Phoenix still flying high
Posted - June 03, 2012
Share your memories
Jericho is home to Oxford’s oldest surviving cinema, the Phoenix Picturehouse, which is about to celebrate its 100th birthday.
With the help of the Jericho community the cinema is compiling a more recent history told, as far as possible, in the words of its customers and staff. They would like to hear about your cinema-going experiences. The aim is to produce a book and a website, and to present exhibitions, along with special screenings and events.
Movies have been shown on this site since 1913 after the opening of the ‘North Oxford Kinema’. Silent films were initially accompanied first by a pianist, then a banjo player, and finally in 1917 by a three-piece orchestra. At this point, the frontage was much narrower since a small house occupied the right-hand side — though the auditorium was always the same width — at that point seating 498 people.
The cinema has passed through many hands and has had several names. It was renamed the Scala in 1920 when it was taken over by the Gloucester-based entertainment firm, Pooles. In 1923 it was bought by Walker and Shaw Enterprises who introduced a locally filmed newsreel, the ‘Scala Local Topical’.
By 1925 it was under the management of a Cockney showman Ben Jay and renamed the ‘New Scala’ (the ‘new’ only lasted a couple of years). He had an early form of karaoke: an interlude with community singing of such songs as ‘If you knew Suzie’ and ‘Ma, he’s making eyes at me’ accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra while the words flashed up on the screen. He also served free tea and biscuits at matinees, much appreciated by Jericho people who could come in to keep warm and see the programme around twice for fourpence.
The cinema has always been popular with students. In the 1920s they were clearly more boisterous than they are today, frequently unscrewing the seats and running round the auditorium. When the commissionaire intervened the cry would go up: ‘Rescue Balliol!’ or ‘Rescue St Johns!’ and the commissionaire himself might finish up in the gutter.
A more sedate 40-year period started after 1930 when the cinema was taken over by the Poyntz family and the Scala started to build its reputation as a leading arthouse cinema. (Mr Poyntz banned ice cream and sweets.) The Scala showed the latest foreign films and classics, and allocated Sundays to the Oxford Film Society.
It was in 1970 after it had been taken over by Leeds-based Star Associated Holdings that the cinema was ‘twinned’ and changed from the Scala to Studios 1 and 2. This was not a very inspired period and one of the twins became the ‘Studio X’, a cinema club showing soft-porn.
In 1977 the cinema revived again after being taken over by the London company Contemporary Entertainments and acquired its current name, the Phoenix—showing more first-run films. Though the cinema was more successful, in the mid-1980s there was a possibility that it might be sold to one of the major chains. It was at that point they started the Friends of the Phoenix scheme.
In 1990 the cinema was taken over by the current owners City Screen — though the building is still owned by St. John’s College. In 1998 the front of the building was extensively remodelled.
Now the cinema wants to add more personal memories to its history. Did you keep a scrapbook or do you have any photographs or memorabilia? The intention is to provide a forum at the Community Centre for a group-sharing of these experiences and memories, possibly recording the session on video. If you want to participate please contact Jim Wright on 513048.
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