A history of The Park Cinema – and the campaign to save it!
The Park Cinema was an independently operated cinema that opened in 1913 at 232 Hither Green Lane on the corner of George Lane. It had been refurbished in 1930, to install sound equipment and re-opened with the Janet Gaynor film “Sunny Side Up”, boasting a new wonder organ.
In 1931, architect Leslie H. Kemp was employed to modernise the cinema, particularly the facade, which received a ‘modern’ Art Deco style. The cinema went dark in 1957. Since then the building has had various businesses in it, including a boating shop and an indoor children’s playground named ‘Kids Korner’. The building was sold again in 2008 and the new owners proposed that the building be pulled down and be converted into flats.
This was received by a general outburst of disapproval from the local community (some of whom had just seen the Hither Green Fever Hospital torn down and turned into Meridian South) thinking that the space should be used to serve the community in some way and that more flats, opposite Meridian South, was just not needed here. The local community at large organised and protested this development by writing to the Council, signing petitions, organising a protest outside the building (recorded in local newspapers in May 2009) and going to the Planning application meeting in June 2009 where a number of people spoke eloquently about what the building meant to the local community. In August 2009 the planning application was rejected but we knew there might be an appeal so our commitment wasn’t done.
Hither Green Hall
A group of local people got together to raise awareness of what was going on and organised the first cinema showing in Hither Green in over 50 years. They found a space in the heart of Hither Green in the form of the old Firemasters building. A warehouse hidden behind houses and an unknown quantity to the local people (This is now Hither Green Studios and has had a new lease of life in the last 6 years).
Films were organised, licenses bought, funds found, food & drink prepared and a small army of community minded people got to cleaning the space that had not been used in years and was suffering from human neglect but not pigeon or guard dog neglect who, it turned out, used the area frequently!
It was a great day, starting with a kids theatrical workshop in the morning and then a screening of ‘My Fair Lady’ which had local ex-resident Gladys Cooper starring in it, and we even had Sally Hardy (her daughter) come along and talk to locals after the film (She came back to the area a few years later when a plaque was unveiled at her mother’s old house on Ennersdale Road). We then showed the Buster Keaton silent movie ‘Balloonatic’ with live piano accompaniment from Costas Fotopoulos and finished the day off with a showing of ‘Pool of London’, an Ealing Studios film noir. The day was a great success with over 200 people attending throughout the day and off the back off this Hither Green Hall was born. Three locals (an illustrator, a harpist and a city worker) went about organising the group that was officially called the Hither Green Community Hall & Arts Society to cover all the things we imagined could be accomplished in Hither Green if only we could get the Park Cinema back into public rather than private use. In February 2010 we showed our first film at The Station Hotel (under its previous management), ‘Brief Encounter’, for valentine’s day, to a packed room. The first in a few train related films we showed at the Station Hotel before it changed hands to it’s present owners.
The move to St Swithun’s
In March 2010 we had our first event at the newly refurbished St Swithun’s Hall (which would become our home). A day of classic films including Easter Parade, Life of Brian and Hot Fuzz (one of the best films about what happens when community comes together, in a bad way, in my opinion) and drama workshops run by Crave Theatre productions for 3 to 13 year olds. In September 2010 we started our first season of films at St Swithun’s Hall. We had asked the local community what we should show and integrated those suggestions into what we had planned. We started with a Sherlock Holmes double bill showing ‘Hounds of the Baskervilles’ (1939) and ‘Sherlock’ Holmes (2009) followed in November by the cult classic ‘Harold & Maude’ plus the short film “South of the River” by local film-maker Ben Honeybone. December saw our first showing of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ along with “Keys” another short film by Ben Honeybone.
An opportunity missed
In 2011 The Park Cinema was up for sale again. We thought this was our time, the price had crashed so all we needed to do was find a sympathetic buyer or try and get some funding/backing and we could get this building back for our community.
We invited BBC London News along to see us project a film onto The Park Cinema Building from across the street, we went on BBC London Breakfast radio to appeal to a wider audience and even put together a business case for investors. But to no avail. I was at the auction and talked to the buyer who bought it at a steal (£125,000 less than the previous bought price) and he confirmed that he owned Carpet Corner in Ladywell and their lease ‘might’ be up soon so they needed somewhere else to relocate to. I, personally, was happy at the time that the building would still be used so at some time in the future there would be a chance to get this building back. Now of course we know they have tried to do exactly the same thing by trying to convert the first/second floor into flats and the ground floor into a food retailer, but in May 2015 that has been rejected by the council for a number of reasons. I am sure they will try again…..
(All the views above are mine and may or may not be shared by others so let me know what you think!)