Who Was Oscar Deutsch?
The simple answer is that he entertained our nation. Deutsch (1893-1941) created a cinema circuit to rival the big two, Gaumont and ABC, and his chain is still with us today. This inconsequential-looking little man was the son of a Jewish Hungarian scrap metal merchant, and brought about an extraordinary revolution in British style, a monumental form of art deco modernism that should have resulted in the listing of nearly all his buildings. Instead (and I write this with a sigh of grim inevitability) most of them were torn down by developers.
Deutsch’s revolution was brought about by creating entirely new purpose-built cinemas, to which he added existing halls. One of the grandest remaining examples is in the centre of the West End, the black art-deco Odeon Leicester Square. The frontages were usually of glazed terra-cotta (often green and cream) that was easy to keep clean. The lines of the cinemas were sweeping and simple, neon-edged, with towers and fins. His interiors were just as astounding. Every detail was tailored, from tubular chrome lounge seats to ash-stands and carpets and arm-rests.
In the 1960s the lush interiors were replaced with crude, cheap materials because it was felt that as the house lights were only up for a few minutes, it didn’t matter what the auditoria looked like anymore. The ceilings were lowered and ruined, the lounges were torn out and even the few listed buildings that survived were sold off to bingo halls and cultish churches. Deutsch worked hard and fast because he did not expect to live long, having suffered from stomach cancer at a time when there was little treatment available.
1937 was the peak year for the odeon chain, with some voluptuous designs that looked like spaceships. The auditoria had invisible lighting but their sense of sweeping luxury was later destroyed when the remaining working cinemas were carved into pokey little multiplexes.
I used to go to the Woolwich Odeon, a dazzlingly beautiful freestanding building typical of Deutsch’s chain. I knew I was spending too much time there when the cinema manager started to greet me by my first name. I was so at home in the Odeon that I used to go out to the foyer snack bar in my socks. The ice cream girl would say ‘Your usual, Chris?’ as she poked about in her tray for a Zoom! lolly. These cinemas (and the ABCs) had gigantic colourful cut-outs above their canopies advertising films each week, in the way that many Indian cinemas still do. The Woolwich Odeon is now in the hands of yet another church group (several of these are periodically under investigation for financial malpractice).
As I am of course turning into Arthur Bryant, I do own two volumes on the history of these wonderful buildings. After Deutsch came J Arthur Rank, who at least gave us a popular piece of rhyming slang (and not a lot else). I miss the grand cinemas. I don’t want to sit in a tin hut offering ‘Transformers’ on 15 screens. Luckily the wonderful Curzon chain has taken over Bloomsbury’s main cinema, the old Renoir Cinema, and is about to open it for worldwide fare.
ODEON was supposedly an acronym for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’. The cinema at the top was illegally demolished by developers.