On October 7th 1932 a vision was born in the creation of a Super Cinema and Variety Theatre in the heart of central Stockport.
The original speculative scheme for the Mersey Square site was submitted by William Thornley in 1929 to The Corporation in Stockport for a Regal Cinema as The Plaza was originally to be called which incorporated our large Cinema of approximately 1,600 seats on stalls and circle levels within the auditorium together with a Café Restaurant on the first floor, a billiard Hall and a motor garage, both of which were positioned above the auditorium.
William Thornley was a local architect practicing in the Lancashire area, and had been responsible for a number of smaller but well-appointed silent cinemas of classical design. Thornley had been apprenticed to the Bolton firm of Bradshaw, Gass and Hope who were responsible for many libraries including the central library in Stockport.
In 1931 when the Directors of the Read, Snape and Ward cinema circuit who had just opened their Regal Cinema in Altrincham were looking for a central site in Stockport the speculative ‘Regal’ scheme was evaluated. Although Thornley’s plans were purposeful in design, they looked retrospective in comparison with Drury and Gomersall’s ‘Cathedral of the Movies’ in Altrincham.
Read, Snape and Ward decided they wanted a large Super Cinema and Variety Theatre for the Mersey Square site that closely replicated the Regal Super Cinema in Altrincham. It is reported however that a condition of the sale for the Stockport site was that the practice of Drury and Gomersall could not be credited as the architects.
William Thornley was asked to adapt the plans for the Regal Altrincham for the substantially smaller Stockport site without reducing the seating capacity for 1,850 patrons.
When the Plaza Super Cinema and Variety Theatre Opened in 1932, so similar were the two schemes, that the Regal’s interior photographs were used in the Plaza’s opening brochure, as the Plaza was not sufficiently completed when the brochure was being produced. The Regal Altrincham, considered to be one of the best suburban cinemas outside of London was unfortunately completely destroyed by fire in 1956.
Following the compulsory purchase of a row of cottages next to the Lawrence Street, now known as The Plaza Steps, 10,000 tons of rock were hued out of the sandstone rock to build The Plaza into the narrow space afforded by the excavations with the interesting design that the stage area was to be built underground.
The Plaza Super Cinema and Variety Theatre first opened her doors to the public on 7th October 1932 in a blaze of glory with 1,845 seats upholstered in the deepest blue and antique gold moquette, sumptuous hues of gold, silver and rose tints were used in the decorative scheme developed by GF Holding together with the most up to date form of Holophane multi-coloured auditorium and stage lighting together with a GEC Vitalux sun-ray lamp in the circle foyer which was advertised as offering health giving qualities to guests arriving for the very first performance with a Cine Variety presentation in aid of The Stockport Infirmary featuring the cinematic presentations “Jailbird”, starring Laurel and Hardy, and “Out of the Blue” with Gene Gerrard and Jessie Matthews.
Built at this time, The Plaza stood on the cusp between silent movies and the talkies; it looked both backwards and forwards with its mix of Cine Variety presentations with a programme of entertainment never seen before in Stockport featuring a mix of cinema and live performance with shows which included a silent newsreel accompanied by The Plaza orchestra, musical presentations performed on The Compton organ played by resident organist, Mr Cecil Chadwick all of which supported the main feature on the giant silver screen.
Although the birth of Stockport’s Art Deco gem was enthusiastically received by her local community, the history of The Plaza is not without controversy. The Stockport Advertiser rallied against the new cinema, denouncing it as a bad influence on the town’s youth and complaining that it had been constructed by “outside labourers”, at the height of The Depression and local newspapers initially refused to take The Plaza adverts.
As the pace of social change started to accelerate, the heyday of The Super Cinema and Variety Theatre was brief. By the mid 1930’s, cine-variety had ended and The Plaza shows assumed the familiar pattern of one feature film and a supporting “B” movie. By 1939, the success of The Plaza had provoked competition and there were two more Super Cinemas in Stockport’s town centre and two in the suburbs.
During the war, the town’s cinemas remained popular with many residents taking the view that The Plaza, being cut into a rock face, was one of the safest places to be during an air raid.
In the 1950’s, with the entertainment tax relief incentive, The Plaza was refurbished and continued to prosper in spite of the national decline in audiences with diversification in her programme as she could cater for Cinemascope and The Plaza was the first Cinema in the borough to host 3-D screenings when she screened ‘Sangaree’ and in 1960 a tradition began which continues to the this day when The Plaza staged her first pantomime with the Dallas Boys in “Babes In The Wood”.
As the 1960s continued business began to decline and The Plaza operators took the reluctant decision to close the venue which was sold to the Rank/Mecca Leisure Group for conversion to a Bingo hall though the switch to bingo was fought by Stockport Council which resulted in Rank Leisure forwarding an appeal to the Government eventually winning their case for the conversion.
The Plaza’s final show was on 31st December 1966 and featured Jerry Lewis in “3 on a Couch” and Audie Murphy in “The Texican” with William Starr at the organ and within a few months after extensive conversion The Plaza reopened and began 40 years of her history as a Bingo and Social club including the installation of ‘Samanthas’ nightclub within the now windowless Café Restaurant in the 1970s.
All venues have a cycle of life and The Plaza appeared to have reached the end of hers when Rank Leisure took the reluctant decision to close The Plaza in the late 1990s however the magic of Super Cinema and Variety Theatre weaved its spell on the people of Stockport and following an enthusiastic campaign The Plaza was saved and Rank Leisure sold the Plaza to The Stockport Plaza Trust in March 2000 and after an astounding dedicated effort by the local community many of whom became part of our award winning team of amazing volunteers, audiences took their seats for the opening show on 7th October 2000.
Since being saved The Plaza, under the expert guidance of The Stockport Plaza Trust and supported by her dedicated team of volunteer and employed personnel has grown from strength to strength with a programme of the greatest big screen and live stage presentations, the venue of choice for fine dining, weddings and events and with an extensive restoration, updated details of which can be found on this web site, we have become an award winning gem in the very heart of our community which we have served for over 80 glorious years and will continue to serve for many more generations to come.
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