HOLD ON A MINUTE ……
DIDN’T THIS USED TO BE ……?
EPIPTHANY ON THE 555
I think that it was during the autumn of 1958 while sitting on a trolleybus traveling along the Hackney Road that I came to fully appreciate that nothing lasts forever. Although I was having this sudden epiphany here, obviously I was aware that things changed and that nothing stayed still. I knew that families from time-to-time picked up and moved and that people changed jobs and that not all relationships lasted. I knew that eventually one’s own parents would die and that the day would come when even I would die. Still it is one thing knowing this and quite another thing KNOWING IT!!!
Up until that day, places like the corner baker’s, the little dairy across the road and the local newsagent’s had not changed and had remained under the same management. This represented stability as I knew it. The only real changes that I had experienced until then were related to me personally. By now, toy shops had lost their fascination and book shops were becoming less boring. This was also a time when I realized appearance was important and certain forms of dress were beginning to catch eye. I was taking longer now to comb hair and I was using a lot more Brylcreem.
I was sitting upstairs on the trolleybus and enjoying a cigarette. I was sharing the upper deck with a group of youths who were older than me and who were evidently out working, since they were dressed in expensive suits in what was known as the Italian style. Their hair had been cut in the style reminiscent of Perry Como.
Although I did not dislike their suits, I was appalled by their haircuts. This was after all the age of early rock ‘n’ roll in all of its rawness. Teddy Boys with creased back hair and drainpipe trousers and drape coats were still seen everywhere and still looking cool. What was this new fashion and how on earth could these youths reject The Ted Look for it?
As bad as it was to have to share the upper deck of the 555 with these forerunners of Mods, it was the tune that they had started to whistle in unison as we rumbled along Hackney Road that really upset me. In 1958, Rock ‘n’ Roll was the most popular music genre amongst the young. Here was an exciting sound that got deep into your bones. I was a great devotee of early rock and I especially liked Elvis, Little Richard and Fats Domino. I was horrified by what seemed to herald a change in the current musical tastes of the youth. At that time, the radio and the music newspapers could talk of nothing but Calypso! Calypso was the latest type of music to reach our ears and was being hailed at the next great musical trend!
As musical genres went, Calypso was fine. Harry Belefonte had released some good songs by this time. However, it was what the music critics and writers who thought themselves knowledgeable about Cultural Affairs said and wrote that both annoyed and concerned me. They claimed that Rock ‘n’ Roll was on its deathbed and that Calypso was driving nails into its coffin and that soon we would all be dancing the Cha-Cha-Cha! No one, and especially not these self-proclaimed pundits, could tell me that Calypsos were as exciting as the great songs produced by those early Kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll and that Jiving was not much more exciting than Cha-Cha-ing! And despite musical tastes having broadened over the years, I am still of that mindset.
While I sat there on the trolleybus unable to tune-out the sound of those youths whistling Tea for Two Cha Cha, the Odeon Hackney Road came into view. I had always liked this cinema. To me, it was the perfect Odeon.
Odeon Cinemas were classy establishments and going to an Odeon always felt special. The staff wore chocolate and gold coloured outfits and always looked smart. There were potted plants in the foyer and some even had a few at the edges of the screen. The décor of the cinemas was art deco and appeared to me to be slightly understated, which only added to its attraction. Each time I went to an Odeon, which was rare since we did not have a real Odeon in Bethnal Green, it felt like an occasion, which was obviously what Oscar Deutsch, the founder of the cinema chain, wanted.
The Odeon Hackney Road opened in July 1938 and together with the Odeon Peckham
were the first cinemas to be converted into Top Rank Bingo Clubs.
The erstwhile Odeon Hackney Road came under the auspices of Mecca Bingo in 2005.
Top right: soon after the opening; Top left: as it was when I used to go there;
Bottom left: soon after it became a Bingo Hall; & Bottom right: as it was in 2010.
I remember sitting there on the upper deck of that bus and being stunned when the bus arrived at the cinema. I saw that the most beautiful of Odeons was no longer an Odeon! Outside the building were notices advertising that the management was proud to announce that it was now a Bingo Hall! There I was, frozen to seat, with the sounds of Tommy Dorsey’s Tea for Two Cha Cha ringing in my ears! How could the Rank Organisation, the owners of the Odeon Circuit, sell this most beautiful of cinemas? Weren’t there lesser ones that would have done equally as well? Were all cinemas doomed and destined to become Bingo Halls? I felt ill. I felt sick. Suddenly my world was crumbling about me – Rock ‘n’ Roll was on its deathbed and now one of my favourite cinemas had been turned in a Bingo Hall!
A few passengers got off the 555 and new people got on. It seemed that no one but me had been affected by the change in the fate of the Odeon. Not only that, no one seemed to notice. Were they in a dream? Didn’t they realise what had happened? The trolleybus lurched forward as we took off down the road. I felt lost and could only sit there and those youths continuing with their incessant whistling as if nothing had happened!
Of course later I realised Rock ‘n’ Roll was not on its deathbed and the Odeon Hackney Road continued on. Although no longer a cinema, the Odeon was not demolished, as were so many others were. Over the years I have passed the one-time Odeon many times on what is now the number 5 bus since the trolleybuses were also withdrawn from service soon afterwards. The building once owned by the J. Arthur Rank Organisation has been sold to various other companies, but has continued in its usage as a Bingo Hall. The exterior of the building has undergone numerous changes and has little resemblance to the Odeon of my childhood, but the it continues to thrive and now has been a Bingo Hall for more years than it ever was as a cinema. Now who would have guessed that?
APPENDIX: ADDED IN JUNE 2015
For years I believed that the Odeon Hackney Road closed in 1958! However, I have been assured that it closed as a cinema later than this, on 20th May, 1961. Regardless of the actual date, it was a sad day for admirers of this cinema. Although, at the time, I was disturbed that it had become a Bingo Hall, over the years I have realised that the change in usage has infact led to the buildings survival. Today, the building is an English Heritage listed building.
Today, 3rd June, 2015, I learned of another sad blow to the erstwhile Odeon Hackney Road! Sadly, I have learned from the Hackney Citizen that Mecca Bingo’s owners, the Rank Group, will close on 17th June, 2015 after over fifty years as a Bingo Club.
The building, which is Grade II-listed, was purchased by Pluto Leisure Properties Limited for £5.5 million in December 2014. The erstwhile Odeon Hackney Road is part of the Hackney Road Conservation Area and is a Grade II-listed building.
In a letter to members of the Mecca Bingo Club Hackney Road last month, the Club said that it had received a competitive offer from the landlord to terminate its lease and that the move would make good commercial sense for the business.
Mecca Bingo‘s lease was due to expire in 2021. However, membership has fallen due to the rise of On-Line Bingo since 2004 and also from the smoking ban in buildings that came into effect in 2007. Some two hundred Bingo Clubs have closed since 2005.
One of the things that has amused me since the Odeon Hackney Road closed as a cinema, is that it has now been a Bingo Hall for a longer period of time (i.e. 54 years) than it was as a cinema (i.e. 23 years)! The very thing that caused me such horror actually saved the building from being demolished.
When I think of my sadness when I first learned that the Odeon had closed, I smile to myself. However, I have to confess that now that I have learned that it will close as a Bingo Hall, I can not say that I am not equally as sad!
As usual a very good story. It brought back memories of my traveling up and down the Hackney Road on the 555 trolleybus although I cannot remember where it went or where we were going! However I can remember the metal ‘things’ (poles?) that frequently came unhooked from the overhead wires. This of course brought the bus to a standstill and the driver had to get out and hook them back onto the wire before we could continue our journey. Do you have any pictures of this happening?
As for the Odeon Hackney Road, I remember my parents taking me there and my dad buying sweets. I think that he bought some sort of coconut ice at least that was what it was called. My dad had a sweet tooth! The sweet shop was directly opposite the Odeon. I don’t remember them selling sweets in the cinema, but they did sell ice cream and I would get some if I was lucky!
Lovely story, keep it up.