The Phoenix on Walton Street is one of Oxford's major cinemas, with the first runs of most of the better quality films
Photo: David Fisher
Movies have been shown in this site since 1913 after the opening of the 'North Oxford Kinema'. The picture below, taken on 31 May 1913, and reproduced from Paul Marriot's booklet, Early Oxford Picture Palaces, shows a uniformed commissionaire standing waiting for the rush of Jericho kids for their Saturday morning matinee. The board advertised a three-hour programme of 8 short films including 'The Spider' and 'A Perilous Cargo'.
Silent films were initially accompanied first by a pianist, then a banjo player, and finally by 1917 a three-piece orchestra. At this point, the frontage was much narrower since a small house occupied the right-hand side - though the auditorium was always the same width - at that point seating 498 people.
The cinema has passed through many hands and had several names. It was renamed the Scala in 1920 when taken over by the Gloucester-based entertainment firm, Pooles. In 1923 it was taken over by Walker and Shaw Enterprises who introduced a locally filmed newsreel, the 'Scala Local Topical'.
By 1925 it was under the management of a Cockney showman Ben Jay and renamed the 'New Scala' (the 'new' only lasted a couple of years). He had an early form of karaoke: an interlude at 8 p.m. with community singing of such songs as 'If you knew Suzie' and 'Ma, he's making eyes at me' accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra while the words flashed up on the screen. He also served free tea and biscuits at matinees, much appreciated by Jericho people who could come in to keep warm and see the programme round twice for fourpence. (Tea and biscuits has recently been revived for the weekly senior citizens' shows).
The cinema has always been popular with students. In the 1920s they were clearly more boisterous than they are today, frequently unscrewing the seats and running round the auditorium. When the commissionaire intervened the cry would go up: 'Rescue Balliol!' or 'Rescue St Johns!' and the commissionaire himself might finish up in the gutter.
A more sedate 40-year period started after 1930 when the cinema was taken over by the Poyntz family and the Scala started to build its reputation as a leading arts cinema. (Mr Poyntz banned ice cream and sweets). The Scala showed the latest foreign films and classics, and on Sunday evenings were given over to the Oxford Film Society.
It was in 1970 after it had been taken over by Leeds-based Star Associated Holdings that the cinema was 'twinned' and changed from the Scala to Studios 1 and 2. This was not a very inspired period and one of twins became the 'Studio X', a cinema club showing soft-porn.
In 1977 the cinema revived again after being taken over by the London company Contemporary Entertainments and acquired its current name, the Phoenix—showing more first-run films. Though the cinema was more successful, in the mid-1980s there was a possibility that it might be sold to one of the major chains. Regulars mounted a campaign to save it. And it was at this point that the 'Friends of the Phoenix' was started - with a £10 subscription that entitled friends to reduced ticket prices and invitations to special events.
In 1990 it was taken over by the current owners City Screen—though the building is still owned by the ubiquitous St. John's College. In 1998 the front of the building was extensively remodelled - with a smart new log, the walls in a fetching shade of blue and a rather startling set of neon strip lights.