Exploring the Cinema City on Foot

Odeon front 2 detail

Last year, Cinema City took part in Glasgow Doors Open Day – Glasgow’s Built Heritage Festival, which took place 16 - 22 September. Renovations for Glasgow Film Theatre’s Screen 3 are complete and now last year saw the return of the Cinema City Walking Tour.

The two-hour cinema walk is run by Gordon Barr and Gary Painter, taking in the sights of Glasgow’s various cinemas and cinema-related landmarks around the city centre. Incorporating a history of cinemas and cinema-going in Glasgow, this popular tour attracts locals and tourists alike. I went along to this latest promenade to see what it’s all about.

Beginning at the Britannia Panopticon on Trongate on a brisk and showery Monday, our tour guides began with a brief history of cinema and the search for the moving image. In Scotland, the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh was the first venue to see the moving pictures of the cinematograph. Glasgow, however, hosted various variety début and early performances from the likes of Stan Laurel, Cary Grant and Jack Buchanan in its variety theatre turned cinema history.

Cinemas around Glasgow took on various forms – most of them converted from Victorian hobby venues. There were the Victorian roller skating rinks repurposed as cinemas. Examples include the Argyle Electric Theatre, the variety halls like Crouche’s Theatre of Varieties which later became the St Enoch Picture Theatre, and a lucky few which survive to be retail stores, office blocks and, in a few cases, newer cinemas and music venues. 

Stories about the venues and their buildings’ histories are peppered throughout the tour, along with some charming oddities like the BBFC’s (British Board of Film Classification) early film policies. Our tour guides provided a handout showcasing archive photographs of many of the buildings in their heyday, along with billboards and original floor plans. After the tour’s end, they also provided a fantastic handout with details of the cinemas visited as a takeaway.

The phrases “converted warehouse” and “sadly destroyed in a fire” are legion throughout this tour, lending the experience a nostalgic, if slightly comical, aspect. Whether you’re admiring the Regal turned ABC on Sauchiehall Street, regarding the once grand Paramount turned Odeon on Renfield Street, or straight up imagining the now-demolished Argyle Electric Theatre where Argyle Street Station now stands, it’s a tour for the eyes and the imagination. There are even a few cinemas that might have been – depending on whose reports you choose to believe.

Some cinema-owning families sound like fantastic personalities, from the Mitchell family, who ran amusements at the Panopticon to Miss Cranston, purveyor of fine tea room treats and the upmarket Cinema De Luxe on Renfrew Street, not to mention the titular and remarkably ambitious Green’s Playhouse, which sat where you’ll find the Cineworld now and held an astounding 6,000 seats in its ballroom. 

Of the hundreds of former cinema sights in Glasgow, the tour ends on a high note, showing a corner of the ABC building on Sauchiehall St where the original structure peeks out from behind the updated façade. Like this tour, it’s a mere glimmer of Glasgow’s almost impossibly large cinema history, perfectly captured and demonstrated. You can learn more about Glasgow’s cinema history from the Cinema City tour guides at Scottish Cinemas, where you’ll also find lots more useful links.