Going to the cinema or the ‘pictures’ was a very popular and relatively cheap form of entertainment in the past, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. A lot of new cinemas were built in and around Leicester at that time, but those close to Charnwood Street dated from earlier in the century. The Imperial in Green Lane Road opened in December 1912. Its screen was 15 feet wide, and it had 460 seats, 46 of them in a small gallery. The Empress Picture Palace on the corner of Mere Road and Mount Road dated from 1910, and was said to have a ‘well furnished and illuminated hall’, with two showings a night and a Saturday matinee. Its opening programme included ‘an instructive film’ made by a French company, The Sheep with Six Legs, and a film of the US president Theodore Roosevelt big game hunting in Africa. Like most cinemas for years to come, the programme was changed twice a week.
The Empress was renamed the Picturedrome when it changed hands soon after opening, but it was simply ‘Mere Road’ to most people – just as the Imperial was commonly known as ‘the Greeny’. One local man remembered going to Mere Road in the 1920s, in particular the ‘dapper little manager with the waxed moustache who used to stand on the steps welcoming his customers. The auditorium was steeply sloped so one had quite a good view of the screen… [and] it had a very high ceiling’. He also recalled with ‘great excitement’ the changeover from silent films to ‘talkies’, when a sign was put up on the screen of the Imperial saying ‘Silence is Golden but the talkies are coming next week!’.
Then there was the Shaftesbury on the corner of Uppingham Road and Overton Road, which opened in October 1914 and offered ‘a capital view of the screen’ from each of its 830 seats. These were ‘wide and comfortable, of the crimson plush tip-up variety throughout’ – but for local children between the two World Wars the ‘Twopenny Rush’ on Saturday afternoons was one of the highlights of the whole week:
‘We would go to King’s sweetshop which was round the corner [from the Shaftesbury]… and get a ha’porth or a pennn’orth of sweets according to how flush you were. The first couple of rows were forms and the attendant, nicknamed ‘Walrus’ because of his drooping moustache, would shove us up close to get one or two more on the end. Sometimes one of the lads would flash a torch on the screen, and a few bits of orange peel would fly around, but on the whole we were quite well-behaved. How we cheered when the serial came on (to be continued next week!).
From 1931 a short tram ride could also take people from the Charnwood Street area to a new purpose-built cinema with over 2000 seats – the Trocadero, commonly known as the ‘Troc’, opposite Humberstone Park, where the carpet alone cost £1000, and the entrance hall ‘resembled the lounge of an expensive hotel’. There was also a café, a ballroom and – a definite sign of the times – a car park with space for 500 cars. It was officially opened by the Lord Mayor, Councillor H. Carver, JP, who described it as ‘one of the most beautiful cinemas in the city’. It was certainly considered ‘very posh’ by comparison with some of the city’s ‘flea pits’, as reflected in what one local man described as the ‘exorbitant price of 6d in the front seats’.
The Troc was demolished in 1967 after a serious fire, having been converted into a bingo hall a few years earlier. All three cinemas in the Charnwood Street area had also closed by then, due mainly to competition from television – but there must be lots of memories of them that you might like to share…
For more about cinemas in Leicester, see Cinema in Leicester 1896 – 1931 by David R. Williams (Heart of Albion Press, 1993), from which some of the above information is drawn, and 100 Years of Leicester Cinema by Brian Johnson (The History Press, 2007). The quotations above are from a personal memoir deposited with the Living History Unit of Leicester City Council in the 1990s.