State of concern
PUBLISHED: 10:50 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013
Grays resident Joe Gardner is determined not to let the curtain come down forever on the town's superb Art Deco State cinema. Nicky Adams finds out how you can help him
IT WAS always a special treat to see a film at the magnificent State cinema,' remembers Joe Gardner with great fondness. 'It's such a shame that many of today's Grays residents have no idea what lies behind the closed doors of what is one of Britain's few remaining original super-cinemas.'
With its giant screen and extravagant 1930s interior, Grays' State cinema was the largest in Essex and certainly one of the most lavish when it opened on September 5, 1938. Designed by local architect Frederick Chancellor of Frank Matcham and Company, it seated 2,200 people in its sweeping, air-conditioned auditorium and had all the facilities needed to host theatrical events as well as to show films.
'For five decades, from the 1930s onwards, it really was the jewel in the crown of Grays town centre,' says Joe. 'Sadly, in more recent years, most beautiful cinemas of this type have been converted into multi-screen venues to compete with modern cinemas, or even worse, demolished. The State has managed to survive this fate but has been left unused and in a poor condition for nearly 20 years.'
Joe's mission is to change all that, however. He has already embarked on a publicity campaign to make the local people of Grays aware of what they are missing. A series of open days has highlighted the plight of the State and Joe plans to present an online petition, signed by Grays residents, to Thurrock Council asking them to guarantee that the State will have a future that is worthy of its glorious past.
For more than 40 years, the State was the hub of entertainment in this Essex town. The first film ever to be wound through the reels of its then state-of-the-art projector was The Hurricane, directed by John Ford and starring Dorothy Lamour, and week after week, capacity crowds flocked to the State to see their heartthrobs on the silver screen. A flagship cinema, it had comfortable accommodation for 1,400 patrons on the ground level, while another 800 were seated in the circle. But wherever they sat, the cinemagoers of Grays had a wonderful view of the screen, the stage and the orchestra pit with its spectacularly illuminated Compton pipe organ, which today is one of only a handful of its kind in the country to remain in its original location.
But the State was so much more than just a cinema. Its foyer was a favourite place for people to meet each other before curtain up, and its two bars - one decorated in elaborate Art Deco style on the ground floor and another off the circle, which also had a restaurant - made the State the venue for a good night out throughout the war years and on into the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s.
Unfortunately though, the introduction of home video players in the late 1980s and the opening of the multiplex at nearby Lakeside presented a real challenge to the State, and by 1988 audiences had dwindled to such an extent that the cinema was no longer viable. After a few years of closure, the building reopened as Charlestons, a wine bar and nightclub that took its theme from the original 1930s décor. However, this was not a long-term venture and a few months after opening, the doors closed on the State once more.
Although it did have some use during the 1990s as a location for filming - most notably in the opening sequence of the Bob Hoskins film Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the music video for Jamiroquai's Deeper Underground - the State has been shut ever since. It is at least protected from demolition, thanks to the tenacity of another local man, Steve Pavitt, who petitioned English Heritage to have the building recognised for its historic value. The result was the reclassification of the State to Grade II, but, worries Joe, the longer the State remains disused, the more difficult it will be to restore it to its former glory.
'The State has been closed to the public for nearly two decades now and its condition is deteriorating rapidly,' says Joe. 'But this building still could be saved, and transformed into a fantastic venue once more. Of course, it would be wonderful to see the building used as a cinema again, but it's unlikely to be financially viable. It could, however, be used as a multi-purpose entertainment venue. It still has its large stage, orchestra pit and dressing rooms and would make a great place to show classic films, or stage comedy acts and theatrical performances and host concerts. The State could easily offer something for everyone, and bring a much-needed new lease of life to Grays.'