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Stockport Plaza Brings Gatsby Glamour

Jonathan Smith loves the Art Deco joys of a Stockport gem

Published on July 10th 2013.


Stockport Plaza Brings Gatsby Glamour
 

BAZ Luhrmann’s latest imagination of American literature colossus The Great Gatsby has sparked infatuation with its flamboyant age of ostentatious flappers, martinis and Art Deco architecture.

From the glorious neon lights beaming atop of the entrance, all the way down to the correct flathead screws in the door frames the Plaza is a vintage luxury dripping with charm.

Faux prohibition speakeasies have sprung up all over the UK in recent years with Manchester’s ‘Dusk Til Pawn’ being a prime example, while hip-hop heavyweights Jay-Z and Kanye West have illuminated the charts by following the original champagne popping superstar Jay Gatsby’s lead.

Ludicrously enough there have even been discussions about building  the Titanic II, an exact replica of the doomed vessel, in order to cash in on the retro revival (yes it sunk way back in 1912, but you get the idea).

With most of these imitations failing to come close to imagining the sparkling glamour of the twenties and thirties it will be a surprise to many that as near as Stockport is an unparalleled restoration of 1932, The Plaza.

Plaza auditorium

Plaza auditorium

A £3.3million renovation in 2009 saw the Plaza return to its former glories, functioning as a 'Super Cinema and Variety Theatre'- one of the last of its kind.

Originally opened in 1932 as a multi-purpose venue to hedge its bets between traditional theatre and passing fad cinema. While successful (making a then impressive £5,000 in its opening year), the Plaza found itself unable to survive the cinema attendance slump of the 1950s, caused by television’s mass growth, and by 1966 it was trading as a bingo hall.

Fast forward to the 1990s and again the Stockport Plaza faced an uncertain future with bingo’s popularity declining. As the Plaza reached, what current General Manager Ted Doan describes as, “the 60 year old danger zone” demolition became a real possibility for the Art Deco landmark.

Instead the local community banded together, with the backing of Stockport City Council, to save the much loved building through the Stockport Plaza Trust. Under General Manager Ted Doan’s stewardship The Plaza has been transformed from its dilapidated state to its current, palatial grandeur.

Painstakingly restored to exactly how it would have looked in 1932 every aspect of the Plaza has been sourced to mirror photos and accounts of the old cinema.

Cutting no corners, from the geometrically patterned carpet to the minty green chairs in the tea room, all is historically accurate. Even inconsequential elements haven’t been missed - retro emergency exit signs hang above doorways (allowed due to The Plaza’s status as Grade II Star listed building).

It borders on the obsessive occasionally; only flathead screws have been used in the rebuilding since deceptively useful crosshead screws weren’t around till 1937.

Even when difficulties arose during the refurbishment innovative solutions were adopted, an image of an elusive counter top was discovered by checking a window reflection from an old photo of the cinema’s previous life.

It seems almost every restored piece has a charming tale behind it, none more so than the extremely rare 1928 Westar projector that was discovered waiting to be scrapped in Blackpool, found by none other than the man, who as a child, was a projection helper at the Plaza back in its first stint.

The crowning achievement of the renovation is unsurprisingly the centrepiece auditorium. A two-tiered marvel of Art Deco design, the walls are flamboyantly coated with gold and silver that channels the 1932 fixation on classical Egyptian décor. Only entering from the upper circle can you get a real sense of how imposing an auditorium it is. It holds 1,250 people.

The authenticity is carried over into the customer experience. To complete the 1932 vision means carrying out business as it would have been in its cinematic heyday, producing an exact evening programme for those coming to see 2013’s latest blockbusters.

Customers enter the lobby to the crackling tones of twenties jazz before reaching their seats, prior to the main feature a fantastically politically incorrect Pathe newsreel is played while the film has an interval for ice creams and old-fashioned treats (no popcorn, hot dogs and nachos), sold by traditionally uniformed staff. And to top it all off the National Anthem is played on the feature’s conclusion.

It’s an experience far removed from today’s fast paced, advert driven multiplex cinema visits. Manager Ted is keen to stress not only the distinctive, personal experience available at the Plaza but also the exceptional service, which since most staff are unpaid volunteers, is done with a genuine passion for the building.

Harking back to when cinema was entertainment for the working class masses, Ted wants people to do the same today, to “escape the daily grind and unwind in yesteryear”. It would be easy to label the Plaza nothing more than a nostalgic time capsule but it’s a lot more than a novelty tribute to a bygone era.

"It’s not a museum but the best of today and the best of yesterday,” as Ted aptly puts it.

Another bonus for the Plaza is its ability to stage a whole host of entertainment. In regards to the cinema side of the business there is the usual selection of post release films but the more enticing prospect is that of the classic films they show, which get the best attendances in the country.

Showing around two a month they range from the well regarded, like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, to rare thirties’ gems such as the upcoming one-offs of ‘Top Hat’ and ‘Oh Mr Porter’. Some are even so ancient they have a separate vinyl for the film’s soundtrack, a far cry from today’s Dolby Digital Surround Sound.

With the auditorium lucky enough to have a stage it can show all varieties of performance, including children’s pantomimes, West End touring acts on top of traditional concerts. Satellite link up capabilities also means that Glyndebourne operas or contemporary theatre productions can be shown in tandem with the actual performance.

Being an independent cinema means that local film festivals and filmmakers have a good chance of being able to get their work on the silver screen, most recently ‘Grimm Up North’ horror series has used the Plaza as its venue.

Plaza in the 1930s

Plaza in the 1930s

Despite a substantial selection of revenue streams the Plaza is reluctant to “rest on its laurels” as Ted tells me, emphasising the importance of one word: “diversification”.

Being a charitable fund the Plaza needs to think on its feet in order to keep improvements ticking over, the latest initiative is hosting weddings.

Sell outs are a regular occurrence with cinema “pre-bookings out stripping most places showing it all week”.

From the glorious neon lights beaming atop of the entrance, all the way down to the correct flathead screws in the door frames the Plaza is a vintage luxury dripping with charm.

Once you’ve experienced the majesty (set to be even more majestic with murals being added soon) of the Plaza’s auditorium you’ll be reluctant to ever want to bother with the impersonal, expensive Odeons and AMCs of the world.

With the new 'Great Gatsby’ showing this Friday (12 July) you’d be hard pushed to find a more appropriate venue for the Art Deco extravaganza.

Adult cinema tickets cost £6.50 or £4.50 for film club members. The Plaza, Mersey Square, Stockport, SK1 1SP

 The Plaza

The Plaza

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Karen SmithJuly 10th 2013.

Sounds amazing , I would love this to be my local cinema !

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