History

Designed by local architect Gilbert Gardner, the North Oxford Kinema opened on 15 March 1913 under proprietors Richard Henry John Bartlett, W. Beeson, and Charles Green. Bar a brief period during the First World War, and closures for refurbishment works in 1939 and 1970, it has the rare distinction of remaining in continuous operation for 100 years.

Yet Bartlett et al should perhaps have been wary of launching their new business venture on the Ides of March. Their tenure was short-lived and, indeed, the cinema’s early years remained unstable, with no less than seven operators trying their hand during the 1910s and 1920s. Others were Hubert Thomas Lambert (1917-20), C. W. Poole’s Entertainments (1920-23), Walshaw Enterprises (1923-25), Ben Jay (1925-27), J. Bailiff (1927-28), and Edward Alfred Roberts (1928-30).

In June 1930, The Scala (as Poole’s had renamed it) finally gained some stability after its purchase by John Edward Poyntz, an imposing Welshman. He installed sound, and instigated a business plan of screening subtitled films to students to help them learn languages. A burgeoning interest in the artistry and politics of world cinema led to the launch of the Oxford Film Society in 1933. Significant structural alterations to the facade and interior were made in 1939. Programmed by Mr. Poyntz’s son-in-law Eric Bowtell, in the 1950s and ’60s The Scala came to be recognised as one of the UK’s foremost regional art cinemas.

After Mr. Bowtell’s retirement in 1970, the cinema was sold to Star Associated Holdings, who had a very different sensibility to the previous owners, being more interested in showbiz than cinematic artistry. They converted many of their cinemas wholly or partly to bingo (the main part of their business); luckily The Scala escaped this change of usage. Star ‘twinned’ the cinema and renamed it Studio 1 & 2. Barred by the larger exhibition chains from showing the top English-language titles on first release, and uninterested in subtitled cinema, Star’s programming policy relied heavily on the growing availability and popularity of sex films.

In 1977, Star subleased the cinema to Charles and Kitty Cooper of Contemporary Films, who renamed it The Phoenix and changed the programming again. Contemporary had been a leading art house distributor since 1951 and, in the 1970s, they diversified into exhibition, with The Phoenix becoming their third and final cinema. In these years, new and classic foreign-language titles sat alongside cult movies. Their introduction of late shows seven days per week was popular with students, although sometimes less popular with the neighbours.

After a period of great success, the spread of home video contributed to declining audience numbers – a situation replicated around the country. In 1989, the cinema was sold to Lyn Goleby and Tony Jones of City Screen, and became the first cinema in the Picturehouse group. Popular changes introduced in the Picturehouse era include installation of the bar in 1994 and the launch of live satellite broadcasts of opera, theatre, and ballet in 2006.

Our book about the venue’s history will be published this autumn, featuring many of the photographs and reminiscences so kindly shared by our customers and staff, both past and present. The centenary project team can be contacted at phoenixcentenary@gmail.com.

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