Newcastle’s historic art-deco Old Odeon cinema is facing demolition at the hands of billionaire businessmen David and Simon Reuben.
Everyone you talk to about the Old Odeon cinema has a different story about the building in its current form. Some suggested that the walls were lined with asbestos, and that this prohibited redevelopment, while others pointed towards the damp visible on the facade of the building – and the sheer mass of water surely sitting in the auditorium – and the hundreds of pigeons who have made the cinema their home. Proposals for its redevelopment were also numerous. Some argued that the cinema could have become an IMAX, a museum, a photographic gallery or a theatre. But in the end, most accepted that nothing could be done about the building now, and that its demolition was inevitable.
As I was too young to visit the cinema in its pre-2002 heyday, all my knowledge of the building is indebted to secondary sources (if any readers have any memories of the cinema they wish to share please leave them as a comment). I have read many descriptions of this huge and luxurious movie palace – which once accommodated 2602 people in its grand auditorium – listened to the recollections of former regulars and studied photographs of the building in its former glory. Yet, all of this archaeological work, ultimately cannot replace direct experience. And this will be the unfortunate fate of the building after demolition. The Old Odeon will soon be forever consigned to memory, alive only in photographs, history books and the stories of Geordies who once sat in the cinema’s grandiose auditorium, with memories of its existence falling apart just as the building appears to be today.
Recalling the fate of Old Eldon Square, plans for the demolition of the Old Odeon and Commercial Union House – its unsightly neighbour and home to many of the artists and bohemians of the city – could revolve around the vision of the East Pilgrim St. Project, a proposal which would join Newcastle’s principal shopping areas – Northumberland St., the redeveloped intu Eldon Square and the area surrounding Grey’s Monument – more or less together. Harvey Nichols and Selfridges were once proposed as possible tenants for the future site, department stores which may one day overlook a rejuvenated, pedestrianised Pilgrim St.
All the evidence for such a scheme derives from articles written in the Chronicle in 2010 with few revisions in subsequent years. As information from local news journalism and other sites dedicated to the crumbling building is limited to say the least, all that can surely be said is that the Reuben Brothers’ intentions for the space remain opaque and vague. What we do know, however, is that the Old Odeon will be demolished in a matter of years, if not months.
The Old Odeon opened as the Paramount in 1931. It was built in the early days of cinema as an art and entertainment, where films could attract audiences of incredible sizes and crowds were captivated by the power of the stars and stories of Hollywood cinema and not just the warmth of the auditorium. Like the Tyneside Cinema – originally the Newcastle News Theatre and later the Tyneside Film Theatre – the Paramount was designed as an art-deco palace, as a cinema which offered elegance, opulence and the exotic to its audience hungry for the glamorous and unfamiliar worlds outside the reaches of industrial Tyneside. For many years, the Paramount (and as of 1939, the Odeon), overlooked the news theatre opposite, with the latter forever resting in its shadow. Today, however, the tables have turned, the Tyneside and its Bar Café are thriving, while the Paramount, sits ruined and ravaged across the street.
The building was Grade II listed for merely ten months (from 5th October 2000 to 7th August 2001). Its brief status as a work of considerable architectural heritage was cut short at the request of its then owners the London-based private equity firm Cinven (the multi-billionaire Reuben Brothers acquired the cinema and its neighbours in 2007). When the Old Odeon is long gone, and the space is replaced by yet another drab shopping centre, we will ask why, as we do of Old Eldon Square and John Dobson’s Royal Arcade, why this was allowed to happen.