“Historic buildings are physical links to our past. It’s not just about saving bricks, but about saving the layers and layers of information about the way that we live” said Susannah.
The Curzon Community Cinema has many reasons to party. After celebrating it’s 103rd birthday earlier this year, a much needed refurbishment has opened up much of the redundant space to welcome a brand new bar and restaurant. This may seem ordinary, but like many good (and bad) films, the story of The Curzon Community Cinema is a tale of triumph over adversity, of people power, and a cruise liner crashing into an iceberg.
A history lesson
Back in 1912, the sinking of the Titanic resulted in the first film being shown at the newly built Picture House to be a fundraiser for the survivors.Built in 1912 by local stonemason, Victor Cox, the cinema originally seated 200 people.
As the popularity of cinema increased, and film technology improved – the cinema was able to deliver technicolour films inside the redesigned auditorium which almost doubled in size. The cinema was even the first public building in the town to have electricity, and for many of the Clevedon residents – the first chance to see films with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers.
The cinema was the site of Clevedon’s only fatality due to enemy action in the Second World War, when a soldier standing opposite the cinema doorway was killed by a bomb. One cinema goer who was in the cinema when it was bombed, recalls the air raid warning flashing on the screen on the night it was bombed.
“You can still see the damage on the exterior walls of the cinema, and despite the building changes and bombings – the daily programme has never halted. The Curzon Clevedon was a relied upon public service. When times have been difficult, it was there to help provide escapism, capture significant points in time, make people laugh, cry, discover more about themselves, galvanize, whatever…” says Susannah.
Rise and fall
In the 1960’s/1970’s community cinema faced a serious threat – the ascension of television. The rise of the small screen meant more people were staying at home, and the popularity of once glorious picture palaces declined.
At the Curzon, the box fronts, along with the famous organ which was used to introduce many films were removed. The openings bricked up, and the balcony closed. Although the Curzon managed to function for the next 20 years, it was the beginning of a steady decline.
“Whilst there were many people who were still visiting the cinema, our viewing habits were beginning to change. It was clear they were becoming less and less necessary in peoples minds. Television was new and exciting, yet a private experience” adds Susannah.
In 1995, the previous owners of the cinema had to call it quits, and the cinema went into administration. The Curzon appeared to be closing down, for good.
But the Clevedon community grouped together to claim The Curzon for their own. A campaign to save the cinema was spearheaded by local man Jon Webber. As a community business the Curzon, Clevedon Community Centre for the Arts was formally established as a Company Limited by Guarantee and a Registered Charity.
Its trading arm, The Curzon Community Cinema Ltd, is a not-for-profit organisation, and any surpluses generated are reinvested in the theatre or directed to support other community activities in the area.
“As the Curzon gained charity status, more and more people were involved in shaping the future of the cinema, and meeting the needs of the district. A successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled some desperately needed restoration to take place, and making room for an extraordinary collection of film equipment and memorabilia.”
Today it’s a thriving organisation. There are 80 volunteers who keep The Curzon in tip top condition. This includes everything from selling popcorn, to building maintenance.
The Curzon has continued to expand it’s offering beyond simply showing films. Curzon Conversations is their debate club, where you can discuss anything from famous movie kisses, to impersonating Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can even have the opportunity to play the famous Christie organ, playing freely inside the main auditorium all by yourself, or with expert guidance.
“As well as working with local schools, getting students to understand about the art of film curation and running short film competitions, we have recently spread our wings, taking film outside the cinema, with a delightful pedal-powered screening of ‘Bicycle Thieves’ in local Sunhill Park, assisting the Tides festival with a drive-in cinema and partnering up with a 15th century castle to host glamorous Food & Film evenings”
In October, the Curzon will be entering a new phase. Much of the disused space hidden inside the cinema has now been restored and converted into a new bar and restaurant, which Triodos Bank has provided loan finance. Susannah is keen to note that this brings even greater promise to The Curzon.
“The addition of the new Teatro Lounge to the Curzon’s building will create an exciting new hub in the town centre, and one which reflects some of our history, as they are featuring 32 of our great collection of projectors, cameras and film toys. Now people will be able to enjoy a great night out in the town – it can only be good for the continuation of the Curzon into another century” concluded Susannah.
The Curzon Clevedon Cinema & Arts is the oldest continually running cinema in the UK and operates out of a grade 2 listed building where it shows films to the community seven days a week.
words: chris yong
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