Camelon Ritz

Main Street

At the height of the cinema craze it was decided to build one in Camelon to serve the population to the west of Falkirk.   The site, in Main Street, was a little to the west of the school and had formerly been a whippet dog-racing track.  In 1937 plans were drawn up by the contractors Stellmacs Limited of 57 Oswald Street, Glasgow.  Frank F Maxwell was a Glasgow architect who formed a design and build practice partnership with Archibald M H Stewart and William J Maxwell under the name of Stellmacs Ltd.  The plans were passed by the Dean of Guild on 20 January 1938, with an estimate of £7,000 put on the cost of the work.

The cinema at Camelon, to be known as the Ritz, was commissioned by a new company called the Camelon Picture House Company Ltd, which was associated with Stellmac Ltd.  The extensive frontage was deliberately set back about 30ft from the pavement of the Main Street so that those attending would not obstruct it.  The spacious main entrance gave easy access to the box office, beyond which there was what was called “crush hall accommodation,” designed to allow the attendees to queue inside during cold or wet weather.  From this hall shallow-stepped staircases led to the balcony, seated to accommodate 250 persons.  The seating was divided into three sections by softly-carpeted aisles.  The balcony did not overhang the pit in any way, so that patrons in the pit did not experience any sensation of oppression caused by a low roof over their heads.  This feature also made for more efficient ventilation.  The ground floor held a little over 700.  The interior was decorated in bright but soft-toned colours, the lighting being by means of trough lights concealed in the roof.  It was air-conditioned and centrally heated on a system which ensured that the picture house was warm in winter and cool in summer.  RCA sound production equipment and a wide screen improved all round performance.  Unusually for the time there was free car-parking behind the picture house for its patrons.  All-in-all the cinema cost £12,000.  Mr L C Sangster, the secretary of the Camelon Picture House Company Ltd, dealt with the legal aspects and Robert Mullen was appointed as the resident manager.

Illus: 1947 Ordnance Survey Map showing the location of the Ritz (National Library of Scotland).

The Ritz was officially opened on 11 July 1938 by Provost Begg of Falkirk with a film starring Shirley Temple.  The programme was to feature complete changes each week along with the Fox Movietone News and a staff of fifteen was employed.  The modern frontage of the building contrasted sharply with the streetscape around it.

The course of the cinema seemed set along the lines of its neighbours.  In January 1940, during the Second World War, it staged a show in aid of the Infirmary; information films and news of the war were screened; and attendances were large.  Then, on the afternoon of 23 December 1940 it was almost completely destroyed by fire, only the brick walls and part of the frontage remaining.  The outbreak was discovered by the caretaker, Alex Paterson, who was opening up the picture house at 5pm to prepare for the evening show due to commence at 5.50pm.  He saw smoke issuing from the far end of the building beside the screen which appeared to be coming from the vicinity of the sound-box above the boiler-house.  He found that some of the woodwork was burning and obtained a bucket of water which extinguished it.  He was relieved to think that he had been just in time to prevent a disaster, but on looking up saw to his horror that part of the roof was alight.  It was time to run to the telephone and summon the Falkirk Fire Brigade.  When the fire brigade arrived they found little evidence of fire in the building, but suddenly a large part of the roof burst into flame and in an incredibly short space of time it was ablaze from end to end.  The firemen set about controlling the fire and were reinforced by a large number of men from the auxiliary service.  Before long the roof collapsed and it took an hour and tons of water to get the resulting inferno under control.  It was 8pm before it was extinguished.  The walls and steelwork were all that survived intact.  Amazingly the cinema was rebuilt during the war and re-opened on 6 October 1941.

Alexander Paterson remained with the title of foreman with responsibility for the management of the Ritz.  In January 1950 he was fined £2 for having admitted a man with a used ticket and failing to deface the ticket issued.  The Inland Revenue officers said that they found that he had retained a whole ticket issued that day, and had given the patron the half of an old ticket.  This enabled the whole ticket to be used again.

Allan Ronald remembered the matinees in the 50s as

Cartoons, a serial, some old talkies like Laurel and Hardy, sometimes a more recent film. Very noisy as you might imagine with singing along to the theme tunes of the serials etc. Kia Ora orange juice and tubs of ice cream sold by usherettes. Can’t recall decor except it seemed very plush and colourful.”

The Ritz was gutted by fire in May 1960 and was demolished soon afterwards.

G.B. Bailey, 2021