History of the Roxy Cinema, Ulverston

1. In the beginning

The Roxy celebrated its 80th Anniversary last year!!

Leeds 1888: A Frenchman made the first film sequence, shooting a Yorkshire street scene. Louis Le Prince’s experiment predated the birth of movies in Paris in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers.

Cinema became increasingly popular, and film industries emerged in many countries. The American film industry was based in New York. However Hollywood was set up in the then remote Los Angeles to avoid patent charges associated with the technology.

After various experiments with sound, “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 was the first mainstream “talkie”.

Cinema in Ulverston began in 1909 with films screened in the Old Victoria Concert Hall. Around 1935 it was taken over by new owners and re-opened as the Old Vic Cinema. However it closed during World War 2, and did not reopen. The building still exists, and is now the Emmanuel Christian Centre in Mill St.

Ulverston’s second cinema, the Palladium, opened in 1920. It seated 815, a huge number by today’s standards. It gained a sound system in 1929, some years before the Old Vic. The Palladium was closed on October 1957, and the building demolished in 1965. Make an evening visit to its site at the Rose Garden in Victoria St, and imagine the scenes during its heyday.

2. A cinema is born

The musical ‘Rose Marie’, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald, drew opening night crowds to the new Roxy Cinema on Monday, 21st June 1937.

The cinema was designed by Manchester-based acclaimed theatre architects Drury and Gomersall, and built by the Rainey brothers of Barrow. It was the architects’ 46th cinema, indicating the popularity of the medium. Typical of their work, they used an Art Deco style. The facade has an old stuccoed look, with thinly rusticated quoins. Inside there is Art Deco plasterwork and light fittings.

The cinema seated a total of 1250, 850 in the stalls and 400 in the circle and balcony. It could also be used as a variety theatre, and had 5 changing rooms. Simplex projectors and Western Electric ‘Mirrophonic’ sound were installed.

The Roxy was built and owned by the James Brennan circuit. James was the leading cinema showman in the Furness and Kendal districts, and had many cinemas in the area. He had already used the name “Roxy” for his cinemas in Barrow and Dalton, and would also have a Roxy in Carnforth.

3. What’s in a name?

Most cinema names grandly suggested classical theatre with Greek and Roman names, eg Palladium, Odeon, Hippodrome, and Colisseum. But not “Roxy”. Although it does have origins in the Persian word for “dawn”, it comes from a different source.

Samuel L. Rothapfel was an enormously-successful American dance/theatre/vaudeville and cinema entrepreneur, whose famous nickname was “Roxy”. He was responsible for the great appeal of spectacular movie palaces. He presided over his theatres and instituted the practices of affordable low admissions so “the common man” could repeatedly come to his theatres, and unreserved seating. Rothapfel said on the secret of his success: “Giving the people what they want is fundamentally and disastrously wrong. The people don’t know what they want. They want to be entertained, that’s all. Don’t give the people what they want–give ’em something better.”

Roxy also made a name for himself on network radio, where he began broadcasting his weekly variety show “Roxy and His Gang”  in 1922. Then “The Roxy Hour”, was broadcast from the new Roxy Theatre from 1927 to 1932. He developed the dance troop “The Roxyettes” in 1925, performing at his 6000-seat Radio City Music Hall, the largest movie palace in the world. Although they changed their name to “The Rockettes” in 1934, they are still high-kicking today.

So the name “Roxy” fitted perfectly with cinema promoters’ aim to sell glamorous Hollywood films to an audience wanting escape from the austerity of the inter-war years.

Today the name “Roxy” has maintained an allure. The 1942 film “Roxie Hart” starred Ginger Rogers, and the role of Roxie was later re-imagined in the musical “Chicago”. Roxy was the captivating girlfriend of Joey in the UK comedy-drama “Bread”. Roxy is the brand name of world-leading action fashion sportswear for women. The pop group “Roxy Music” had a fascination with fashion, glamour, cinema, pop art, and the avant-garde, which separated the band from their contemporaries.

4. The golden years

Within a couple of years of its opening, Henry Simpson took control of Ulverston’s Roxy. Henry was one of Ulverston’s luminaries, combining public work with cinema ownership . When he died in the 1960s, his brother Jack took over.

The years from the ’20s to the ’60’s saw huge audiences. This was the era of Hollywood stars and the studio system. Although Hollywood dominated cinema, many of the best and most innovative films were made in other countries.

However televisions were about to become widespread. This lead to a slump in cinema audiences, and the closure of many cinemas.

5. The Roxy sliced up

In 1974 the building was sold to Brooks Wilkinson Ltd. The Roxy was then split into a cinema/bingo operation, with the cinema confined to the original circle. It was divided horizontally into two, with the bingo hall in the former stalls. The cinema retained its art deco features, and installed the largest screen in Cumbria (43 feet). Seating capacity was reduced to just over 300. Incidentally, the original layout can still be seen in the still-operating Hippodrome cinema in Ashton under Lyne, where it is a grade II listed building.

Jack Simpson continued to operate the cinema side until the mid 1970s. Then Brooks Wilkinson ran it themselves, via John Sail, and later his son Andrew.

A group of local film enthusiasts, led by Robin Hutt and Gwyneth Walker, started “Film Club at the Roxy” in September 1989. By this time, audiences had decreased to the point where the Roxy only showed films 3 evenings a week.

The cinema was briefly leased to Peter Lea, under the name Starlight Cinemas Ltd, in 2001, who made one or two changes including the replacement of the Westar/Westrex projection equipment with a Cinemeccanica Victoria 4, but scarcely more than six months later it reverted to Brooks Wilkinson.

6. The modern era

The Roxy Cinema – Brogden St, Ulverston LA12 7AH – 01229 582340

In September 2006, Charles Morris of Northern Morris Cinemas leased the Roxy, making it part of his group of 6 cinemas in Cumbria/Yorkshire.

In May 2007 the bingo operation ceased and soon afterwards the building was sold to Mrs. A. Armer.

The bingo club in the former stalls closed in August 2007 and this part of the building was converted into a carpet showroom. On 19th April 2009, the Laurel & Hardy Museum relocated from their original home, established on King Street in 1983, which had become too small. Its new home was housed on the former stage of the Roxy, and had its own 15 seat cinema which screens Laurel & Hardy films. The Roxy Cinema and carpet store continued unaffected, and a gym was opened in the former changing rooms.

In 2014, the carpet store was closed and the space was taken over by the Laurel & Hardy Museum. The duo’s classic films are now shown on a large screen, and the museum also hosts live performances.

Cinema audiences were slowly increasing, despite a succession of threats: Blockbuster videos, LoveFilm DVDs and Netflix streaming.

By 2013, digital media was taking over from 35mm celluloid film. Charles made a major investment in digital projection to ensure the cinema’s survival. However the old 8/16/35mm facilities are still operational, and old films are occasionally screened.

Dave Kyles

4 March 2018



History of the Film Club
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