the finest evocation of the sumptuous movie palaces of the 1920s and 1930s’.
Update: In October 2018, Gala Bino Tooting was rebranded as Buzz Bingo.
- Gala Bingo, 50-60 Mitcham Road, Tooting, SW17 9NA. Nearest station: Tooting Broadway. Visit the Buzz Bingo website for opening hours.
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