Bo’ness Hippodrome led the way in movie craze

The beautifully restored interior of The Hippodrome, Bo'ness
The beautifully restored interior of The Hippodrome, Bo'ness

This month brings the much admired Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness which has, for the last eight years, attracted enthusiasts from all over the country to the town’s refurbished Hippodrome.

This fantastic ‘‘picture palace’’ which celebrated its 100th birthday back in 2012 is not only one of Falkirk district’s finest buildings but Scotland’s first ever purpose-built cinema.

Moving pictures first hit the world’s screens in Paris in 1895 yet less than 20 years later the new sensation was thrilling the folk of Bo’ness in their own brand new picture house.

Elsewhere the public, if they had any provision at all, had to make do with abandoned church buildings and converted halls.

Bo’ness was of course at the height of its prosperity during those Edwardian years with shipping, coal mines, foundries and potteries bringing wealth and power to the local businessmen.

With it came a sense of municipal pride that inspired many fine new buildings and, among them, the Hippodrome stands out as the most imaginative and unusual both in terms of design and purpose.

Two men take the credit. The first was Louis Dickson, entrepreneur and modernist, who recognized right away that the ‘‘movies’’ were the entertainment of the future and a sure fire moneyspinner for himself!

He was an electrical engineer by profession and a keen photographer and in 1908 we find him acting as the official ‘‘kinematographer’ at the national exhibition in Edinburgh.

To create his Bo’ness picture palace he turned to the celebrated architect Matthew Steele whose brilliant buildings are dotted all over Bo’ness.

Steele came up with the idea of a theatre in the round with seating for over 1000 patrons and, as our photograph shows, it was completed in time for its official opening by Provost Grant on March 11, 1912.

Thereafter Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr shuffled and swashbuckled their way across the silver screen as the Hippodrome became the place to be for that first generation of film buffs.

For the next 60 years it continued to bring the very best of the movie world to the area but, along with cinemas everywhere it fell before the advance of television. It closed in the mid 1970s and for a few years was home to that other popular entertainment, bingo, before closing in 1980. After that it lay empty and abandoned.

I remember walking past and seeing a sign which said something like “Secured for the people of Bo’ness”. It was hanging off and like the building itself looked pretty forlorn.

However its architectural and historical importance brought it into the ownership of the Historic Buildings Trust and in 2002 they began the process of bringing the building back to life.

Falkirk Council took over responsibility for the restoration and ten years ago the magnificent auditorium was ready for its second official opening.

It is the perfect place to sample something of the magic of those early silent days and, beginning on the 20th of this month, patrons will have a rich array of the best of the world’s early cinema including a British premiere of the long lost ‘‘Hound of the Baskervilles’’ accompanied by piano maestro Mike Nolan. Other treats are Harold Lloyd’s ‘‘The Freshman’’ (1925) and a triple bill of Laurel and Hardy.

In this day and age when we are still losing well-loved historic buildings it is a real pleasure to see this amazing place thriving. With our support it will go on doing that.