Manchester Evening News Monday 20 April 2009 Features Page 9.
The disused Essoldo cinema is an art deco landmark which intrigues passing commuters. Paul Taylor asks can there be a happy ending for the old movie house?
Some still recall how the crowd at the Longford Cinema cheered the newsreel of Neville Chamberlin returning from his meeting with Hitler in 1938, declaring “peace in our time”. They also remember how Longford hosted the Halle Orchestra when it was bombed out of the Free Trade Hall in 1940 after the promise of peace had yielded to war. Generations go misty eyed about how they found romance at the movies.
But these days, the Longford later Essoldo cinema, evokes mainly curiosity in the thousands who drive past it on Chester Road, Stretford. What is the history of this strange, grand art deco picture palace? And 14 years after the doors closed, what is to become of it?
“Apart from the fact that it’s pretty special architecturally, it’s one of the few buildings like this still standing”, says Matthew White, who set up a website devoted to the cinema. “A lot of the response is from people who sneaked in as a kid, or met their future husband and wife there and sat on the back row in the kissing seats”. Those responses come as from as far afield as the USA. Verna Nelson in Modesto, California, recalls how her mum had such fun working at the Longford. Christine Hartley, in Italy, remembers how her brother, now living in Mew Zealand, was one a projectionist at the Longford. “Whenever I visit Stretford I take photos of the old Longford and post them to him”, she writes. “He says it breaks his heart to look at them”.
But the owner, a businessman from Sale has a message for the doomsayers who believe the building is being left to rot. “There have been rumours that it’s going to be demolished or turned into flats – all sorts of things”, he says. “It’s still destined to be a family entertainment centre. That was the idea and that’s what we want to follow through with. We’re looking at a couple of groups – both theatre groups – to use the building”. To concerns that the building is looking shabby, he says “Don’t be confused by what you see outside. The auditorium has a complete re paint and is looking very nice”.
The cinema opened in 1936, the curvy design intended to contour the design of a cash register. There was an expansive concourse leading to the front entrance, a foyer of Venetian marble, and the auditorium was decorated in tangerine and silver-blue art deco designs. The Longford was the first building in Britain illuminated by neon tube lighting, there was under seat heating, a cafe with seating for 146 and space in the auditorium for 2000 film goers. The first film shown was Tudor Rose, starring Nova Pillbeam, and patrons would pay 6d for a seat in the stalls, and 3s in the circle. A young Julie Andrews performed at Sunday concerts on the stage. “It was quite a big deal when it opened”, says White. “It was meant to be a luxurious experience”.
In 1950, the Longford was bought by the Essoldo group and renamed. But TV eroded the cinemas’ clientele and the last picture show at the Essoldo was in 1965, and Ladbrokes turned it into a bingo hall. In 1979, the widening of Chester Road meant it lost its grand concourse, and the building closed in 1995.
“My early memories were of seeing Ben Hur and Dr No there with my parents”, says John Ryan, 55, from Sale who took video footage of the Essoldo interior when it was thrown open to potential buyers in 1995. “It’s a huge accommodation. It was known as a ‘super cinema’, and all the super cinemas, like the Plaza at Stockport, had large cafes. I made a video and was selling it on eBay. I had people e-mailing me saying they often wondered what it looked like inside. There’s a huge curiosity about the place”.
Local councillor Steve Adshead, 50, says fears about the building’s future ‘are the bane of our lives’. “It’s a question everyone in Stretford talks about”, he adds. “They see it going to waste – a big building which could be a fantastic resource for the community. It is a listed building and he’s required to maintain it in a reasonable condition, and as long as he does that, the council have no powers”.
The owner is a lover of art deco architecture who insists that work goes on to bring the Essoldo back to life. “I’m hopeful that by the end of the year it’s going to be looking a lot different”, he says. “We’ve spent and awful lot of money. Now it’s a case of finding the correct partnerships”.