80 Main Street, Prestwick, South Ayrshire, KA9 1PA
Architect: Alister G. MacDonald Listing: C-Listed (2004) No of Seats: Unknown
Status: Building at Risk Opened: 1935 Closed: 1976
Other information: Opened 29.4.35 by Prestwick Cinema Company (Sword family) Arch. A MacDonald. Cafe upstairs. Bingo from 1966. Cl. 1976. Now amusements. Exterior intact; some original int. features. Pros 34ft; s.1060. Dean of Guild Plans 56/1934 and 66/1934
The C(s)-listed Broadway Cinema at 80 Main Street, Prestwick opened in April 1935, having been built for the Prestwick Cinema Company Limited. The Chairman of the company was J.C. Sword, who ran a haulage business in Airdrie, Lanarkshire.
Papers from the 1940s also list Sir Alexander B. King as Managing Director, as well as James McClure and T.W. Richardson. The latter seems to have been replaced by J.C. McGregor by the early 50s, whilst the secretary during the same period was one William Gardner.
Of these names, Alex King seems to have been the most hands-on of the directors, and much correspondence survives between the famous Scottish cinema mogul and his long-time manager at the Broadway, James C. Ross, to which we shall return later.
The architect for the Broadway was Alister G. MacDonald, a figure just as interesting as the cinema’s colourful Managing Director. MacDonald was the eldest son of Britain’s first-ever Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald. Alister’s first cinema job was probably as Clerk of Works to Frank Verity for Paramount’s Plaza in London’s Regent Street in 1925-6. After a spell studying skyscrapers and sound insulation design in America, he went on to become the leading architect of newsreel cinemas in Britain. The skills he learned in the USA were to prove useful when it came to designing these small, compact news cinemas in cramped, awkward sites, such as railway stations. His most famous such designs were at Victoria and Waterloo Stations in London, although sadly his plans for a cinema in Glasgow’s Central Station were unrealised. He also built numerous conventional cinemas, most notably for the Caledonian Associated Cinemas group (CAC) in Scotland, including the Playhouses in Peebles, Montrose (now demolished) and Elgin (all 1932), as well as the Empire Cinema for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in 1938 – which was later moved to Lochgilphead, where it survives as a guesthouse.
MacDonald’s design for the Broadway had a symmetrical, streamlined façade, with a recessed, three-storey centre section, flanked by two-storey wings curving in to meet it on both sides. These in turn were flanked by single-storey shop units extending out to each side. A car park was provided at the rear.
The shop units had attractive deco glazing, and were separated from each other by a vertical band of horizontally-striped coloured stone. These curved in to a main entrance portico set back from the street, with a terrazzo floor and four sets of double doors, again with attractive deco glazing in both the doors, and the panels above. A small canopy projected slightly out into the street above the entrance. The central section of the façade is largely made from reconstituted stone, and has a vertical emphasis. The four tall bands of stone are relieved by three similarly narrow window bays. These had taller windows at first floor level to illuminate the café, and smaller windows directly above, separated by a lighter coloured stone infill. At the top of the central section of the façade was a large horizontal Broadway name sign, set on a horizontal string course, coloured red and outlined in neon.
By contrast, the flanking wings of the café were made largely of brick, and had a horizontal emphasis, with stone string courses above the windows and at coping level. The windows were wide and narrow, and followed the curve of the wall at ground floor level below.
Once inside, the Broadway had a surprisingly deep foyer area, which was split level, with the wider rear section being down a few steps. The narrower outer section contained a central island paybox at the top of the steps, whilst the wider rear level had a multitude of doors leading to the gents toilets to the right, the stalls straight ahead, and the ladies and car park to the left. The main staircase to the balcony was on the right, while a secondary stair to the balcony foyer and adjacent offices was located in the corridor to the car park.
Another feature of the foyer was the double height section which formed a small, rectangular lightwell from the balcony foyer above. MacDonald cleverly put large windows in the rear wall of the café so that light from the main façade windows would illuminate both the balcony foyer behind it, and the rear stalls foyer below.
The balcony foyer was compact, and featured a sloping ceiling which followed the rake of the rear balcony above. As elsewhere in the cinema, the lower half of the walls was adorned with dark wood panelling and metal banisters, whilst the upper walls were relieved by linear horizontal notches.
The ceiling above the lightwell was deeply coffered, and some nice metal balustrades prevented one from leaning too far into the void below!
As well as various offices and toilets, the front of the building at first-floor level featured the café, which again featured a coffered ceiling and rich wooden panelling on the lower half of the walls.
A faux fireplace adorned the rear wall between the two internal windows, and in one of the corner niches in the flanking wings, the counter and café equipment were discretely situated out of the way.
A dumb waiter led to a kitchen area to the side of the foyer below, and a small staircase that would have given direct access to the cafe was also present.
Again, MacDonald’s attention to finishing is evident here, with highly polished wooden doors, featuring glazed inlays, stainless steel or chrome banisters and dados, lovely little art deco light fittings and moulded triangular architraves above the doors. Almost all doors had illuminated glass signs above them, and featured chrome hexagonal handles.
The auditorium itself was relatively simple but effective. Above the curved wooden panelling, the sidewalls were relieved only by shallow, vertical overlaps which ran right up onto the ceiling. MacDonald had been known to use such features at other cinemas such as the Montrose Playhouse, as they were a relatively cheap way of producing a three-dimensional effect with light and shade.
In the centre of the ceiling, a large rectangular trough feature, with scalloped internal edges and recessed lighting, ran almost right up to the deep ante-proscenium arch. This arch was very wide, and splayed into an inner ante-proscenium much closer to the actual screen opening. The curve of the balcony front continued right up to the proscenium.
Rather curiously, the auditorium also features ceiling ventilation grilles decorated with a camel motif! At the rear of the balcony, an exit led to the secondary staircase, and access to the projection room and store rooms. A vomitory from the upper foyer came out in the centre of the balcony.
The rear stalls had horizontal banding running along the back wall, and a central deeply stepped rectangular recess in the ceiling under the balcony.
Closure & Conversion
The cinema soldiered on until the 1960s, and contemporary documentation lists it as being on part-time bingo by March 1964, which took over completely around 1966. It was to remain on bingo for some time, although a later brief attempt to revive part-time film shows seems not to have been a success.
The history of the building after this is not clear, but by the late 1990s, it had been converted again. The ground floor entrance foyer was clad with false wall and ceiling panelling, and converted to an amusement arcade. The main stair to the balcony was blocked off, but interestingly, all the other original doors were retained, and the island paybox was also pressed back into use as a change booth.
In the rear stalls, a small area was walled off to become a pool room, retaining some of the original plasterwork from that area, although painted in a uniform dark colour. Perhaps most destructively of all, however, the front of the main auditorium area had four squash courts built into it, extending into and damaging both the stage and proscenium at the front, and the front of the balcony at the rear. The balcony itself, and the upper foyer and café areas, fell out of public use at this time, and it was renamed the Prestwick Leisure Centre.
The building was sold in 2003 to the Buzzworks Group, who run pubs and restaurants throughout Ayrshire. That same year, planning permission was given to demolish the auditorium block of the cinema, replacing it with a hotel development. The main foyer block would be retained as part of this redevelopment, and would house a restaurant, coffee shop and cocktail lounge. Surviving art deco features are to be retained where appropriate.
At the time of writing (Feb 2006), no work appears to have started, and the building has been closed to the public for some time.
This allowed for an opportunity to tour the cinema in December 2005, which is when the interior pictures presented here date from. This turned out to be a remarkably fortuitous visit. When Historic Scotland awarded the building their lowest statutory protection in the form of a Grade C(s)-listing in 2004, they had not been able to view the interior, and as the pictures show, the upper levels are notable for both the wealth and condition of original features.
Sadly, the exterior has been simplified over the years, with some of the upper windows blocked off, and much of the façade rendered and painted in a fairly plain fashion, although the main doors survive, and at least one shop unit retains its original glazing. Inside, however, although the ground floor foyer has been altered for the aforementioned amusement arcade, the balcony foyer could almost be as it was when it opened in 1935. An art-deco style carpet, with what at first appears to be a monochrome fan pattern reveals itself to have faded flourishes of pinks and yellows on closer inspection. Above the doors, the glass signage still survives, and the café is more or less all intact, including light fittings – even the balcony foyer appears to have original rattan sofas under piles of accumulated junk, although the light well has been filled in at some point. All through these long-disused areas, wonderful wooden panelling adorns the lower half of the walls, and even stepping into the toilets reveals period sanitary ware and possibly even original linoleum!
In the balcony itself, more of the carpeting survives, although all the seating has been removed, and apart from the wooden frames of the squash courts below, the walls, ceiling and much of the proscenium arch survive intact. In the projection room, a wide variety of equipment, spares and various other trinkets essential for running a cinema in the heyday of the medium lie where they were left nearly 40 years ago, whilst the original Broadway name sign is piled up in one corner of the booth, in the shadow of the Gaumont-Kalee GK20 projectors with President arc lamps and Westrex sound equipment.
Perhaps most remarkably of all, an enormous archive of written and printed material survives which gives a fantastic insight into the minutiae of running a cinema from roughly the late 40s to the late 60s. Much of this archive material consists of correspondence from the MD Sir Alex B. King to the manager for all of that time, James C. Ross. Letters found detail everything from break-ins to Sunday opening discussions, patrons tearing their clothes on seats, curtain cleaning to the difficulties of obtaining replacement fixtures, and even ice-cream supply problems due to post-war shortages! Projectionists detail damage to prints in their logbook, whilst arrangements to share a visiting Hollywood starlet Vivian Blaine with King’s Seamore cinema in Maryhill are detailed in terms of the financial gain for the cinema. In 1959, A.B. King instructs his manager that under no circumstances should an advert entitled “A Happy Family Is A Planned Family” be shown in his hall, whilst two years later, he is detailing a strategy to help quash rumours of the cinema’s closure. Sadly, a document dated March 1964 shows the cinema to be running bingo several times a week, whilst an undated blank application form invites patrons to join the Broadway Bingo and Social Club, still under the auspices of the erstwhile J.C. Ross, who is by then listed as secretary.
All in all, the Prestwick Broadway is a remarkable survival. The furnishings and fittings which survive today may not be 100% original, but the fascinating and invaluable archive documents show that where maintenance and replacement was necessary, much effort was made to obtain matching and appropriate repairs or replacements. To this end, it is one of the most atmospheric surviving 1930s cinemas in Scotland, and still very much evocative of the period in which it was first built. With the demolition of Alister MacDonald’s famous newsreel cinemas in Waterloo and Victoria Stations in London, it is also perhaps his best surviving cinema commission, made all the more interesting for the large written archive, which gives a glimpse into the day-today running of a cinema from its heyday to its slow demise at the hands of bingo.
Many thanks to the staff of the Buzzworks Group for granting access to the building in order to record it.