We are delighted to announce that this year i-Design has moved to a new home in the UK's oldest film venue, which is housed in the Unversity of Westminster, on Regent Street just North of Oxford Circus.
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London W1B 2UW
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History of the Old Cinema
Since it was first opened, the Old Cinema (as it is now known) has always played host to the 'new media' of the day, including the first British moving film presentation in 1896.
A theatre was built on to the south side of the Royal Polytechnic Institution building on Regent Street (now part of the University of Westminster) in 1848. This was one of the major spaces (like the swimming pool and the gymnasium) which was left in place during the 1910 rebuilding of the frontage, though it has been refurbished several times since.
The theatre was purpose-built for ‘optical exhibitions’, including ‘the hydroelectrical microscope, the physioscope and dissolving views’ – i.e. the magic lantern shows for which the RPI had become famous. The theatre seated about 1000 in two tiers, and shows often ran twice a day. It was open to the public and its success formed a major part of the RPI’s income.
There is a good description in The Builder, April 1848, of the theatre which featured a skylight in the roof which was covered during performances by two moveable shutters; it also had a ‘manipulating’ (projection) room for the projection equipment, and a canvas-covered disc which could act as a screen. Shows included scientific demonstrations, lantern slides as a backdrop to live music and drama, and also full theatrical productions. The first performance including the illusion known as “Pepper’s Ghost” was a production of Charles Dickens’ ghost story ‘The Haunted Man’, first performed at the Polytechnic on Christmas Eve 1862, and there were many subsequent plays incorporating this unfailingly popular illusion.
When Quintin Hogg took over the building in 1882 he used the theatre – usually called the Great Hall – both for entertainment and as teaching space. Hogg was forced to alter the theatre in 1893 due to LCC fire and health and safety regulations. It was at this time that the two tiers of balconies were replaced by a single iron railing and a new entrance created onto Regent Street. When the chance arose Hogg rented the space out – including to the Lumière brothers who, on 21 February 1896, presented the first moving film to a paying audience in Britain at the Polytechnic.
During the early 20th century, the theatre was used for a variety of film and theatrical performances. The Poly bought its own film-making equipment and regularly presented films of its sporting, travel and educational activities. During some periods the theatre was let out to different managers. In the lead up to the first world war it was used with Government backing to show ‘Our Army and Our Navy’ films.
After World War Two it became known as the Cameo-Poly, part of the Cameo cinema chain, showing foreign language and avant-garde films (including the first ever X-rated certificate film ‘La Vie Commence Demain’ in January 1951). The Compton organ, which was installed in 1936, is one of the few remaining in situ in a theatre. Today the Old Cinema is used as a lecture theatre and for University functions, and with its heritage of innovation is a particularly appropriate venue for i-Design 09.
Text and images © University of Westminster Archive Services