Today the former Grange Cinema faces off with the old Gaumont State across Kilburn High Road – both of them built in the golden age of cinema with seating for thousands, but now home to religious organisations that can make use of their stage facilities and spacious interiors. The Grange, on the London Borough of Camden side of the road (the other side is in the Borough of Brent), was saved from proposed demolition and redevelopment in the 1990s when it received Grade II historic listing from English Heritage. Thus we can still admire from the roadside the work of theatre and cinema designer Edward A Stone, who was also responsible for venues such as the Astoria Finsbury Park, and the Prince Edward Theatre on Old Compton Street.
Theatre gives way to cinema
In the early years of the twentieth century, Kilburn had become renowned as a place of entertainment, including theatre and music hall. Such was the area’s popularity that Sir Oswald Stoll, the theatre impresario responsible for the Coliseum on St Martin’s Lane, wanted to build a similar venue on the corner of Messina Avenue where a large mansion called The Grange fronted on to Kilburn High Road. The property had been sold in 1910 on the death of its owner, Ada Peters, the widow of a wealthy coach builder. In the event, the growing audiences for moving pictures meant that the new entertainment venue on the site of the old Grange opened in July 1914 as a ‘super cinema’, designed to seat 2,310. It was said to be the largest purpose-built cinema in Europe when constructed. Having said that, it also illustrates the transitional point between theatre and cinema design, which is noted in its historic listing.
The Grange was designed in the Baroque style, with a galleried rotunda and a Tea Room on its upper floor. The auditorium was on two levels, with stalls and a circle. The building had (and still has) a striking appearance both within and without, with stained glass windows, pilasters and ornate plasterwork and the striking green copper dome above the entrance bay. The venue opened with showings of the silent film ‘She Stoops to Conquer’, supported by a Keystone Cops feature. However, it was also provided with a stage and dressing rooms for live acts, and theatrical variety shows took place alongside films throughout the 1920s. Early film features were accompanied by The Grange’s Nicholson and Lord organ, later replaced by a Wurlitzer.
The last picture show
In 1937 The Grange found itself vying for audiences with the Kilburn State Cinema which opened on the opposite side of Kilburn High Road. This extravaganza of a cinema was designed in Art Deco style with a tower to put people in mind of the newly opened Empire State Building in New York. It also easily exceeded The Grange’s ‘super cinema’ capacity, with seating for over 4,000 and its own restaurant and dance floor. Nonetheless, The Grange managed to pull in audiences and keep going until the 1970s, when the Rank company, who then owned it, realised that there was no longer the market for two supersize cinemas in Kilburn, especially in such close proximity. The final film performance took place on 14 July 1975, with the feature ‘The Ghoul’, a British horror film directed by Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing, John Hurt and Alexandra Bastedo. Variety labelled the film “far too tame for its own good” and said the script “moves from A to Z without generating much excitement and surprise in between”. With this downbeat farewell, The Grange closed as a cinema and was converted into a nightclub.
The Irish connection
The nightclub which opened in February 1976 was called Butty’s – Butty being Michael Sugrue, who ran the Admiral Nelson pub in Carlton Vale. Sugrue was from County Kerry in the Republic of Ireland, and was keen to cater for the Irish diaspora who had been settling in Kilburn for decades. He was known as ‘Ireland’s Strongest Man’ and had been a wrestler and circus performer. He was skilled in publicising his commercial ventures, and you will find clips on YouTube of an effort to break the world record for being buried alive – although Butty simply orchestrated this feat, having persuaded Mick Meaney, a barman at the Admiral Nelson, to subject himself to it for 61 days!
By 1980 The Grange was being operated as the Kilburn National Ballroom, the Kilburn National Club, or the Irish National Club. It was now owned by the Carey Brothers, a Wembley firm of builders who originated in Tipperary. It seems that some members of Camden Guides have vivid memories of its offering at this time. Your blogger claims to be too young and innocent to have experienced this first-hand…
Alongside the regular bar and club offering, the venue also provided a stage for concerts. Over the years, acts such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Undertones, The Pogues, New Order, Nirvana and Manic Street Preachers appeared there.
The curtain falls
The owners of the club made two applications in the 1990s to redevelop the site, hoping to demolish it and replace it with a new leisure complex. Both applications were blocked by Camden Council, since the building had been awarded Grade II historic listing status in 1991. Eventually ‘The National’ closed in 1999 and the building stood empty until 2001.
The Victory Christian Centre, an evangelical organisation, moved into The Grange in July 2001. It had expanded from fewer than 100 members to more than 3,000, so was seeking a venue with seating and stage facilities to accommodate regular worship. The congregation was based at the premises until the end of 2002, when the Charity Commission carried out an investigation into the church’s financial affairs and closed it down for misconduct.
The Grange stood empty again until 2003, when another church organisation took it over. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God was founded in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s, and now claims to have millions of followers world-wide. It is an evangelical, charismatic church that expects its members to pay tithes (a tenth of their income) to the organisation. Its leader is a billionaire and runs a TV station in Brazil. Over the years, the church has been mired in controversy and has faced accusations of money-laundering, illegal child adoption practices, opposition to higher education for women, and operating as a cult. Nonetheless, it continues to attract large numbers to its services and classes. However, this is all a far cry from the silver screen performances and raucous concerts of The Grange’s heyday.
Featured image – Kilburn Grange by Jim Osley-geograph.org.uk/p/4959980 CC BY-SA 2.0