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Scottish Cinema Spotlight: The La Scala Cinema, Clydebank

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 head to Clydebank and visit a lost icon that had a miraculous survival.


Queues of people form outside the La Scala Cinema, in the 1950s

 

The La Scala Cinema was officially open on Valentine's Day, 14th February 1938. With a truly enormous capacity crowd of 2,648, Clydebank's new super cinema was declared opened by David Kirkwood MP, and patrons were treated to a showing of 'Maytime' starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie. Just like the Broadway, the La Scala was an independent cinema booked by Sir Alexander B. King. Built high on the hill along Graham Avenue, this behemoth of a building immediately became an imposing addition to Clydebank's skyline, instantly becoming one of the largest cinemas in the surrounding area.


More photos of La Scala Cinema, circa 1950


Even the name inspires grandeur! It's almost surprising it's taken us until Issue 16 to reach a cinema named La Scala. The name is right up there with Plaza, Ritz, and Regal in the most popular cinema names of the 1930s, and for good reason! The reason the name is so iconic in the world of entertainment is the world-famous La Scala opera house (Teatro alla Scala) in Milan. Built in 1778, the Italian theatre is one of the most prestigious in the world, being named itself after the church of Santa Maria alla Scala which used to stand on the same site. The name 'La Scala' literally translates to 'the staircase'!

 

Back in Clydebank, the vast namesake cathedral of film's architectural design was highlighted by a glorious Art Deco tower, that almost doubled the height of the cinema itself above the already gargantuan auditorium. With a vertical neon 'La Scala' sign shining east and west, the cinema could undoubtedly be seen from miles around, and that makes perhaps what it remains most famous for today even more astonishing.


The La Scala still standing in the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz in 1941.


The La Scala survived the Blitz.

 

During World War II, on the nights of 13th and 14th March 1941, the German Luftwaffe carried out a strategic air raid campaign across Scotland's industrial heartland. Clydebank suffered the worst destruction and civilian loss of life in the country, with a devastating 1,200 people killed. All major landmarks were either completely destroyed or severely damaged, including the iconic Singer sewing machine factory visible in the first photograph, that on construction had the largest operational clock-face in the world. Out of approximately 12,000 homes, only eight remained completely undamaged.

 

And yet, by some miracle, the La Scala did too. The above photograph is horrifying and almost surreal. Such an imposing landmark would have surely been one of the biggest targets for the Luftwaffe for miles around. Seeing the cinema still standing unscathed surrounded by total destruction is truly incredible, and come 1944 the La Scala would even re-open, once again providing a vital war-time public service by showing newsreels to the community so devastated by the events three years ago, once again sharing updates from the front-line.


The auditorium of the La Scala in the 1950s.


Just what was saved from being bombed from above was pretty spectacular. The beautiful Art Deco building was of steel, concrete and brick construction and had unique brick-coloured faience work on the entrance walls and tower. Yet it was the interior of the La Scala that shone brightest. The auditorium was staggering in its enormity, and quintessentially Art Deco. The massive proscenium arches were just breath-taking! Towering golden grilles with a gloriously grand Art Deco design were illuminated by strategically placed recessed lighting, with a delightful colour scheme of light blue and white to accent the gold. Which was in abundance! Another grille framed the top of the screen opening, itself framed in gold too, as well as beautifully curved raised pinstripes on the walls. Even the curtains shone gold, across a staggering 44-feet wide stage!


The balcony foyer in 1969.


The rest of the cinema was equally glamorous. In the foyer and balcony foyer above golden Greco-Roman pillars highlighted the space, that undoubtedly would have helped create that special evocative atmosphere only the golden age of cinema could conjure. Echoing the height of Hollywood glitz and glamour!

 

Speaking of which, we have shared often the story of the Broadway's own Hollywood moment, when star actress Vivian Blaine visited our cinema on 5th August 1947. Yet the Broadway was not the only cinema Miss Blaine visited on her trip to Scotland! The incredible letters in our heritage collection detailing her visit to Prestwick were between the Broadway and the Seamore Cinema in Glasgow, but we also know of two other cinemas the star of the Hollywood adaptation of Guys and Dolls paid a visit to. One of these was our long-standing neighbour, ODEON Ayr! It seems that the rejuvenated Astoria shared the spotlight with the Broadway even 77 years ago!

 

The other was the La Scala in Clydebank! Just eight years ago for the Clydebank Post, local resident Glen McLaughlin recalled seeing Miss Blaine at the La Scala when he was just 15 years-old, and how he attempted to get an autograph! Apparently the Hollywood star was smothered in flowers upon her arrival however, so sadly his quest was unsuccessful, and it may not have mattered anyway as in the Broadway's correspondence surrounding Miss Blaine's visit it was made clear no autographs would be taken at all!


The projection room of the La Scala in the 1950s.


The La Scala then was the beating heart of Clydebank's community during a very difficult period in its history. Not only did it bring Hollywood's elite, it also brought vital news from the continent to families desperate for updates on relatives fighting the foreign powers that had decimated their own community. And of the machines that provided these emotional rollercoasters? We have a projection room photograph, hooray!

 

At least by the 1950s, the La Scala operated matching Westrex projectors with Peerless Magnarc lamphouses. Significant as they are the exact same models currently awaiting our collection in Stirling! The Allanpark's examples also used Magnarcs, those of which we have collected already, and remain in our collections storage facility at our sponsors Regency FM at Glasgow Prestwick Airport. So the La Scala's former set-up will be available to re-create in the Broadway of the future!


ABC Clydebank in August 1969, also operating as Star Bingo & Social Club


Now let's continue the La Scala's journey. For by the late 1950s, a change in ownership was nigh, with the arrival of the ever-present Associated British Cinemas chain, ABC. The La Scala became an ABC cinema on 31st August 1959, yet kept the iconic original name for another five years, before the La Scala finally became ABC Clydebank by the mid 1960s, along with some other major changes.

 

In a pioneering move at the time by ABC, a plan was devised to fight the ever-growing decline in cinema attendance due to the surge of television ownership, and a transformation that would be replicated all across the country began to take shape. The cinema closed on 12th April 1964, for conversion into a joint cinema and bingo hall, under ABC's partner name Star Bingo. The former stalls would become the bingo hall, with the former balcony becoming the new single-screen cinema, with a much smaller capacity and, sadly, the original Art Deco either removed or covered up by the 'zing' treatment ever-so-popular at the time. This transformation would surprisingly take over five years, with the new ABC finally re-opening on 31st July 1969.


The auditorium of ABC Clydebank in 1967


Now let's continue the La Scala's journey. For by the late 1950s, a change in ownership was nigh, with the arrival of the ever-present Associated British Cinemas chain, ABC. The La Scala became an ABC cinema on 31st August 1959, yet kept the iconic original name for another five years, before the La Scala finally became ABC Clydebank by the mid 1960s, along with some other major changes.

 

In a pioneering move at the time by ABC, a plan was devised to fight the ever-growing decline in cinema attendance due to the surge of television ownership, and a transformation that would be replicated all across the country began to take shape. The cinema closed on 12th April 1964, for conversion into a joint cinema and bingo hall, under ABC's partner name Star Bingo. The former stalls would become the bingo hall, with the former balcony becoming the new single-screen cinema, with a much smaller capacity and, sadly, the original Art Deco either removed or covered up by the 'zing' treatment ever-so-popular at the time. This transformation would surprisingly take over five years, with the new ABC finally re-opening on 31st July 1969.



The La Scala in June 2003 as Gala Bingo


By the early 2000s, the bingo hall was operated by the Gala Bingo chain, and rather heartbreakingly by this point the iconic tower had been drastically shortened, and the front of the auditorium block greatly simplified. One more change was yet to come too, with the introduction of The Crucible Snooker Club in the old balcony, as the derelict cinema area was put back into use. This however was short-lived, and both the bingo and snooker had ceased operations by 2007. An interior inspection by our friends at Scottish Cinemas that year showed little in the way of original features remaining. There were a few light fittings, and original flooring in forgotten stairwells, but little else that would have reminded you of the evocative atmosphere of the La Scala of old.


The La Scala before demolition in March 2016


Thereafter, the building sadly lay derelict for another decade, before an approved housing development scheme heralded the final nail in the coffin, and demolition began in March 2016.

 

A sad ending, and for Clydebank one can only imagine the potential the building may still hold if it were still here today. It's a fate that arrived for so many of our cinemas, yet the La Scala had already survived worse than most, or any for that matter! In a miracle of the Blitz, the cinema emerged untouched amidst total devastation for miles around, and yet although the Luftwaffe missed, the wrecking ball came all the same.


The final days of La Scala


It's tower pierced the sky screaming defiance and the services it provided brought a community hope in their darkest hour, and although there is now no evidence of the La Scala left today, we can remember the part it played in its town's human history.

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