THE ELECTRIC CINEMA
One of the very best aspectsto working at Birmingham's Electric Cinema is the fact that, every single week, somebody will come in who remembers it from an earlier inacarnation.
Some will remember when it showed Pathe newsreels, some used to come and watch Warner Bros cartoons there whilst their parents went shopping and others will ask where all the weird mannequins that used to be on the front have gone.
We often have people visiting who haven’t been there for over 50 years, and not just paying customers – retired projectionists nip inside to take a look at a building which has been a cinema for over a century to share some memories and take a look at the 35mm projector that sits in our downstairs projection room. So many people who visit have fond memories of the building, one of whom could remember when it was still lit by gas lamps.
History is a huge part of The Electric Cinema. Opened in 1909, it’s been through a number of incarnations across its century long existence, but it has always stayed at the very heart of the city, both literally (right by New Street Station) and metaphorically. Beginning as a place to see silent cinema with piano accompaniment, in 1920 it became known as The Select, adding sound ten years later and then being bought by local impresario Joseph Cohen, who owned a number of other cinemas and reopened it in 1937 as The Tatler, which screened a mix of cartoons, news reels and short films.
It stayed as The Tatler for a long time, until being rebranded as The Jacey in the 1960s, when it introduced adult films to its repertory to try and combat declining audience numbers. The 70s saw the cinema become known as The Classic, only to then become The Tivoli when it was bought by local theatre owner Brian Saunders.
By 1988, the cinema was sold again, this time to adult film producer Barry Jacobs. Jacobs had produced a whole host of soft porn films during the 1960s and 70s, many of which still reside in the basement of the cinema to this day, sat atop a pile of dusty 35mm reels which features such titles as Wife Swappers and Prostitution Racket.
Come the 1990s, The Electric regained its original name and those infamous mannequins were added to the front of the building as part of an art installation known as Thatcher’s Children. Showing a hugely eclectic mix of films, as well as a number of double and triple bills, it survived for a while until closing again in 2003. That’s when the seeds for the current incarnation were sown, when filmmaker Tom Lawes – inspired by local projectionist Johnny Brockington – bought the now derelict building and completely revamped it, giving it an art deco style to play to its historical roots but also capitalising on audiences looking to escape the multiplexes with a more adult, film-loving atmosphere.
Reopened in 2005, it wasn’t an easy ride for the first year, Lawes managing to offset the low audience numbers with his sound mixing work, but steadily the audiences grew and now The Electric is back where it belongs, existing as both an important part of Birmingham’s history and a respected independent cinema offering a mix of both mainstream and arthouse films
Across all those many, many incarnations, The Electric has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors, some of whom can remember its colourful past in great detail. And yes, we still get a few people coming in asking if we’re showing any adult films (we just direct them towards Adultworld round the corner).
It’s been ten years now since Tom Lawes bought the building and turned its fortunes around, and we are all still as passionate and excited about the films that we screen as ever. We don’t discriminate in our programme – we just try and show great films, or maybe even excellent ones. We just love cinema, whether it’s digital, celluloid, mainstream, arthouse, foreign, 3D or any other label given to the medium. And it’s satisfying to know that we’re following in a very long and illustrious lineage, one that began way back in 1909.