Penistone Town Hall - The Paramount Theatre

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A Brief History
Before Penistone's Town Hall opened, any large and important public meetings would have had to be held in the open to accommodate the crowd. Speakers would have stood on wooden platforms which might have been hastily-constructed. Literacy and learning was a great thing to aspire to and people wanted their children to have the best education that was possible within their means. To this end, public libraries were being established throughout the country. One of the great proponents of literacy throughout the USA and the UK was the Scottish-American steel magnate, Mr Andrew Carnegie, who saw fit to part-fund a library for Penistone. This was the beginning of a great improvement in Penistone's facilities. This is explored in far more detail than anyone needs in the Town Hall History page, which also includes a timeline of the Town Hall.

A Carnegie Library opened in 1913, funded by the community and a generous contribution from Andrew Carnegie. Over the following year, Penistone Town Hall was also built, adjacent to the library, along with Council Chambers and a Masonic Hall. Again, the funding was raised by public subscription from the people of Penistone. The new Town Hall was opened on Saturday 31st October 1914, to great ceremony.

Penistone Town Hall had been from the start designed to be a theatre and cinema, following the great popularity of films at the time, and always with the proviso (which still applies) that public meetings could be held in the Town Hall as necessary. In fact, it would be used for all manner of duties over the years. It started films in November 1915 but, at the time, Penistone already had another established film theatre. The 'Assembly Rooms Cinema' near Stottercliff Road now came to be in direct competition. This was in the days of Penistone Urban District Council.

Until a new library was opened in 1966 the Carnegie Library was in the higher section of the building. In recent times, the old Carnegie Library became an office area, as a contact point for Barnsley MBC services under the title of 'Barnsley Connects'. The economic crisis of the late noughties closed that section down and moved some of its lesser functions and information leaflets to the current Penistone Library. Just around the corner is the red brick building which used to be the Town Hall caretaker's residence and later as the PDCP office.

'What's Yours is Ours'
Barnsley Council (BMBC) assumed ownership of Penistone's assets under Local Government Reorganisation which was imposed in 1974. In 2003, the local community with Penistone Town Council (PTC) had to fight plans by BMBC to sell off the venue. Demolition was a distinct possibility, such was the strained relationship between Penistone and Barnsley MB Council. Penistone people hoped to re-establish our original ownership of the building in an effort to protect it. During the changeover to Barnsley control in 1974, the Town Hall deeds had been sent to Barnsley archives. The late Cllr George Punt was tasked with searching for the deeds but to no avail. The deeds had somehow become 'lost', possibly as a result of a fire. It seems that the only 'proof' of Penistone's ownership of its main attraction is either anecdotal or inferred by old Penistone Almanacs.

As time went on, relations between Penistone and our Barnsley masters had improved and PTC managed to keep control of the day-to-day running of the theatre. It was suggested that BMBC's ambitions could have been thwarted by the lucky accident of the Masonic Hall being attached to the Town hall, that BMBC had no control over it and that any attempt by Barnsley to reassert their desire to demolish the buildings might have become a legal minefield.

What we now call the 'Paramount' was always 'Penistone Town Hall Cinema' on official documents. In 1986, BMBC bestowed upon the hall its own (largely unloved) new name: 'The Metro'. This was based upon their status as a 'Metropolitan' district and demonstrated again their controlling power over Penistone. The name lasted until 1999, when the installation of the 'Mighty Paramount Organ' led to a much more attractive name: The Penistone Paramount Theatre.

2014 and 2015 Centenary Celebrations
The Paramount/Town Hall Theatre celebrated its centenary from October 2014 to November 2015, along the lines of its early beginnings and the celebrations are outlined in detail in the Town Hall History page, which also includes the 2015 centenary of when films were first shown in the Town Hall. Bear in mind that Penistone already had a cinema well before the Town Hall was built.

Modern Times
As a theatre and traditional cinema, it has shown top films and a variety of entertainments right from the earliest days, often with films shown on the national release date. The Paramount showed the premiere of 'Heartlands' in 2003 as special event. The stage is often used for live shows, tribute bands, comedy nights and amateur productions and pantomimes from our two thespian societies. The licensed bar is open during film intervals, which helps the audience in its quest for the suspension of disbelief. There are also facilities for video conferencing. The first picture below was before the facelift of 2001, the second from 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary.

Cinema Town Hall 2014

Seating is fixed now but it used to be removed for dances until the 1970s and the sprung floor was ideal for dancing - or traditional foot-stamping when a film went wrong. Spring mechanisms under the floor sit on rows of pillars but they are now all chocked up. An improved projector put an end to the many breakdowns. It used to be very smoky in the old days and the projection beam would light up a shaft of smoke on its way to the screen. In fact, all the seating had small ash trays fitted. Not any more, as all UK public buildings are now no smoking areas.

New seats were installed around 1990 and were planned to be renewed again in 2014. In 2017, the screen and the curtains are planned to be replaced. The screen is made to roll up out of sight when live acts are on the stage. It was exposed to dust when rolled up and this could leave a mark on the screen when open. The new system rolls it in a box to protect it when the stage is being used.

Penistone area people can be proud of our cinema and it is our most successful venture. Our thanks go to those far-sighted local people who raised money and helped to make it happen nearly a century ago. The building is in use just about every day and its facilities are very good for a small independent cinema, with Dolby surround sound, a video projector, DVD player and satellite tv reception. It is also unusual for a cinema to have a licenced bar, intervals in films and a lady with an ice cream trolley.

Going Digital
With films being increasingly distributed in digital form, Penistone Paramount installed new digital projection equipment. The addition of a new digital satellite system in 2014 has enabled the possibility of live showings of such as theatre, opera or ballet performances from such as Glyndebourne. Films are now typically distributed on hard disc drives which are delivered by courier. These are digitally encrypted and only work for a prescribed duration, which might typically be a week.

BuffetBuffetorgan console
ProjectorReel WinderOrganist at play

These pictures are mostly from an open day in 2005, when Steve Tales was the enthusiastic and knowledgeable manager. The platter discs shown are a film-winding and rewinding machine. For an interesting demonstration of film winding using a platter, take a look at a 15-minute Youtube video, which is not from Penistone.

There was a special Yorkshire Film Archive event in November 2008. An organist played before the YFA films were shown and a YFA commentator explained details about the old film clips. The first clip was of a train and was from the 1880s. The presenter referred to being 'in Barnsley' on three occasions but we might forgive him for his poor grasp of geography, as he had travelled all the way from York.

Compton Paramount Theatre Organ
After the 'Mighty Paramount Organ' was installed in the Town Hall, organ performances have proved to be very popular on Market Day afternoons (Thursdays) when grey-haired music lovers pack coaches from far and wide to visit Penistone. As part of the same organisation, organ concerts are also held in St. Andrew's church, next to Penistone Library.

The brilliant white organ console gives no real impression of how elaborate are the marvelous workings beneath the stage. The whole under-stage area is filled with row upon row of pipes and other instruments to give the organ its wonderful wide range of voices. In its original setting at the Birmingham Odeon, the solenoid-operated console might also have controlled the theatre lights. Steve also showed me the Compton organ console and I was very privileged to see the secrets behind the scenes (under the stage really) in the pipe room. I share them with you in my Organ page.

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