In 1911 Matthew Steele, a Bo’ness architect, was commissioned by Louis D Dickson to design a cinema on an area of slum clearance near the centre of the town off Hamilton Lane which he had acquired from the Town Council. As much of the area had been reclaimed from the Forth, the concrete foundations had to be 6ft deep. It was a confident investment in what was still a relatively new form of entertainment. Dickson’s Hippodrome and Picture Palace was officially opened on 12 March 1912 by Provost Grant. It consisted of a circular auditorium with a 12ft 6in broad horseshoe gallery supported on cast iron columns facing a proscenium and small stage. The gallery was fitted with the very latest tip-up chairs in four tiers to accommodate 215. The stalls on the ground floor were designed to seat 510. Here the floor was considerably sloped. A baluster and rail 3ft 3in in height connected up the iron columns which supported the gallery and behind it formed a perimeter promenade some 5ft broad. The stage had a proscenium opening of 25ft with an inside measurement of 30 square feet – one of the largest outside a principal city. The stage door had direct communication with Hope Street. Three small dressing rooms were provided next to the stage for the variety acts. A small ticket office was placed at the focal point on the north-west corner of the building off Hope Street. Two public doors led into the building, each with its own pay booth. That on the right led to the front stalls and the other to a rear stair up to the balcony. Keeping the two sets of customers separate was not simply due to the different entrance prices, but because in an emergency it would give both sets of patrons a clear exit. A folding metal stair served as a fire escape for the balcony. A small operators’ box at the rear of the balcony projected out from the north wall. As required, it was entirely fire-proof. The box was what was known as a double-decker, fitted below with a special generator. There was just accommodation for two projectors, and an apparatus for flooding the stage with light. The lights of the hall could be controlled from the operating box or from the stage. The theatre was lit throughout with electricity, but provision was made for the use of gas if needed. Ventilation was by means of a large central electric fan with suitable inlets all around the building. The plans, dated October 1911, show that the flat roof was supported on three girders running parallel to the screen.
The building focuses on the round auditorium around which the ancillary accommodation is organised. In the original severe-looking design the huge auditorium drum was clasped at the cardinal points by low square-headed blocks interspersed by narrower taller blocks, whilst on the north side the curving projection booth broke out at first floor level. A smaller flat-roofed cylinder on the corner of Hope Street and Hamilton Lane set back from the straight dwarf wall continued the contrast between the linear and the curved. The basic form of a classical drum with a dome gripped at four points on its circumference by corner towers was known from the concert hall at the 1908 Scottish National Exhibition in Saughton Park, Edinburgh; but Steele’s treatment of it is more modern and the absence of windows in the main drum gives it an appearance of solidity made all the more imposing by its mass. This is further emphasised by hiding the roof and giving it a relatively plain wallhead with a slight offset below it sporting a regular series of pastilles or square blocks in light relief. It has been likened to a film reel bearing sprockets and cogs – the slightly projecting vertical projections with the sunken first-floor windows acting as guides or stays. Cinemas were new and the building reflected this modernity. It was a changing world with telephones, aeroplanes and electricity – a great contrast to a converted church or town hall.
A feature of the building was the large number of exits – something that the Dean of Guild insisted on – there being no fewer than three on the ground floor and three from the gallery. One emergency exit from the gallery led to the roof of the dressing-room, which was on a level with the gallery floor, and a stair led from this roof to Hamilton Court. The cost of the building was about £1,500. The tradesmen engaged were: builders – Messrs Baikie and Sellars; joiner – Mr R Simpson; plasterer – Robert Kilpatrick; plumber – Mr C Anderson.
At the planning meeting the Council suggested that the main elevation might be altered to have a ground floor with stone-facing, with the brick and harl on the upper levels. This would have added considerably to the cost and so Dickson suggested that he could make a course round the base with stone facings (now largely hidden by the steps introduced in 2007). For the elevation on Hope Street it had been proposed to reduce it at the southern end to one storey in keeping with the others, but after consultation they agreed to increase that end of the elevation to two storeys and to harl the gable of the adjoining building.
Initially Louis Dickson ran a popular programme of films mixed with variety. One feature was the showing of a film of that year’s Children’s Fair Festival which had been made since 1910 by men from Edinburgh. With the assistance of Mr R Miller, musical conductor, he built up a first-class cinema orchestra, which included a number of local instrumentalists. The orchestra was disbanded with the coming of the “talkies”.
During the First World War the cinema was used to raise funds for the war effort. In November 1915 it participated in the Cinema Ambulance Fund intended to raise £30,000 for 50 motor ambulances (Linlithgow Gazette 12 November 1915). The hall was given free of charge for recruiting meetings; showing recruiting slides, official Government films of the war; and advertising War Loans on the screen. Like all cinemas in Britain it was banned from showing non-governmental films of the war. The wounded soldiers at the auxiliary hospital at Carriden were given free attendance at the cinema and special functions were laid on for them. In March 1916 Louis Dickson appeared before an Appeal Tribunal to determine if he should get an exemption from the call up. He stated in his claim that the business could not be carried on without his personal supervision. His mother and sister were dependent upon him and he had two younger brothers serving in the Army. He had had a very competent assistant until that month when he got another situation away from Bo’ness, leaving Dickson only with a boy of 18. His sister had no knowledge of the technical side of the business, booking films, artistes, and so on and would not be able to run it on her own (Linlithgow Gazette 24 March 1916, 3). The prices of admission in 1916 were – pits 4d, pit stalls 5d, side circle 7d, centre circle 11d, front centre circle 1s 2d.
In 1924 Dickson commissioned the filming of the opening of the Bridgeness Miners’ Institute for subsequent viewing at the cinema. This short film is now preserved in the Scottish Film Archive.
The flat roof of the Hippodrome never really worked and in March 1926 Matt Steele lodged plans with the Dean of Guild to replace it with a shallow pitch. The steelwork was designed by the Fleming Brothers of Glasgow. Shortly afterwards a second stairway was constructed to give an additional exit from the back of the balcony, and the projection room was also expanded.
Illus 2: The Hippodrome in 2017.
In March 1930 permission was sought to insert a fire exit door at the centre rear of the stalls and in June of that year for the balcony front to be realigned to improve the sightlines. John Taylor, another Bo’ness architect, was now employed. In 1936 it was also Taylor who designed an extension above the public entrance which included an office for the manager. The old small office on the ground floors was incorporated into the foyer space and lined with panelling from a ship being broken up at Bridgeness. The alterations removed the small corner drum of the building and replaced it with a new one set further back with a dome on the top.
Louis Dickson continued to run the cinema until February 1946 when he sold it and the Pavilion and moved back to Edinburgh. The new owner was the Caledonian Associated Cinemas, who employed their house architect, Alex Cattenach of Kingussie, to bring the facilities at the cinema up to date. The separate front stalls entrance was blocked up and a new ladies toilet formed from the space. The existing toilets were refurbished and the seating replaced and realigned. The main alteration involved enlarging the projection facilities with a new larger box that slightly overhung the back of the balcony. A steel escape ladder hung from the booth. The orchestra pit was also removed and floored over. TC Hamilton was appointed as the local manager.
The Hippodrome continued as a cinema until the 1970s when it went over to bingo with only minor alterations. A bar was installed on the stage and the secondary entrance re-opened. However, bingo closed around 1980, and the building lay empty until 2006 when funding from the Townscape Heritage lottery initiative provided an impetus to start restoration work. Upon completion of the project the building was handed over to Falkirk Council in February 2008 and opened as a community cinema.
Hippodrome SMR 361 NS 9984 8168
G.B. Bailey (2021)
Read all about the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival from their website.