Page updated 6th January 2014
By the time the Palladium Cinema opened as a purpose built cinema, in December 1913, there were already three other purpose built cinemas in the city that conformed with the Cinematograph Act of 1909. However, the Empire Electric seated only 230, the Franklin seated 250, and the largest, the City Palace could accommodate 380. The Palladium, was the largest in the city, seating about a 1,000, and would, come to dominate cinema in Exeter until the advent of the 1932 super cinema, the Gaumont.
The Palladium started life as the Queen's Hall, an exhibition, variety and cinema venue. The hall had been carved out of two shops at 93 and 94 Paris Street, to provide a space that could accommodate 1,100 seated. There was a music stage, and a flat floor for exhibitions.
The first public meeting, at the hall, was the Autumn Exhibition of the Devon Horticultural Society, on the 10 November 1912, where a fine display of chrysanthemums were on show. The Exeter Choral Society tested the acoustics of the hall, when they gave a concert on the 23 November. A full orchestra and chorus of 150 performed Mendelssohn and Elgar. Then a mass meeting in defence of the Church of Wales, with the Bishop of Exeter was held on the 25 November. The opening fortnight was certainly varied, although it was the cinema that would soon take precedence at the hall.
Although the hall was not quite ready for its first exhibition, it still went ahead. The owners belatedly applied for a licence under the Public Gatherings Act, after the flower show. On 24 November, the application was discussed by the relevant City Council Committee, and it was revealed that the City Surveyor had examined the hall prior to the flower show, and that it was fit for that particular function. The Mayor said he had been at the hall, that morning, and that the "stairs and basement were like a builder's yard". He went on to say that a risk was being taken, without a licence, so the application was passed on to the Watch Committee – pass the buck, one could say.
The hall had a projection box, and when “Dante’s Infemo” was shown, in January 1913, the Council banned anyone who was under 16 from attending the show so as not to corrupt the young.
On 13 December 1913, it was announced in the Gazette that the Queen's Hall had been taken over by Mr Albany Ward who already ran 34 cinemas across the West of England. Mr Ward had the intention of showing films, interspersed with live variety items. George Leacey, the late lessee and manager was retained as the manager for the new venture.
Mr Archibald Lucas was the architect for Albany Ward. Workmen for Albany Ward immediately set to work to improve the interior, and added a four foot rake to the auditorium, added tip up seating and new carpets throughout. The walls were painted and stenciled. Electric lighting was added throughout, while an 18hp engine was installed to power the Bioscope projector. There were three performances a day, at 3, 7 and 9pm with seats for 3d at the front, 6d in the centre, 9d at the rear, and 1 shilling for the balcony which could be reserved.
The hall, now converted to a mixed live show and cinema, opened on the 26 December 1913, with a variety and film programme. There was a full orchestra to accompany both the live acts and the film. The Gazette reported on the opening:
The Exeter Palladium may be said to have "caught on” among citizens and visitors seeking a good class entertainment. The programme which constitutes the fare for this half-week would be difficult to excel for all round excellence. There are no less than twelve items, including three variety turns, and each assists to give couple of hours' enjoyable entertainment...
The 3000 ft pantomime film Robinson Crusoe, supported by Beautiful Winter was also shown along with cartoons and a bi-weekly Gazette. The variety acts included the flying trapeze artists known as the Clements, and Walsh and Ono in a sketch called 'The Lady and the Chauffeur.' Ironically, the Theatre Royal's pantomime for 1913 was also Robinson Crusoe.
The Palladium also experimented with talkies during the First War, using a phonograph. In February 1916, the cinema acquired the exclusive rights to showing Charlie Chaplin films in Exeter.
During the war, films from the front, and war dramas were very popular, and this programme from the Gazette of August 1917 gives an indication of the films on offer:
"Somewhere in France" heads the programme at the Exeter Palladium this week. It an exceptionally good picture, and shows how a young French aviator loses his map. and, preferring death to dishonour, shoots himself. It also depicts how the brother devoted his life clearing the family name. The “Shielding Shadow," “Into the Depths," Episode 2, is a fine picture, and well worth a visit. "Jerry's Treasure Box" is an amusing comedy, and bound to raise a hearty laugh. "With the Army in Mesopotamia" is an interesting film showing the conditions under which our heroes lived, fought, and died. All the latest war news is shown in the "Pathe Gazette." "Hoodman Blind" heads the programme for the latter portion of the week. It is a vividly described drama, full of gripping sensations.
After three years of war, one would have thought that more escapist entertainment would be preferred.
In 1921 Albany Ward installed new seating for 800, and added a glass covered canopy over the pavement, a feature found in many of their other cinemas. Up until 1932, when the Gaumont opened, the Palladium was Exeter's largest cinema. It became a success because of its size, providing comfort and space that was missing from cinemas elsewhere in the city. The Palladium added a touch of class for the cinema goer, and attracted both the working man and his family, and the upper classes, who would never attend a performance at the smaller, and more crowded rivals.
In 1927, the cinema was absorbed into the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres group, where Albany Ward remained in control of its west country theatres. In 1930, RCA sound equipment was installed under a leasing arrangement.
The Gaumont was part of the same group, when it opened in competition in 1932, but there was probably some form of co-operation between the two cinemas, in their programming.
The Palladium continued its performances up until the Second World War. During the early months of 1940, the cinema was showing a variety of films, including morale boosters. In the 30 August 1940 issue of the Gazette, the last film to be reviewed at the Palladium was "Wings of the Morning" with Henry Fonda.
The cinema was closed and 'taken over for national purposes' although nothing appeared in the local press. The building was used for the storage of canned meat and grain. The end for what had once been Exeter's finest film palace was the night of the 4 May 1942, when it was badly damaged by fire during the blitz.
A report, from September 1946, in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette stated that the canned meat, in the store, was damaged during the blitz, but salvable due to it being in the basement. During the fire, the grain which was stored in the floor above, fell through, covering the cans, and insulating them from the heat.
So much of Paris Street and surround was destroyed during the blitz, that the street was re-aligned and, apart from the Honiton Inn, developed with new shops, and the bus station. And thus, all traces of what was Exeter's favourite cinema in the 1920s, was lost.
Sources: Flying Post, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Bill Douglas (Exeter University) website.
Children queuing outside the Palladium in 1938.Photo courtesy of Keith Saunders Fighting the flames at the Palladium, May 1942.Announcing the new Palladium on 19 December 1913.
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