It seems hard to believe that 2014 will represent the 30th anniversary of the last admission of a paying Helensburgh resident into a local cinema.
The cinema was the La Scala on James Street and the film was ‘Tank’ starring James Garner, Shirley Jones and C Thomas Howell.
What is probably even more unbelievable is that the La Scala was one of three cinemas that the Town boasted, the other two being the Plaza/Electric Picture House on John Street (opened March 1911) and the Tower Cinema (opened September 1927) on Colquhoun Square.
Of the three, the La Scala was the longest serving cinema, showing films for over 70 years, and at the time of opening it was considered to rival any picture house that London could offer.
“The La Scala Picture House makes a most attractive addition to the streetscape of Helensburgh. Its handsome front elevation is at once eye-arresting without being obtrusive or cheaply showy, and the whole building has been built on the most up to date lines.”
This description formed the opening paragraph in the Helensburgh & Gareloch Times’ report on the opening of the La Scala Cinema in December 1913. Designed by the renowned cinema architect Neil Campbell Duff (1861-1934), the cinema was described as one of the best of its type outside of London and any major UK city.
Designed to hold 600 patrons, and featuring the latest in auditorium comforts, the cinema provided much needed educational entertainment as a result of ‘the desires of the working class of this country for higher and better amusement.’
The original rectangular-plan Art Deco cinema was built with the entrance hall facing James Street. The hall was split into two main passages, patrons for the stalls entering on the left and those for the circles and boxes on the right. The manager’s room separated the passages and behind this room were the box office and the lighting control room. The front elevation featured a taller bay to the centre flanked by pilaster strips with raised moulded panels. A broad round-headed arch sprang from the cornice above and was set into a tall parapet. A modern door sat to the centre, surmounted by a canted oriel window. Oculi windows sat either side. 3 long margined bays sat on either side, displaying rectangular windows at ground floor level and small square windows below the cornice.
The interior of the building catered for over 600 patrons. The stalls and circle were fitted with luxurious tip up cushioned chairs – which were considered very state of the art. The circle and the balcony were reached via a stone staircase on the first floor, while a further staircase took you up to the private boxes. Once seated, patrons gazed at a draped stage containing a 20ft x 15ft screen.
Between 1913 and 1929, the cinema continued to show the latest movies and strove to bring other added attractions to Helensburgh such as performances by visiting opera singers.
In 1930 the cinema was converted to accept ‘pictures with sound’ – The Talkies. The first talkie shown was ‘The Broadway Melody” which opened on the 17th February to such demand that many people had to turned away. The picture starring Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King was to win the Best Film Academy Award – the first musical to do so.
The cinema continued to show movies until 1981, when a planning application was submitted to change the use of the building into a smaller cinema, snooker hall and leisure area. The construction work undertaken to effect this change created a single building split into three distinct areas.
In May 1984, the cinema admitted its final paying customer. La Scala traded for a few more years as a snooker and leisure club until early 1990 before finally closing.
Over a period of fourteen years several parties expressed an interest in utilising/redeveloping the building. Plans included a health club, a cultural centre and potentially a JD Wetherspoon’s public house, but ultimately none came to pass. Frustration about the continuing state of repair of the building even led to the formation of an action group by local traders who wanted the authorities to consider removing the buildings listed status so that it may be demolished and the land redeveloped.
In December 2002, the cinema owners, County Properties and Developments Ltd, asked Historic Scotland to de-list the property. The request was refused.
In May 2003, Historic Scotland added La Scala to the Buildings at Risk Register before it was finally announced in February 2004, that the building had been sold by County Properties to a London based developer, Kemble Estates Limited.
In February 2005, planning permission was granted to Kemble Estates for building change of use and for development as a restaurant/bar type facility. Work began on the conversion of the building in August 2006.
The Logie Baird pub was opened on Wednesday 11th April 2007 with the old building having been completely renovated by the new owners (Barracuda) at a cost of ₤800,000.
30 years is a fairly long time, but local people still hold fond memories of days and nights spent in the La Scala. Several gave their thoughts during our open day at George Street in 2011.
“ Sitting cross legged during Jaws to protect feet from shark attack, Bambi, crying my eyes out during ET and all the way home, queues outside. Faded splendour when I was very young, less character as it changed when I became older, but none the less welcome.”
“ When I was a small boy I would visit the cinema with my mother. I didn’t live in Helensburgh at the time so it was a great draw to be able to come to the town to visit the cinema.”
“Waiting forever to get in to see Grease. Managing to get in to see my first X rated film at 16. Thought it was great you could see a film in the stalls for 25p.”
“ In my youth I used to spend almost every Saturday in La Scala watching the films over and over again. It was fun sitting in the cheap front row but when you came out your head was still tilted back. In later years when you had a girlfriend it was popular to get a “box” but cannot remember actually watching the films.”
“ The entire cinema jumping at the scene in Jaws when Ben Gardner’s dead face pops out through the hole in the hull.”