James looks back at the history of the Ritz cinema on Broadway (later the Cannon and ABC), from its opening to its sad end and demolition.
The Ritz is one of the most fondly remembered cinemas in the Bradford city centre, attracting a lot of attention from the Bradford public throughout its life.
The cinema occupied a prime position at the junction of Broadway and Leeds Road in the city centre. In the late 1930s, Broadway was to be developed into a major new shopping street to connect Forster Square station with the popular LNER Exchange station. At this time Bradford was a growing, prosperous and busy city, already boasting the largest cinema outside London with the luxurious 3,500-seater New Victoria Picture House. Business rival Oscar Deutsch, of Odeon Cinemas, also thought Bradford was the place to be and in 1938 built his new Odeon super-theatre with 2,713 seats, bigger than its Leicester Square flagship counterpart. This is not to be confused with the Bradford New Victoria, which later became the other more famous Odeon building – see our article on that building’s future on page 26.
But John Maxwell’s ABC circuit had acquired a prominent city-centre site for their proposed new Ritz super-cinema. They realised that in order to compete with the Odeon and New Victoria they had to come up with something innovative, and they had a fantastic triangular corner site to utilise.
William Riddell Glen designed the auditorium, with a huge entrance foyer connecting the two streets. The exterior of the auditorium was to be lined with two-storey shops and offices facing on to each main thoroughfare, and the triangular end would have a stylish rounded side with shop fronts that would benefit ABC with rent income.
The exterior was red brick with cream terracotta faience, which looked elegant and stood out from the surrounding soot-blackened stone Victorian buildings.
The main auditorium was well-proportioned, a classic Glen design, with 2,037 seats. The fan-shaped stalls with raked floor were below ground level, with theatre-style seating. The curved and distinctive splay walls were a special feature, with prominent decorative grilles for ventilation and an organ chamber, complete with vertical cove lighting effects. Another distinctive feature was a fantastic Compton organ, very popular with the customers.
The Ritz opened on Monday 8th May 1939, with an evening performance to a large gathering of 300 guests at 7pm. The Lord Mayor, Alderman Tom Robinson, said he thought the Ritz was “the height of luxury and cinematic elegance”. The huge opening was unusual for Maxwell, as he never usually attended his opening nights, preferring a minimum of formality so he could get on with entertaining the paying customers.
But this super-cinema project enjoyed a spectacular gala opening. The opening programme was as follows: Pathé Super Sound Gazette followed by Joseph Seal, famous broadcasting organist, at the mighty Compton organ. After that, the main feature: the premier presentation of The Citadel, a 1938 UK black and white picture starring Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell. This was followed by the civic guests enjoying a spectacular reception and dance at the nearby Midland Hotel.
Bradford was soon witnessing the battle of the super-cinemas. The Ritz prices were stalls 6d or 1/-d for the week, and even cheaper for matinees. The huge New Victoria promptly reduced balcony prices to 6d and 9d for weekday performances, while the Odeon said confidently it didn’t feel the need to change! Smaller cinemas then saw the need to compete, with the much smaller Tatler fighting back with “still the cosiest cinema in Bradford, with bargain matinees 4d and 6d”. Then the old Empire got in on the act, with “usual cheap matinee prices until 4pm”.
Then the Second World War arrived, with the Blackout banishing all exterior lighting and halting any further development on the shop and office units. Most remained boarded up until well after the war ended. The creator of the ABC cinema circuit, John Maxwell, also passed away in October 1940. However, like most other Bradford cinemas, the Ritz enjoyed a boom during the war and didn’t suffer any damage in air raids.
After the war in October 1945, ABC introduced Saturday morning matinees for children known as the “ABC Minors”. There was to be much competition between this and similar clubs at the Odeon and New Victoria, though most children remained loyal to their own particular club.
Sadly, the Bradford flood of 1946 caused extensive damage to the cinema. At around 8am on Friday 20th September, following heavy storms and 2 inches of rain in 30 minutes, the Bradford Beck, which almost ran under Broadway, burst and overflowed right into the city centre streets. This caused widespread damage to many buildings, including the Ritz. The entrance foyer was at pavement level with no step and the auditorium stalls were well below street level, so water gushed in. The Compton organ couldn’t be raised from the low levels in time and was destroyed by flood water (unlike the one at the New Victoria, which was raised just in time). Cinders and wooden setts from the roads were washed into the cinema, with carpets and seating damaged. The Ritz managed to reopen on 25 September, with patrons seated only in the circle. The seating capacity after the cleanup became slightly lower at 2,021 – 16 seats down, presumably irreplaceable due to flooding.
The Ritz and New Victoria competed in many ways to gain the public affection. A great showman Ritz manager was Richard “Dick” Simcox, who vied with rival GW “Phil” Ridler at the New Vic for the honour of being the city’s most popular manager.
1953 saw the installation of a wide panoramic screen and in early 1954, in an attempt to lure people away from their television, the ABC installed 3D technology at the Ritz. It is a common misconception that 3D films are something very modern: in fact, they have been shown for many decades. The Ritz was the only city-centre cinema to install 3D technology, and as both projectors ran simultaneously it was necessary to have an interval for reel changes after approximately 40 minutes. Films included Kiss Me Kate and House of Wax. Later, in October 1954, the cinema installed a CinemaScope screen. Due to a shortage in lenses, the Ritz was quite late taking this on: they had already been beaten by the Gaumont, Odeon and Essoldo. The first film to be shown was Lucky Me starring Doris Day.
Then on the afternoon of 11 February 1957, an earth tremor was felt across ten counties, from Blackpool to Grimsby in the north and down to Bristol in the west. The tremor was felt in the Ritz when manager Simcox, sat in the circle, looked at his watch at 3.45pm. He thought the shudder must have been caused by a collapse in excavations near the cinema, although it was later confirmed as an earth tremor.
The 1960s saw the Broadway area change massively. The Swan Arcade nearby was demolished and new shops and offices were developed – most notably the larger shops around the ABC.
Later in the decade, on 2 July 1968, more flooding followed a freak storm. The water flowed at a reported five knots along Broadway towards Forster Square and as in 1946, flooding into the ABC foyer went down into the front stalls.
In 1969, EMI took control of the company. The Ritz continued to be known simply as the ABC but carrying the EMI logo. By February 1970, Pathé News, once the UK’s leading news provider, had ceased, unable to compete with TV news.
Through the summer of 1974 it was decided that, like the New Vic (now the Odeon cinema), the Ritz was to be converted into a triple. It closed on Saturday 3 August 1974. The redecoration of the new triple was colourful to say the least. The Broadway foyer had orange walls and a gold carpet, while the main ABC1 (732 seats) was mainly red. ABC2 (184 seats) had French blue walls and carpet with red seats, and ABC3 (166 seats) displayed orange seating, royal blue walls and red carpets and drapes. The total capacity was 1,082, little over half the original. ABC1 reopened on Sunday 6 October 1974 but ABC2 and ABC3 took a little longer, finally opening their doors on Monday 18 November 1974.
In late 1983, amid expectations of the resurgence of 3D films, ABC2’s projector was upgraded to a higher output lamp. The film was the much hyped Jaws 3D – the third dimension is terror! The film wasn’t the success it was hoped for with Bradford audiences, however.
Then, from 10 February 1987, the cinema became a Cannon cinema following a £175m takeover deal by Cannon in 1986. Cannon was a new name to hit Bradford. A “No Smoking” policy began on Wednesday 4 March 1987, which ironically was Ash Wednesday! However, the Cannon triple was not doing good business and closure from the very start of the takeover was rumoured.
The very short-lived Cannon lasted just six months and closed finally on Thursday 17 September 1987 – only 18 months before its fiftieth anniversary as the anchor building of the new Broadway precinct. The last cinema to close was the ABC1 and the closing film was the local premiere of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a fitting film to end on as it was based on the play by Buttershaw playwright Andrea Dunbar and filmed around Bradford and Baildon. Queues had formed in the early evening rain and the auditorium soon filled, mainly with new students from the nearby college and university, whose lively chatter created an atmosphere as there was no background music. Inside there was only the bare screen, as tabs and border had already been removed. The decorative cove lighting, which had long been a distinctive feature, was not functioning. The cinema really felt as if it was drawing its dying breath.
Fortunately the audience found the film hilarious, and perhaps it was especially so to people who knew Bradford and recognised the locations, maybe even identified with some of the characters. As the credits rolled and the audience filed out, all the display posters and sales kiosk stock had been removed. It really was a case of “can the last person out please switch off the lights?”.
The following days saw the removal of equipment and the cinema was boarded up.
Sadly, the building was later demolished in March 1988 and shops were built on the site, few of which now remain. Once again, it was a sad ending for a much-loved Bradford institution. This was followed by the closure of the other super-cinema, the Odeon, in July 2000.
Our thanks to David from Bradford Timeline for allowing us to use the photos within this article from his website www.bradfordtimeline.co.uk