In what seems like the most unlikely of places, directly opposite the lovely Stretford Mall, on a huge dual carriageway, you'll find the Longford Cinema.
A building that looks a lot like a tiny little observatory, or perhaps a little bit like that big gun on Hoth in the Empire Strikes Back.
To begin with, I feel I must apologise for the laziness of this subject matter. The building is approximately 400 metres from my house in Stretford and so since my bike has been a bit knackered, I’ve walked past it every day on the way to the tram. It did get me wondering about the history of the place though, and exactly what it even is and why such a cracking little architectural wonder remains empty.
Next up – the name. The building has had loads of names in the past and is now usually just referred to as the Longford and Essoldo Cinema (or simply just ‘that weird bloody thing in Stretford’). For the sake of my typing fingers I’m just going to call it the Longford from now on.
There’s no denying that the Longford is a striking building, and anyone speeding past in their Ford Fiesta on the way to buy a Big Mac will have probably wondered what it started life as and what it even is. Well, now you’re going to find out you lucky, lucky sods…
Going back to the opening day of the Longford, Chester Road was even then a rather busy thoroughfare, but you’d have seen many more shops and businesses lining the streets than what you would today. The Essoldo was unveiled on the 12th October 1936 and was an immediate success.
The building’s architect was a bloke called Henry F Elder who was Salford born and bred. By the age of 24 he designed his own gaff in Timperley and then designed his first big project the following year – the Longford Cinema in Stretford.
Henry went on to design a further 8 cinemas, a couple in Manchester but mostly in Glasgow. Unfortunately, they’re all pretty much either been knocked down now or have been left abandoned, much like the Longford.
As well as being a fan of Art Deco buildings in the 30’s, Henry was also a bit of a fan of Japanese architecture and even took a few visits to the country to check out all their houses and probably to scoff some sushi. This knowledge came in extremely handy when the Second World War kicked off – he ended up with an MBE off the King after helping out the army on the best ways to destroy Japanese buildings with aerial bombs.
By the 50’s the Longford had become the Essoldo Cinema and was still bashing out the world’s biggest and best movies, as well as stage shows, and even a bit of circus action – although the amount of elephants you can fit in the place was probably severely limited.
There’s also been talk of big stars playing there including Gracie Fields and Doris Day. Considering Gracie Fields was a Rochdale lass, it’s not too much of a stretch to think of her performing here, but I can’t for the life of me think of why Doris Day would ever end up in Stretford treading the boards. What a contrast that must have been, one day she’s getting papped on Hollywood Boulevard, the next she’s having a pie and chips down Kings Street.
By this point Henry Elder had packed his bags and flown to live in the United States, most likely attracted to the massive cars, mountains of cash and potential for robots that post-war America afforded people. He ended up doing pretty well for himself teaching at the University of British Colombia, moving to Canada from New York in the 60’s.
The Essoldo on the other hand was purchased, gutted and turned into something that was taking Britain by storm at the time – a Bingo Hall. It was known as the Top Rank Bingo Hall and looking at the pictures – it looked like an absolutely amazing night out! The chairs were upholstered in the kind of fabric Stagecoach wouldn’t even touch and the walls were adorned with a truly amazing lick of paint.
The Top Rank Bingo Hall was the kind of place where you can piss £20 up the wall while still having a good time, most likely with all the numbers called out by some sort of early Shane Richie character with one of them sparkly sequin jackets and a head full of chip-fat grease. The Bingo Hall was open until around 1986 when everyone stopped going out and just watched BullsEye on the telly instead.
The building has laid empty since 1995 and there have been countless proposals and movements to get the building up and on its feet again. Unfortunately, this has proven difficult because the current private owners are just sitting on their arses not really doing much with it.
The outside has been given a lick of paint over the years, but the inside is surely deteriorating and is probably not in much of a decent state. Currently being used for ‘storage’, rumours have circulated over the years that it could be turned into an ice rink, student halls and even a huge indoor ball pit. I made that last one up but it’s a bloody great idea nonetheless.
Recent meetings about the renovation of Stretford, which have included a nice 2 million sheets to make Stretford Mall less shit, have mentioned the Longford with hopes that Trafford Council can get a Compulsory Purchase Order on the building and get it reopened for us public.
If it’s something from the council, I’m not going to hold my breath on that one – they struggle to let me even pay my Council Tax online so their ability to do what they’ve promised doesn’t fill me with much confidence.
There is however a dedicated team of people who are constantly fighting to get the Longford Cinema up and running again and not just be used as a weirdly shaped, blue locker. Most of the information from this article came from the Longford & Essoldo Cinema website who continue to put pressure on councillors to do something about this architectural beaut and get it re-opened ASAP.