It was the golden age of the cinema; a boom time in the 1930s when millions of people across the world were transported from worries about unemployment and the rise of Hitler into mesmerising tales of romance, adventure and fantasy on the silver screen.
And nowhere was the trend more visible than in Aberdeen, which at one stage boasted more film houses – 20 at its peak – than anywhere else in Scotland per head of population and whose rival owners organised a series of spectacular stunts and parades in a bid to persuade the public to come to their venues.
Since people had no access to TVs until after the Second World War, they sought escape at their local flicks and, especially during grim winters in the Granite City, the cinemas were packed, the usherettes had shown the audience members to their seats and it was time for the curtain to come up on the latest piece of Tinseltown entertainment.
Some of the these Art Deco buildings possessed a charm all their own and a buzz went round the north east when the Majestic Cinema opened its doors in 1936.
Sadly, it existed for less than 40 years, but its story deserves to be told.
Life and times of a classic cinema
The renowned Aberdeen architect, T Scott Sutherland, was instrumental in cinema boom of the period and the Majestic was built in 1936 to replace the La Scala.
It was described as “a building of beauty and efficiency” by the Aberdeen Journal, which waxed lyrical about the many charms of this new addition to Union Street.
The stately structure of Kemnay granite was illuminated at night in neon, and a huge floodlit display sign showed what was on the bill each day.
Cinemagoers were assured that they would be astounded by the exquisite vestibule which had five sets of double doors, panelled walls and panelled stairways.
And this was definitely a case where a building lived up to its majestic billing.
Cinema historian David A Ellis has investigated the myriad attractions of the new venue, which joined a veritable cavalcade of film venues on the city’s main thoroughfare and soon proved its popularity with many local residents.
He told us: “There were two pay boxes to cater for the large audiences of the day. Four further sets of doors gave access from the entrance vestibule into the inner foyer and, on each side of this, there were beautiful panelled staircases to the upper foyer.
“The front part of the balcony seating was in gold and the rear of the balcony was in green. In the stalls area, seating was coloured rose and gold. There were 2,000 seats. At the opening, 1,400 of these were taken by invited guests, which included business people, the town council and members of the cinema trade.
“The rest were taken by the general public. The colour scheme in the auditorium was cream and one of the main features of the cinema was a number of ceiling coves which extended across the width of the hall and partly down the side walls.
“During the day, the cinema received many telegrams of congratulations from well wishers and big film producing and distributing companies.
“The hall was equipped with the famous Holophane auto selective lighting system and could be controlled from either the stage or operating box. The latter was equipped with Simplex projectors, Western Electric sound and Peerless arcs.
“Hard of hearing patrons were able to make use of the Ardente deaf aid equipment.”
Chick Crawford was among the projectionists who worked tirelessly, come hell or high water, to ensure he didn’t disappoint his patrons and was sufficiently devoted to his duties that he missed just one night – when a ferocious blizzard struck Aberdeen – in more than 50 years of creating magic on the big screen behind the scenes.
He spoke to the Press & Journal, prior to his death in 2008 and recalled: “Right up to the start of the Second World War, there was a lot of showmanship which wasn’t only attached to the glamorous, heavily-publicised lifestyle of the many stars of the era, but was also evident in the cinemas themselves.
“Our attitude was that the show must go on and it did. I remember, on one occasion, the bottom reel of the projector failed and it was no longer capable of accepting film.
“I had to stand there with the bottom reel in my hand, spinning it round until the reel was completed. But you had to do that or you would have let the customers down and you have to bear in mind that going to the cinema was a treat for many of them.”
At the outset, the Majestic was a shining addition to the city amenities and joined its counterparts in advertising new films, occasionally with methods which wouldn’t be regarded as politically correct these days.
Mr Ellis added: “Showmanship was high on the agenda and, in 1937, a man dressed as an Arab went around the city with a donkey. On the back of the donkey were placards to advertise the film ‘The Garden of Allah’.
“The building housed four dressing rooms to cater for occasional stage shows. And, in common with many 1930s cinemas, there was a cafe.”
The pinnacle of these places’ success was in the 1930s and late 1940s. Thereafter, they all started to struggle as the public began buying televisions in the following decade.
Some of these film theatres were works of sublime architecture and deserved greater recognition than was often the case in their premature destruction.
The Majestic was one of the most obvious examples of the brutalist attitude – “If it’s auld, ding it doon” – when the number of film-goers rapidly diminished in Aberdeen towards the end of the 1960s and owners realised that the writing was on the wall for their businesses, and even for such beautiful Art Deco buildings.
Yet the haste with which closure and demolition arrived still seems shocking.
In September 1973, punters were offered one final screening – of the movie Kelly’s Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland – and then the doors were slammed shut forever. It was nobody’s finest hour and most of the city’s cinemas suffered a similar fate before the arrival of blockbusters such as Jaws and Star Wars.
Following the Majestic’s demolition and that of an adjacent bank property, an office block was built on the site called Caledonian House, which opened in February 1976.
It had none of the charm or presence of the building it replaced.
By the time that Chick Crawford retired, his career had ranged from the days of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy comedies and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind to the arrival of Beatlemania and British “kitchen sink” dramas”.
As he said: “I’ve enjoyed my life in the cinema, I’ve really enjoyed it. In all the years that I have been here, I have only had to give up a showing once and that was because of a power cut during one of the very severe winters. That’s not a bad record, is it.”
It’s not. In fact, you might even describe it as majestic.
But the destruction of that classic structure still feels like an act of vandalism.
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