Whether it was dancing in the ballroom beneath the cinema, drinking sarsaparilla at the nearby Temperance bar or attending kids’ films screenings on a Saturday morning, the Abbeydale Picture House holds a place in the memories of many Sheffield residents, writes Katharine Butchers.
Viewing the cinema today proves to be an evocative experience; despite the building’s condition in recent years, the Abbeydale’s charm makes it easy to imagine how grand the cinema would have been during its heyday.
Over the next couple of months, CADS Trust (Creative Arts Development Space) hopes to invite Sheffield residents to view the building, with the aim of interviewing them about their experiences of the cinema and what it meant to them.
The responses we gather will contribute to the information that has already been collected about the building and stored in local history archives.
Moreover, we hope to improve our knowledge of the Abbeydale for future reference, in order to inform our understanding of how the long-term restoration of the building might be carried out.
Knowing more about the Abbeydale’s original decoration, for example, would strengthen any future funding bids made to restore it to its original glory.
The story of the Abbeydale Picture House is one that mirrors the history of cinema during the 20th century. Opened in 1920, the first 30 years of the building’s existence was a period in which cinema going was one of the most popular pastimes in British society.
Audiences gravitated towards picture houses during the silent film era of the 1920s, and during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ in the 1930s and 40s.
Sheffield was no exception to this trend: in the same year that the Abbeydale opened, six other cinemas were established, such as Attercliffe’s Adelphi Picture House.
The Abbeydale was Grade II listed in 1989 for its neo-Baroque inspired exterior and Classical interior. White faience tiles were chosen to give the building’s façade a sense of grandeur, whilst the Doric columns and Grecian-inspired friezes used to decorate the building’s interior conveyed a similar sense of luxury to cinemagoers.
Having survived the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940, the cinema continued to thrive in the 1950s, particularly after it was redecorated in the middle of the decade.
Many local residents can recall the opulence of the building during this period, although details are often difficult to establish owing to the lack of photographs taken of the Abbeydale’s interior.
By the early 1970s, however, a different picture emerges. Struggling to compete with more modern multi-screen cinemas and the popularity of television, and further hindered by the three-day week imposed during the miners’ strikes, the cinema was increasingly run-down in the years before its 1975 closure.
In 2017 CADS Trust took on a 25-year lease to the building, after a 42-year period in which the Abbeydale was used for various purposes, including being a nightclub, a snooker hall and a furniture showroom.
It is with the intention of overseeing its long-term restoration that the oral history interviews are taking place, making a small contribution to preserving the building’s heritage.
While we already know a great deal about the Picture House, during our research we would like to maximise information about the cinema according to accounts given by members of the public.
This includes finding out whether any photographs exist of the building, or of its employees. At present we are only aware of three pictures of the building taken before the cinema’s 1975 closure, as well as one picture of a group of usherettes from the 1940s.
Very little is known about the cinema’s staff, but through research we hope to find out more about those who populated the cinema on a day-to-day basis – this would create a new dimension in our understanding of the Picture House’s history.
As the Abbeydale Picture House approaches its 100th year, we hope to hear accounts of the building’s history from members of the public who wish to contribute to our oral history project.
To contribute to our project, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website, www.theabbeydalepicturehouse.com/the-building/#oral