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Century of fun at Phoenix Picturehouse
WHEN the screen curtains open at Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse tonight movie fans will be witnessing a piece of cinematic history.
Originally called The North Oxford Kinema, the Phoenix opened in Walton Street 100 years ago, on March 15, 1913, to a packed house which was treated to three black and white ‘shorts’ – The Wood Violet, The Red Cross Nurse and The Trail of Cards.
Known to some as The Scala, others as the Phoenix, the cinema has also experienced a whirlwind history of its own, with a multitude of owners each putting their stamp on the distinctive building and its programme.
As well as offering audiences a diverse mix of big-name movies, foreign films and later arthouse productions, the cinema gave early audiences a window on the world with news reels.
Pathe and Gaumont productions brought moving pictures of the 20th century’s biggest stories, including two World Wars, the rise of the automobile and man walking on the moon. Cutting a special 100th birthday cake with staff, past and present, this week, was acting manager Stuart Jarvis, 58, who was the first City Screen Ltd manager in 1989.
He said: “So many people have lovely memories of this cinema – the films they have watched here, the dates they have had, and even time working here. It really is a part of people’s lives and there are many more happy memories to come.”
The Phoenix will be celebrating its centenary throughout this month and beyond with a programme of contemporary classics and a season of films set or shot in Oxford.
The Oxford at the Movies programme will begin with Accident (PG) on Sunday, March 24 ,while the Contemporary Classics season will start with Tokyo Story on Sunday, March 31.
A centenary exhibition is also on show in the bar and a to-be-named book featuring staff and customer memories will go on sale in the autumn.
Day the movie caught fire.
Martin Selwood, 97, lived in Union Street, Oxford, and started work in the projection room in 1930 straight from school aged 14.
He said: “The Phoenix was called the Scala then. I started as a projectionist, but I was called a box boy until I was efficient.
“I earned ten shillings a week. It was silent films of course. Talkies were installed about 1931.
“Comedies were popular, starring Chester Conklin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.
“And the early films I remember include The King of Jazz with Paul Whiteman and Smiling Through starring Norma Shearer – and that film actually caught fire!
“The prints were made of nitrate stock, which has a similar chemical compound to nitro-glycerine, and if they got stuck in the gate would be on fire in a second. “We had to be prepared for such an emergency all the time.”
Charting history of a family favourite.
- 1913 – The cinema, designed by local architect Gilbert T Gardner, opens its doors.
- 1920 – Under Poole’s it becomes The Scala and briefly the New Scala under Ben Jay in 1925.
- 1930 – The lease is bought by J R Poyntz, who install sound equipment and screen subtitled films for language students. The cinema remains in the Poyntz family for 40 years, becoming one of the country’s most important arthouse venues.
- 1970 – It is taken over by Star Entertainments Ltd and converted into Studios One and Two. Its Studio X showed adult films.
- 1977 – Star subleases the cinema to Charles and Kitty Cooper of Contemporary Films, who rename it The Phoenix and show new and classic foreign-language titles alongside cult movies. But home video contributes to declining audience .
- 1989 – The cinema is sold to Lyn Goleby and Tony Jones of City Screen, and becomes the first cinema in the Picturehouse group.
- 1994 – An upstairs bar is added.
- 2006 – Live satellite broadcasts of opera, theatre and ballet begin.
- 2012 – Picturehouse group sold to Cineworld for £47.3m which says the Phoenix will retain its arthouse roots.