A History of the Gaumont Palace Theatre
Doncaster has a rich and fascinating cinema heritage and was once home to the largest theatre in South Yorkshire – the Gaumont Palace Theatre. Local historian Ron Curry MBE reveals the history and architecture of the beautiful Art Deco theatre.
There is nothing, that can match the compulsive magic of that big screen in a darkened auditorium. We may have become more sophisticated in the way moving pictures are made today but the essential cinema-going experience has not changed. An estimate in 1936 on audience attendance at Doncaster cinemas in a normal week was round about 50,000. Within the town boundaries there were seven sites accommodating over 10,000 patrons, used exclusively for showing films.
Doncaster town centre has, over the years, been home to 13 cinemas and more then 30 picture houses have existed at some time in the Metropolitan Borough. The British cinema centenary in 1996 was not only an important historic landmark, it also provided a unique opportunity to celebrate our town’s heritage of the cinemas of Doncaster.
During the year of celebration The British Film Institute commemorated Cinema 100 by awarding a cinema heritage plaque to the people and places that had made a significant contribution to British cinema history.
Doncaster was a proud recipient and the unveiling ceremony of the commemorative plaque was held in the foyer of the Doncaster Warner Bros Theatres (UK) multiplex on 27 July 1996. Performing the ceremony was MP Sir Harold Walker.
Doncaster’s first cinemas evolved when showman and cinema pioneer G.T. Tuby and Sons gave the first film presentations in their fairground canvas tent. The tents were commonly titled ‘Bioscope Exhibition’ – the Tuby Bioscope was named ‘The Coliseum’.
The frontage had a wooden decorated show front, a noisy mechanical steam organ drowning out the sound of the traction engine which provided the electricity, and a small stage from where the ‘Barker’ would urge the public to “step inside”.
Cinema today has the same capacity to seduce, influence and to overwhelm as it did 120 years ago.
The Gaumont Palace
The Gaumont British Picture Corporation was formed in 1927 and was the first to combine film production, distribution and exhibition into one company. This merge catalysed a period of expansion which included gaining a majority interest in Provincial Cinematographic Theatres – the first national circuit in England.
They owned 96 cinemas including the Doncaster Majestic,which occupied the site of the future Gaumont Palace. The Gaumont Corporation PCT went through a period of building and replacing cinemas in the 1930s, most commonly under the direction of their chief architect Mr William Edward Trent.
Plans for the Gaumont Palace dating from June 20, 1933 and through until October 24th, 1933, show numerous changes in planning and surveys of sites. Properties at 35-36 Hall Gate and Thorne Road relating to the proposed new cinema plans were prepared and approved by the Doncaster Corporation Watch Committee. Construction of the new theatre commenced in December of 1933.
The new Gaumont Palace had risen in the place of the old Majestic, an exceedingly creditable piece of work on the part of Messrs, McLaughlin & Harvey, the Contractors, Mr Fred Clarke, their General Foreman, and all the sub-contractors and operatives associated with them.
The 2,020 seat Doncaster Gaumont Palace became the largest cinema in South Yorkshire. Its grand opening ceremony on Monday 3 September 1934 was performed by His Worship the Mayor of Doncaster, Councillor G. H. Ranyard, J.P. The premiere film was Evergreen starring Jessie Matthews.
The new building which for those nine months had been such a hive of activity, proved to be a source of great entertainment to large numbers of onlookers. The theatre – an Art Deco style cinema – was almost steel framed with skilful blending of the brick and stonework contrasting with the black base of the front section of the building which was greatly increased by the fine sculptured frieze over the front entrance.
Architecture of the Palace
The entrance hall was a very spacious affair (in fact it occupied a floor area of some 1,800 sq.ft). A fine ornate ceiling richly coloured and gilded with a skilful blending of concealed and direct lighting gave an impression of warmth and intimacy and the impression was further emphasised by the beautiful sycamore wood panelling around the whole of the walls. Above the panelling were two painted panels showing favourite stars of the day Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo.
These panels formed a wonderful splash of colour and were the work of Mr. Frank Barnes, the Corporation’s Artist. Mr Barnes also painted the upper panels on the staircase as well as the safety curtain. The floor of the hall was a combination of terrazzo and mosaic panelling, and was divided into panels to lead to the pay box, where, having purchased tickets, patrons either entered the doors to the stalls or mounted the staircase leading to the balcony.
The staircase was worthy of attention for the originality displayed in its design. The ceiling was simple and relied upon its subtle colouring for its chief ornament. Down the centre of the ceiling and throughout its full length ran a single lighting fitting of the latest type of ‘striplite’ tubing. The walls throughout were covered with veneered paper panelling, chequered to form a very pleasing pattern, and coloured to harmonise with the surrounding decorations. The stairs were formed of the same material as the entrance hall floor, and the lines were continued to guide patrons into the cafe foyer.
Before entering the foyer, patrons would observe Mr. Barnes’ painted panel on the wall of the first landing. This showed the spirit of the times portrayed by a youth riding triumphantly into the proscenium opening of a theatre, with all the paraphernalia of his trade taking the place of the usual armour of the knight of old.
The balcony foyer was a room some 62′ long and 20′ wide, furnished as a lounge. The decorations were a direct contrast to elsewhere, the walls and ceiling were comparatively free from ornament, and relied mainly for their decoration on the colours of bright lemons and greens, relieved here and there by light touches of vermilion.
The illumination however was similar to the system used on the staircase, and consisted of a single line of ‘striplite’ tubing running the whole length of the room, with small subsidiary lights forming part of the decorated cornice running around the walls. The floor was richly carpeted, and the whole scheme gave a feeling of comfort and luxury, and imparted a feeling of pleasant anticipation of the surprises awaiting in the theatre.
It was a policy of the Gaumont British Picture Corporation that every important theatre would contain a Cafe-Restaurant for the convenience of it’s patrons. The Cafe of the new Gaumont Palace was to be found on the first floor above the Entrance Hall, and could be approached either direct from Thorne Road or from the main staircase of the Theatre.
This was a large pleasant room, decorated in shades of fawn and gold, with windows overlooking Hall Gate and Thorne Road. There the patron could obtain from 11am till 10pm Luncheon, Afternoon Teas, and a Special Four Course Supper for the convenience of patrons attending the cinema in the evening for the price of 2 shillings.
The auditorium had received the most careful consideration. An audience not only demanded to see perfectly all that was taking place on the screen or stage but also to hear perfectly at the same time. In the Gaumont Palace both the sight lines and the acoustic properties of the theatre had been very carefully thought out and from every position these two important requirements were fulfilled.
The ceiling was an attractive shape rising upwards in tiers towards the centre, and stepped downwards in large flat surfaces towards the proscenium opening. The majority of the enrichment was to be found on the ceiling, and this, together with the very decorative electric light fittings and soft delicate colours, provided a most attractive composition.
As a foil to the elaboration of the ceiling, the walls were comparatively plain, divided into broad horizontal bands which were decorated alternately with a very modern and colourful type of abstract design. The lower part of the walls, together with the proscenium opening, were carried out in a darker shade of green, relieved with brilliantly coloured grilles and fillers.
Before a live show began, there was time to examine the safety curtain. It was the screen artist Mr Frank Barnes’ intentions to paint the various occupations of Doncaster in an Art Deco design, such as the construction of locomotives and other typical scenes of the iron and coal industries. In the background appeared an impression of the famous racecourse, with horses and jockeys in brilliant colours, speeding towards the winning post.
The 67ft wide stage had been provided with a steel grid nearly 60ft above it and 11 dressing rooms. The Doncaster Gaumont Palace became one of the most popular on the touring circuit. All live Theatre was staged at the Gaumont, including Variety Shows, Pantomime, Plays, Musicals, Opera and Ballet. There was no less then 12 exits from the theatre, each leading directly to the street so that in case of emergency the whole building could be emptied in the astonishingly short space of two minutes.
The projection room was situated at the rear of the circle in the auditorium, constructed and equipped in accordance with all the latest regulations and contained every known appliance and devise for the safety of the public and the projectionist of the time.
Music of the Theatre
The Palace was equipped with a Wonder Compton Organ of the latest type. The musical giant had many features not incorporated in this type of instrument before and represented all the latest products of a firm which specialised in theatre organs.
Under the stage were two large specially built chambers which contained all the sound producing equipment such as pipes and orchestral percussion instruments. The connection between the console and organ chambers was an armoured pipe which contained hundreds of separately insulated wires. In the orchestral pit was a magnificent illuminated glass console with an ever changing variety of colour and the beautiful effect was one of the latest developments in theatre organs.
Seated at the Compton organ was Mr Hebron Morland housed in front of the stage. It was from this console that Mr. Morland candidly confessed a dream realised and ambition achieved after intensive and enthusiastic years of training – he received special tuition at the Royal Academy of Music from the world famous Bachaus.
After many and varied commercial positions held including his seven happy years with the Gaumont British Picture Corporation, he had at last come to the realisation of his dream by being conferred the honour of the appointment as solo Organist at the Queen’s Hall Newcastle. The organ was first featured in a BBC broadcast on 9 December, 1935
In conclusion, the Directors of the Gaumont British Picture Corporation hoped that the new Gaumont Palace would meet with the approval of the people of Doncaster and be considered as a valuable asset to the entertainment facilities of the neighbourhood and a worthy addition to the public buildings of the town.
The Gaumont Palace was designed by Mr. W. E. Trent, F.R.I.B.A., F.S.I., the Chief Architect for the Gaumont-British Corporation, assisted by his son Mr. W. Sydney Trent A.R.I.B.A., and the corporation’s architectural staff. The whole of the electrical work was designed by and carried out under the superintendence of Mr. S. Hart, A.M.I.E.E., the Corporations Engineer.
© Ron Curry MBE ‘Let’s go to the Pictures‘ An illustrated history of the picture houses of Doncaster (1987)