Moving pictures were first demonstrated in Paris in 1895 by the Lumire brothers, and arrived in London the following year. Regular film shows were quickly established and the capital's first purpose-built cinema opened in 1905.
At first, the films were silent. Live piano music, and even orchestras in the larger cinemas, accompanied the on-screen action. However, in 1928 the 'talkies' brought sound to the movies, astonishing audiences and leaving cinema musicians redundant.
By the end of the 1920s, the cinema had become more popular than the theatre and music halls. With the introduction of shorter working hours and higher wages, Londoners had more time and money to spend on leisure, creating a greater demand for cinema seats. In the 20 years between 1911 and 1931, the number and capacity of London cinemas increased from 94 cinemas with 55,000 seats to 258 cinemas with 344,000 seats.
Although film distributors sent all big releases directly to the West End, giving highest priority to the Empire cinema in Leicester Square, the effects of the cinematic revolution were felt across the capital. The rapid increase in cinema building, led by Oscar Deutsch, a scrap-metal merchant from Birmingham who founded the Odeon chain, brought a new opulence to suburban surroundings. The new buildings were distinctively modern in design and decoration. Their luxurious furnishings delighted audiences, 70% of which were female. Uniformed attendants (or commissionaires) greeted patrons at the door and usherettes showed them to their seats. During breaks in film screenings, an organ would surface from beneath the stage to provide musical interludes for the audience. In some cinemas, tea was served during matinee showings.
Cinemas became known as 'dream palaces', offering the public a glamorous escape from the realities of everyday life. In return for a shilling ticket, audiences were treated to four hours of entertainment. The main feature was preceded by an hour-long 'B'-movie (a comparatively low-budget production) and film footage relating to the biggest news stories of the week. On Saturday mornings, there were special showings for children, who paid a penny to watch the film.
The heyday for the cinema was during the 1930s, when up to half the population visited the cinema twice a week. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, cinemas closed, only to reopen two weeks later and to continue operating throughout the war, offering customers an escape from daily reality. From the 1950s, as television became more widely available, the cinema declined in popularity. Many of the glamorous 1930s 'dream palaces' were demolished or converted to bingo or snooker halls.
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