top of page

Scottish Cinema Spotlight: ABC Glasgow (Regal, Cannon, MGM)

Updated: Jul 7

Welcome to Scottish Cinema Spotlight! The segment where we shine a light on one of our nation's other golden age picture palaces, taking you on a journey through their history from construction to the present day. This month we're covering possibly one of the most famous cinemas in the country's history, the iconic ABC Regal on Sauchiehall Street!

The Regal Cinema in the 1930s.

Another Bugle, another Regal! And despite our previous Spotlight featuring the Regal so close to home in Newton-on-Ayr, chances are you're more familiar with this month's cinema from the city with the most per capita in Europe in the 1930s, Glasgow's Regal super-cinema on Sauchiehall Street. Let's dive first into a unique and varied early history!

The building that would emerge as one of the city's finest picture palaces was an extensive reconstruction of a much earlier building on the same site, originally built in 1875 as the Diorama. With the moving image still yet to emerge, the Diorama featured canvases of historical events throughout the world. Three years later in 1878 the canvases began to move, with the renamed Panorama becoming a very early example of an entertainment venue where patrons could experience the illusion of motion, with the canvases scrolling at the optimum speed. The next change came in 1885 where moving images were replaced with ice and the building was reborn as Hubner's Ice-Skating Palace, which soon after in 1888 became one of the first buildings in Glasgow to have electricity installed!

This made it the perfect venue on 26th May 1896 to host Glasgow's first ever public film showing, and the second ever in Scotland, with the first being held in the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh just 43 days earlier!

The interior as the Hippodrome in the 1900s, home of Hengler's Circus (left), and the interior ballroom of the Waldorf Palais dance hall (right), in 1927.

In 1904, the building would change once more, being transformed into the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome featured a large circus ring in place of the ice rink, with a water tank fitted underneath capable of filling the arena with 23,000 gallons of water in just 35 seconds! The same year of opening the Hippodrome became the home of the famous Hengler's Circus, with film screenings shown in the circus's off-season during this period. The Hippodrome remained the home of Hengler's until 1927, when the building would change yet again, being largely rebuilt and transforming into the Waldorf Palais dance hall.

The reconstruction into the Waldorf was the precursor to the cinema that would soon follow. The iconic curved windows of the new façade date from this period, and the unique position of the building being situated on a hill led to the new dance hall being built on the first floor with the car park at street level underneath the hall itself. Certain aspects of the Waldorf's reconstruction hint towards a vision of becoming a cinema in the future, and that's exactly what happened just two years later in 1929 when the building was purchased by the Associated British Cinemas circuit.

Queues down Sauchiehall Street to visit the Regal Cinema in the early 1930s.

The iconic ABC chain immediately commissioned architect Charles J. McNair, an icon in Scottish cinema architecture who would go on to design several more ABCs including those in Falkirk, Hamilton, Motherwell, our previously covered King's in Kilmarnock, and more. He also would design some of Glasgow's other iconic cinemas including the State in Shettleston, ODEON in Anniesland, and Lyceum in Govan that still lies empty today.

Unquestionably Charles' most iconic addition to the new Regal was an all-new portico entrance on Sauchiehall Street. Situated off-centre with shop units on either side, the impressive new façade became an icon of Glasgow city centre. The glorious appearance was highlighted by an elegant canopy over the street that originally featured planters on the top. Through the entrance and the small foyer had payboxes on each side, with the main foyer and luxurious restaurant above, accessed by two twin grand staircases and lifts. The restaurant was created in the space formerly used as the Waldorf's dance hall, with sweeping views along Sauchiehall Street.

The Regal Cinema in 1930.

The new 'super cinema' also received an auditorium worthy of the name, with the final capacity becoming an impressive 2,359 in stalls and circle. The interior decoration of the Regal was wondrously grand, with the side walls featuring painted Greco-Roman pillars with exotic autumnal scenes in-between. The rest of the auditorium echoed this autumnal theme with warm colours throughout, including glorious golden Art Deco grilles in the proscenium arch and a curved balcony that featured two elegant side boxes at each end.

Original auditorium design of the Regal Cinema upon opening in 1929.

As befitting of the finest cinemas of the era, the Regal also boasted a 3/12 Rank Compton organ, shown in the photograph below with organist Gerald Shaw. Once the Regal reached 1955 the auditorium design was simplified. The gorgeous Art Deco styling remained, yet with the autumnal scenes of the side-walls were covered up in favour of a new colour scheme of pink, turquoise and silver with the proscenium still shining in gold, and now framing an all-new wide-screen installed at the same time.

Clockwise from top left: The Regal Cinema in 1947, the auditorium in 1959, the original 3/12 Compton organ and organist Gerald Shaw in 1938, and the ceiling detail of the rear balcony, again in 1959.

The ABC Regal in October 1959.

By this time the Regal was now operating under the iconic red triangle branding of ABC, yet retaining its original name like so many others. That would remain the case until 1967, when the Regal was dropped as the cinema become known simply as ABC1. Why 1? As next-door to the original building an all-new construction took shape as a huge extension of the ABC, with a second screen with a 922-seated capacity, stadium-style layout, and new name of ABC2!

Designed by architect C.J. Foster, ABC2's auditorium was ultra-modern and luxurious for the era, with the endless sweeping gold curtains resembling the iconic Cinerama format. ABC2 was accessed from a separate entrance on Sauchiehall Street, and featured a new foyer with pay box and kiosk, together with a wide double staircase that led to the first floor waiting lounge and new licensed bar. The ABC2 opened on 19th October 1967, with the Oscar-nominated 'Far from the Madding Crowd' starring Julie Christie and Peter Finch.

ABC2 in December 1968.

The ABC duopoly would remain for another 12 years, until the last expansion would take place, this time within the original Regal. In a classic episode of 'a sign of the times' the original 2,359 capacity auditorium designed by Charles J. McNair would be carved up and divided into four screens. The conversion resulted in the original balcony becoming Screen 1, still seating an impressive 970, close to the size of its neighbour in ABC2. The stalls were divided into Screens 3, 4, and 5, with capacities of 384, 206, and 194 respectively. What happened to Screen 2? That became the new name of ABC2, as the 1 and 2 names also disappeared with the full complex becoming the ABC Film Centre. Five screens across two buildings combined into one multiplex, this became the old Regal's final cinematic form!

The Screen 1 auditorium in the original balcony of ABC1 (left) in 1979, and ABC2 (right) in 1975.

As readers of previous Scottish Cinema Spotlight articles may now be expecting, the arrival of the 80s and 90s would then bring the identity crisis that befell all ABC cinemas across the country, beginning in 1986 with the sale of the chain to the Cannon Group. As covered in our ABC Kilmarnock article, the subsequent decade was a mess, with the company changing hands (and names) multiple times. The first being to the new owners of 1986, Cannon! A name that became synonymous with late 80s and early 90s cinema-going across the country. Yet, the black-and-white Cannon branding did not remain long, as the disastrous behind-the-scenes management led to high-profile arrests, assets being seized, and the Cannon cinemas nationwide being renamed to the iconic name of MGM in 1992. For the full story of the ABC to Cannon to MGM calamity click the button below to catch up in our article from Issue 13.

The Cannon Cinema in 1990 (above), and the MGM Cinema in 1993 (below).

Of course, the MGM name would not last long. In fact, it would only last for less than three years, until yet another sale of the company took place that shook up the entire cinema landscape with the arrival of Virgin Cinemas. As also discussed in Issue 13, Virgin took a radical approach and only kept hold of 26 of the 116 cinemas they inherited, choosing to focus on the newer multiplexes and shunning their heritage sites. The old Glasgow Regal was not one of the lucky 26, and was instead sold with the other 89 cinemas to the Cinven group who brought back the ABC name. Yes, even though the Associated British Cinemas circuit was technically no more, the iconic ABC branding, red triangle and all, reappeared across the country.

ABC Glasgow in 1997.

But in keeping with recent trends, it too did not return for long. First of all, the original balcony that became Screen 1 in 1967 showed its last film on 29th October 1998. Then, almost a year later, the cinema that showed Glasgow's first ever film in 1896 as Hubner's Ice-Skating Palace would show its last 103 years on, as all remaining screens would close forever on 14th October 1999.

The 02 ABC in 2017.

Thereafter, the building lay derelict for a few years until 2002, when it was converted to a music venue and entertainment complex. The old ABC2 became bars, restaurants, and a nightclub called Jumpin' Jaks, and the original Regal became one of Glasgow's newest concert halls, the O2 ABC.

Retaining its most iconic name, the O2 ABC would become as well-loved by the people of Glasgow as the building's cinema era, with iconic acts including Adele, Kasabian, and Ed Sheeran performing underneath the largest disco-ball in Europe! One of two O2 venues in the city, the other also a former cinema, the old New Bedford that became the Academy, the ABC would continue to entertain thousands for 12 years, until tragedy struck on 15th June 2018.

The roof of the ABC after the devastating fire in 2018 (left), and the ABC today (2024).

A devastating fire broke out in the adjacent Glasgow School of Art, another iconic Glasgow landmark designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The fire spread to the roof of the ABC, which despite firefighters best efforts, collapsed in on itself in the early hours of Saturday morning. Despite most of the newer ABC2 construction appearing to survive intact, the O2 and neighbouring businesses would never reopen, and the building has remained abandoned and decaying ever since. Now, over six years on, plans for the future of the site are beginning to emerge.

Architectural plans for proposed redevelopment of the site from Glasgow City Council (left) in 2023 with the façade restored, and (right) from Vita Group early this year with the entire building demolished.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no hope of saving the entirety of the building. Renderings released by Glasgow City Council last year showed the façade of the building at least retained, with a new open-space public park where the auditorium used to stand allowing views up to the iconic Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Art, once again being restored. However, newer plans released early this year from a company named Vita Group show concepts for a student accommodation development that shows even the façade completely demolished.

With the iconic opening arch designed by Charles J. McNair in 1929 appearing to be structurally intact, it would be a great loss for the city of Glasgow if it were to be demolished. The old Regal may not return to the glory days of the golden age of cinema, but the glorious architecture still remains and if it can be retained, will preserve the spirit of the building and the memories of generations who will always remember it fondly.

The Regal Cinema in 1937.

Let's do all we can to keep our heritage alive.

29 views0 comments


bottom of page