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History of Stockport Plaza

 

The Plaza was built in 1932 for a local cinema chain called Reed, Snape and Ward and was very similar in design to their flagship cinema, the Regal at Altrincham.

Stockport-plaza-1920  It was Stockport’s first “Super Cinema”, being of modern Art Deco design and equipped with a Café/Restaurant, Compton Cinema Organ, and an elaborate “Holophane” colour changing auditorium lighting system.

During the heyday of cinemas there were 17 of them in Stockport, and the Plaza survived as a cinema until 1965, when it suffered dramatic falls in attendance in common with many other cinemas due to competition from television.

It was sold to Mecca Bingo, who experienced a delay in obtaining a licence to operate as a Bingo Hall and so re-opened it as a cinema for most of 1966. It was then converted to a Bingo Hall and operated until 1998, when Mecca closed it and put the building up for sale.

Rescue

About this time, a number of local groups formed themselves into the Plaza Action Group. They had a number of different reasons to get the Plaza preserved as a cinema and theatre rather than perhaps converted to a theme pub or even demolished.

Mention should be made of the only other surviving large cinema in Stockport, the Davenport, which was used by local operatic societies for their annual productions. They had lost their performing venue when the Davenport was closed and demolished in 1997 and the site turned into a car park.

There were also local theatre organ enthusiasts and members of the Cinema Theatre Association who were endeavouring to preserve and eventually restore an original 1930’s cinema.

The group received enthusiastic support from the Stockport Express which provided much needed publicity, and were also supported by the National Trust.

Stockport-Plaza-work-shot  The Plaza had been very little modified. The Compton organ was still in original condition although in need of maintenance. Much of the Art Deco fibrous moulded plaster work was still there but covered by false walls and ceilings, the installation of which had caused some, but not irretrievable damage.

In 1997, the Cinema Theatre Association and English Heritage had been successful in getting the Plaza and several other similar local cinema buildings Grade 2 listed. The Plaza’s listing was subsequently upgraded to Grade 2 Star after a more thorough inspection revealed more surviving original features, making it one of only about ten cinema buildings in the country to receive this rating.

Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council were initially sceptical but became sympathetic to the project. The Plaza Action Group divided into two organisations, Stockport Plaza Trust and the Friends of the Plaza.

Stockport-Plaza-work-shot_03   Stockport-Plaza-work-shot_02  The Trust was to collaborate with the Council in setting up a bid to acquire the building. The council made available funds which enabled the Trust to buy the building from Mecca, and the Trust were to be responsible for converting it back to a theatre and cinema and operating it. But there was a condition. If the project failed with 15 years, the building was to be sold and the funds returned to the Council.

The building was secured and Stockport Plaza Trust were handed the keys in March 2000. But problems were by then multiplying. The stage equipment had all gone, replaced by Bingo paraphernalia. There were no seats in the stalls, just Bingo tables. All the equipment in the projection suite had gone, it was completely bare.There was no screen.

 

The Friends of the Plaza

The second organisation now stepped up its recruiting programme. Membership peaked at about 1400. These comprised both interested supporters and active volunteers.

The project was fortunate that the volunteers possessed an extremely wide range of skills and expertise useful for the tasks of preparing the building for re-opening.

Working evenings took place twice a week for most of the rest of 2000, aiming at a re-opening date in October. The Plaza volunteers finally had their efforts recognised in 2004 when they received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service

 Stockport-plaza-1920-releaf

Preparation for Reopening

The main roof was re-felted to eliminate serious water leaks; this was funded by SMBC as part of the original grant to buy the building. The seats which were in the circle were not fit for use and were stripped, repainted re-upholstered and installed in the stalls.

New (second hand) seats acquired from the Palace theatre were installed in the circle. The bingo furniture was removed and the stage re-equipped with scenery handling gear thanks to some help from climbing experts who used their mountaineering kit to work safely up in the fly tower.

Used stage lighting equipment was acquired, repaired, brought up to standard and installed. The harsh fluorescent Bingo lighting in the auditorium was converted to tungsten and made dimmable.

The dressing rooms were converted back from offices, sponsored mainly by the local operatic societies. A pair of projectors was recovered from a skip on their way to a scrap yard and reconditioned by a local cinema equipment supply company, which also donated a new screen. The organ was tuned and maintained. The box office organisation was set up.
The seating capacity was initially limited to 900 seats because modifications had been made which prevented exit in emergency from the rear circle via the left hand staircase.

The volunteers reversed this modification during 2001 which enabled safety approval to be obtained to use all 1200 seats. The Plaza re-opened on Saturday October 7th with a ”Preview” show and the first full show was Stockport Operatic Society’s production of “Oklahoma” on October 16th.

On Friday, December 1st the first film presentation took place, the 1932 Musical “42nd Street”. On December 13th a month’s pantomime season, “Cinderella” began. The Plaza was back in business!

Towards Restoration

A first bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund was prepared during 2000 and 2001 and submitted November 2001. This was to be for almost £5 million and included the entire building. It did not receive approval but was not rejected outright.

The Plaza was advised to go via the regional route and re-apply via the North West organisation. This limited the amount to a maximum of £2 million to which an additional £1 million matched funding would have to be raised by the Plaza itself. This sum would only restore the exterior of the building including the front canopy, the front of house areas, the café, and provide a newly excavated area under the rear stalls with a bar, new toilet facilities plus a passenger lift connecting this new lower level, the foyer and the café.

At the end of March 2007, the revised bid was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. It had by now become a two part procedure, with more detailed documentation to be prepared if Stage 1 approval was granted.

Lighting Investigation

During 2002, I had spent a considerable time climbing round the building to look into as many of the recesses in the auditorium which housed the original concealed multi-coloured lighting system as it was possible to reach. This revealed a big discrepancy between the 6000 bulbs mentioned in the 1932 opening brochure and the figure of slightly in excess of 2000, which my survey revealed.

Nevertheless, if the average wattage of the bulbs was 40 watts, the power consumption would have been 80 kilowatts with everything on. I documented what remained of the original system and produced a schematic diagram which could not be completed because all the power supply equipment and the control gear had been scrapped.
Of course, the overwhelming problem with systems like this was the short life of conventional bulbs, and former projectionists who returned to support the re-opened Plaza told us that the multiple sets of bulbs soon became used as reserve circuits, brought into use only when so many of the bulbs in the previous set had failed that the effect was spoilt.

Then when the auditorium was re-decorated all the bulbs in all the circuits were renewed. Because the building was perpetually full of cigarette smoke, re-decoration was needed frequently. Analysis of paint scrapings taken to determine the original colour scheme revealed that the auditorium had been painted a total of 16 times.
I wrote an article describing these findings for “Spotlight”, the newsletter of the Friends of the Plaza and was surprised a few weeks later to receive in response a letter from the Director of The Theatres Trust, telling me of a recently completed refurbishment of the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London, where a similar multi colour lighting system had been recreated using light emitting diodes (LEDs) and strongly urged me to go and see it.

Written by David E Poole

Logo2njoTechnology

The Apollo auditorium is considerably larger than the Plaza and my initial reaction was how could it possibly be bright enough?
I arranged to spend an afternoon there with their architect and the lighting consultant who designed the scheme and my question was soon answered, if you use 88,000 of them it can! I subsequently visited njo Technology Ltd., the company that built and supplied the LED equipment for the Apollo Victoria.

Apollo_Blue_Ceiling  My previous experience with LEDs was using them as indicator lamps on electrical control gear panels, not as sources of illumination.

I learned about their full product range and it was apparent that they had the ideal solution for the accessibility problems as encountered in theatres, namely to separate the power conversion and control gear, which will require periodic maintenance, from the LED lighting strips themselves, which have a very long mean time between failures.

They were a small company, but well able to cope with a project of this size, yet small and versatile enough to adapt a design or produce something special if required.

Exit_sign_test  In the few years that elapsed until approval of the project, I prepared a second scheme, based on njo’s LED product range, which was being continuously being developed as brighter and more versatile devices appeared.

We held occasional meetings which ensured that by the time the project received approval, we had worked together to design a custom solution for the Plaza but made from standard parts.

The original estimate of 80 kilowatts with tungsten bulbs reduced to 4.4 kilowatts with LEDs, a spectacular energy saving. The LED count for the auditorium was about 38000.
As the project progressed, there were opportunities to undertake some special lighting requirements for other parts of the building. There was more concealed lighting in the café and the foyers.

There were illuminated signs above the Exit and Emergency Exit doors which required replicating from old photographs and one original wooden frame which still survived in the building. There were illuminated glass plate signs with a variety of legends, the design of which had to be copied from samples borrowed from a museum.

Stockport-Plazza_Stage  Then there was the new external canopy which runs right across the front of the building. This has standard LED strips along its front edge, but the central section has a moving electronic text display which replaced the fixed text of the 1932 original.

It was required to replicate the original “chaser” of bulbs which made a moving pattern outlining the text display. A short bit of ciné film exists showing exactly how this worked.

This was a difficult one to reproduce because the bulbs themselves were on view and to use bulbs again was most undesirable because the pulsing duty of the moving pattern would mean that the 232 bulbs would need very frequent replacement. njo’s solution to this was to design and make their own special bulbs which give the long life and reliability of LEDs but appearance wise look just like the originals.

Auditorium Refurbishment

As mentioned earlier, it was known that the Lottery bid would only fund the restoration of the rear stalls to original condition. Yet it was obvious that while major building work was in progress, some refurbishment should be carried out.

Fund raising continued and eventually it was possible to purchase new carpet, decorate the whole auditorium and buy and install most of the LED colour changing lighting system. The Friends of the Plaza funded and built a replica of the original illuminated orchestra pit rail which had been such a novel feature when the building opened.

Project Approval and Execution

By November 2008, Part 2 of the Lottery bid had been approved. The fund raising target had been secured thanks to support from Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, The North West Development Agency and the Plaza’s own fund raising activities.

There was no Plan B because no shows had been booked into the Plaza for most of 2009. The theatre closed on February 7th 2009 and work began. The re-opening took place on Friday December 11th 2009 with a 1930s style Ciné/Variety evening. The Plaza thus became the first restored 1930’s Super Cinema and Variety Theatre still in use for its original purpose.