Odeon started the 1930s with a handful of modest picture-houses and by the end of the decade boasted over 250 sites, including several landmark super-cinemas which brought streamlined art deco design to the English suburbs. This journey through north Birmingham is a chance to retrace the extraordinary tale of Oscar Deutsch’s empire, visiting two of the circuit’s most innovative and influential buildings in Kingstanding and Sutton Coldfield as well as the site where it all began eighty years ago. Our guide for the morning is Chris Upton, an historian and writer from Newman University College.
The tour finishes in Sutton Coldfield at 2pm, and will return to the Electric at 2.30pm.
OSCAR DEUTSCH (1893-1941)
Each year Flatpack selects a ‘patron saint’ who has helped change the way we watch film. In 2009 we paid tribute to 1900s showman Waller Jeffs at Birmingham Town Hall, and in some ways this year’s choice is the natural next step…
Oscar Deutsch was born in Balsall Heath in 1893, the son of a Hungarian scrap merchant. He caught the film bug in the early 20s while chairing a small distribution company set up by two friends, Michael Balcon and Victor Saville (see Evergreen), and went on to try his hand at film exhibition. The results were mixed at first, but Deutsch quickly developed a reputation for being shrewd and persuasive in getting capital projects off the ground.
In 1930 came the first Odeon, a 1,600-seater in Perry Barr in the style of a Moorish palace. There was no intention of launching a new circuit to rival Gaumont and ABC, and even the name was a casual suggestion from a colleague who came across the word on holiday in Tunis. (The phrase ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’ was thought up later.) However, as the thirties went on Deutsch began to build cinemas at a dizzying rate. His timing was perfect. Movie-going had become the national pastime, with close to a billion admissions annually in the UK, and a good proportion of this audience could be found in the suburbs where Odeons were often being built alongside swathes of new housing.
So why is Flatpack celebrating this business behemoth? Because Oscar Deutsch managed to balance commercial sense with an attention to detail and a sense of drama – not least in the design of his buildings. Many of the landmark Odeons came from the drawing-board of the Weedon Partnership, a Birmingham architecture practice which is still going strong today, and their bold use of streamlined curves and fins introduced modernism to the British high street.
This remarkable story was cut short by the war, and then in 1941 Deutsch succumbed to the stomach cancer which had been plaguing him for some years. Many felt that his restless energy and 16-hour days had been fuelled by the knowledge that his time was short.
The Odeon images above are taken from the John Maltby collection, held at the National Monuments Record. These photographs were commissioned by Deutsch in the mid-30s and show the Odeon empire at its gleaming peak. You can browse the full collection of over 1,000 images online at the NMR’s Viewfinder site.