Sounds kind of over-the-top, like a movie palace...!
As you know from reading this blog, I have a mystical link to such a palace, a 2,672-seat Spanish Baroque house, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, which I had a hand in running, in 1976. The word ODEON appears nowhere on that theater’s marquee, but the St. George does have a soaring dome, and, like the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, our palace has statuary, paintings (of bullfighters and senoritas), and elaborate carvings. The Athens venue seated nearly twice as many spectators, almost as many as Radio City Music Hall, way before there were microphones. The acoustics must have been awesome.
The first odeons on the American continent happen to have been sad little affairs, “nickelodeons,” store-front theaters that cost only five cents, with rude wooden benches, seating a small number of people. There was an Odeon worthy of the name on 145th Street in NYC, a Thomas Lamb theater, (listed as a “negro” theater as late as 1955). But the name Odeon never really caught on in America. There were, to my knowledge, no theaters named Odeon in my hometown, Cincinnati, and not many in the rest of the U.S. of A. In fact, of 256 theaters with that name that are standing and, in some sense, open worldwide, only around four are in the U.S.
Hopping the pond, you’ll find the reverse: over there the name is something like Loew’s or Fox, and you could say there is something very much in the name ODEON in Leeds, Leicester, Portsmouth, Surbiton, and a number of locales. in the UK and Europe. Oscar Deutsch, who scattered Odeons all over the English landscape, was certainly off the same bolt of theater tapestry as Loew, Fox, Graumann, Pantages and other U.S. moguls. His first theater in what was then the town of Brierley Hill astounded the local residents on opening night in 1928, but frightened them too: they had to be assured the balcony of this grand theater would actually hold their weight. Like many theaters of the day, the Brierley Hill sported a sawtooth motif borrowed from ancient Egypt — an architectural style reminiscent of Graumann's Egyptian, echoing the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
There were some 257 theaters in the Brit Odeon chain, and perhaps what distinguishes them is the fact of their existence in a very industrial landscape, with an eye to details that would survive that landscape. What poet William Blake called “the dark satanic mills” had had a lasting effect on the towns Oscar Deutsch traveled through. Deutsch was a blue collar lad himself — son of Birmingham scrap-dealing immigrant parents from Hungary — so he knew his theaters had to withstand pollution of various kinds. Accordingly, he utilized various materials that would resist smudging, such as faience. with rounded Deco corners, presumably for easy cleaning. These “picture palaces,” as they’re called in the UK, reflect a variety of styles, from Assyrian/Egyptian to Art Deco and Moorish.
The second theater Deutsch opened, and the first to actually bear the Odeon name was
in Perry Barr, a suburb of Birmingham. The name Odeon had been a quick choice, suggested by an employee returning from a vacation in Greece. Certain representatives of the chain over the years claimed it as an acronym for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation, and, who knows, some people probably believed that! There might have been even more Odeon picture palaces, if Deutsch hadn’t died of liver cancer in 1941. Then, so true of chains everywhere, the Odeon family of theaters went through a series of owners. In the bad old seventies, when so many palaces and neighborhood theaters were demolished here, almost half the Odeon chain went down. It’s then owner, aptly named Rank Leisure, fought like Ebenezer Scrooge for their rights of demolition.
Much of this info comes from an excellent if sad article in The Guardian, “Closing Credits: the Battle to Save 1930s Odeon Cinemas,” For me as an American movie palace enthusiast, reading about the fall of the Odeons is a Ground Hog’s Day experience, which is to say, Deja Vu: this cinema’s turned into a Bingo Hall, that one’s a supermarket, or car park, or Jehovah’s Witness Hall — just like here, where churches, warehouses, storage facilities, and even basketball arenas house the remains of what Ben M. Hall referred to as, The Best Remaining Seats.
The name Odeon still survives in what’s left of the original chain, a list added to, with theater acquisitions all over Europe. These days the whole kit and caboodle belongs to AMC. Well alright, the name persists, if referring largely to ‘plexes and the like, so, I agree with Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2)
What’s in a name?
The rest of her speech — A rose by any other name would smell as sweet — happens to remind me of its inverse, just how much the destruction of gorgeous old picture palaces really stinks.
1. In some respect, I think we fare better on this side of the Atlantic, when it comes to saving palaces; so many, like my own St. George Theatre, have been rescued by local groups of entrepreneurs or fans or simply determined individuals. For an inspiring example, read why Marcus Loew was, after all, right!
2. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, mentioned at the beginning of this post, rocks again — has for several decades, as a matter of fact. It was revived as a performance space in 1950. Check out the above link for a list of people who’ve held forth there including among hundreds of performers, Maria Callas, the Bolshoi and Sting.
3. Read this fascinating blog on the deaths of so many of Deutsch’s Odeons.
4. Other “What’s in a Name?” posts on different common theater monikers:
What's in a (Theater) Name? "Roxy" and Its Evolution
Odeon Theatre, Tucumcari NM
Odeon Theatre, Mason TX
Odeon Theatre, Glenwood Springs CO