Words by Tanya Brannan
Images of model by Neil Kendall
Images of cinema from The Stockport Plaza
Make-up and hair by Bethany Jane Davies of The Vintage Beauty Parlour
Location is The Plaza in Stockport
Old-fashioned cinemas are a thing of the past. Today it is all about the Multiplex, the IMAX and the out of town big chains, with their garish decorations and overpriced snacks; a far cry from the elegant cinemas of years gone by. Or is it?
One miracle of design which is still a fully functional cinema is The Stockport Plaza – a cinema and variety theatre that was designed in 1929, opened in 1932 and lovingly restored in 2009 to its original style.
So what is the Plaza’s story?
The Plaza was the brainchild of William Thornley, an architect from Lancashire. He had designed several other cinemas but this was to be his crowning glory – a stunning Art Deco Super Cinema and Variety Theatre.
The Plaza was quite unusual in its design. Ten thousand tonnes of sandstone were excavated with the intention to have the stage area actually underground. A cafe, billiard hall and even a garage were placed above the sunken auditorium, providing a range of activities for any visitors.
Another highlight of the cinema was the Rare Compton Theatre Organ. Whilst these Organs were a common addition to cinemas and variety theatres, this one had sunburst glass panels that could be made to change colour. The organ was sunk into the stage area and rose up on a hydraulic lift to great dramatic effect.
The opening night, on 7th October 1932, introduced Stockport to a beautiful 1,845 seat venue. Laurel and Hardy were shown on the cinematic screen, whilst visitors relaxed in the luxurious chairs upholstered in blue and gold moquette. For over 34 years The Plaza provided theatrical entertainment, the latest films and even pantomimes. Sadly, in 1966 it closed down, a victim to a world where this type of entertainment was seen to be old fashioned and out of date.
By 1967, Rank Leisure had bought the site and proceeded to rip out all the beautiful embellishments. The stunning roof tiles were taken off, the neon signage taken down and the external veranda was removed. Both the cafe and foyer were altered and the layout of the stalls and flooring was changed. Bingo became a popular and fashionable past time and Mecca (part of Rank Leisure) opened the Bingo and Social Club in February 1967. A nightclub was opened on the floor that used to house the Cafe Restaurant.
For 32 years, the building continued as a Bingo Hall before that too was a lost cause and Rank Leisure decided to close the building in 1999.
Now, this could be where the story of the Plaza could have gone in two directions. As was the tendency in the late 1990s, buildings all over the UK similar to The Plaza were being pulled down to make way for more shops and residential housing. Land was at a premium and this building took up quite a bit of space in a prime location.
However, the story took a different route. The general public and volunteers got behind the building and Rank Leisure eventually sold it to The Stockport Plaza Trust in March 2000. The intention of the trust was to renovate and replace the original fixtures and once again open it as a cinema and theatre venue.
The doors were finally opened to the public in December 2000 with a performance of 42nd Street. Whilst getting ready for the performance, it was discovered that the Compton Organ, now over 65 years old, was still in perfect working order! All it needed was the power turning on and it still sounded as amazing as ever. The celebrated organist Nigel Ogden from Radio Two played a 1930s sing-along on the opening evening, thrilling all who attended.
Life at The Plaza has only got better. The public flocked to the venue and through its popularity and donations from the lottery fund, The Plaza was temporarily closed in February 2009 for a full restoration.
Nearly a year after this and £3.2 million later, The Plaza is restored to its former glory. The Art Deco designs have been replicated, with the glass sunburst on the organ being replaced and the front circle and balcony were lowered to the original design of the 1930s. The original designs for the seating have been recast so the chairs are exact replicas of the originals. Murals that were in the balcony and stalls have also been rehung.
The restoration has been done with love and care, to return a stunning building to its original designs and glory whilst offering new and exciting films and theatre events. A perfect combination of the old meeting the new!