Built to the architectural specifications of Alderman William Illingworth, the former Bradford Odeon cinema first opened its doors in September 1930 as the New Victoria. This sumptuous palace of entertainment was capable of entertaining a house capacity of 3,318 patrons with a film, stage show (complete with an in-house orchestra) and a Wurlitzer Organ recital, all during the same programme. A ballroom and restaurant was housed in an adjoining wing. At the time of opening it was the third largest cinema in the UK.
The cinema became the Gaumont in September 1950, and in doing so it became the North’s premier indoor concert venue. Many performances took place on the 70ft wide stage during the next two decades, including pantomimes on ice, ballet and numerous Rock ‘n’ Roll shows. Visits by Buddy Holly and The Beatles to Bradford’s Gaumont Theatre are now considered as legendary moments in the city’s 20th Century history. Tom Jones gave the final concert there in October 1968, a month before the original theatre was internally redeveloped. The increasing availability of television since the late 1950’s had gradually rendered huge cinemas into uneconomical white elephants.
The cavernous auditorium was subdivided into twin cinemas at balcony level and a bingo hall was inserted into the former stalls beneath. The building reopened as the Bradford Odeon and Top Rank Bingo during the latter part of 1969. Arguably, the most celebrated occasion of this era was the debut of the first Star Wars film in February 1978, which is remembered today for the long queues it commanded and the pre-titles mirror ball spectacular display.
As multiplex cinemas began to establish themselves as part of the UK’s picture-going experience in the late Eighties, the Bradford Odeon responded to the local demand for a wider film choice by opening up the long-disused ballroom as an additional screen in June 1988.
Although a much-loved cinema steeped in history and nostalgia, the Bradford Odeon’s days became numbered at the turn of the Millennium. The Odeon never stood a chance against the mighty modern multiplex! The bingo hall had already been closed for three years when the Odeon screened its final films in July 2000.
The more valuable fixtures and fittings were removed and transferred to the new Odeon Multiplex at Thornbury, which opened the following weekend. The old Odeon was boarded up, but it was not the end of the story. The site became the unwanted focus of a redevelopment opportunity which would have necessitated its demolition. A relentless campaign was undertaken by the Bradford Odeon Rescue Group, which included their triumphant “Hug The Odeon” event in the summer of 2007. A reported one thousand locals joined hands around the perimeter of the entire building to show its support.
At the time of writing the Bradford Odeon is facing what is hoped will be a brighter future with a proposal to reverse the 1969 subdivision work and reintroduce the massive auditorium space as a 21st Century concert venue.
Mark Nicholson, Odeon historian and campaigner