architecture,  Art,  Birmingham,  Films

Dream Palaces: Wonderland At Birmingham Museum And Art Gallery

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery partially reopened it’s doors yesterday, hosting a series of pop up exhibitions. Amongst the offerings is Wonderland, a collaboration with the Flatpack Festival that is a showcase for Birmingham’s rich and varied cinema history. As an architecture nerd with a serious interest in old cinema’s, this was catnip for me, so I went along to have a closer look.

The history of our cinema buildings is a story of modern times. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, the first cinemas were often buildings converted from something else, old chapels, former vaudeville theatres etc. This period was supplanted by a period of purpose built cinemas, and then super cinemas, huge dream palaces that not only looked incredible (more often than not in the Art Deco style), but catered for the large number of people who wanted the escapism that the silver screen offered.  The iconic names appeared – Odeon, Gaumont, ABC and Clifton were all synonymous with this time. The golden age of cinema peaked during the 1940s, but thereafter a decline came, with the spread of television. Many beautiful buildings were demolished, converted into bingo halls, or left to go derelict, with a few sad survivors turning into sex cinemas during the dark days of the 1970s. But cinema resurged again with the rise of the blockbuster, the advent of the multiplex, and the emergence of a range of independence movie houses that catered for event cinema, screening classics and art house films as well as the blockbusters.

All this is charted through Birmingham eyes in the brilliant Wonderland exhibition, which charts the stories of some of the key Birmingham cinemas, many now long gone and much missed. There are stories from those who worked in the cinemas, archive photographs, usherette uniforms on loan from the National Film Museum, even some original cinema chairs. There is a film showing a wonderful model of the Birmingham Odeon, one of the surviving cinemas in Birmingham, along with a map that enables you to track how many cinemas were in Birmingham at different points in time.

There are newspaper archive reports on the loss of once iconic cinemas, and photographs showing one of the great survivors, and possibly the UK’s oldest working cinema, The Electric Cinema, through time.  Film art, movie posters, and a range of photographs of some cinemas in a derelict, neglected state are also represented, and you also get to read about the likes of Pat Collins, Irving Bosco, and the legendary Oscar Deutsch, great names in our cinema history and responsible for some of the most stunning buildings.

Wonderland is just wonderful. It is free to view until 30th October at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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