The first film shows in Norwich were brought to Norwich by travelling circus proprietors. One of the first was George Gilbert whose show at the Agricultural Hall in January 1897 included 'Animated Photographs' as part of the performance. The following year several film shows were being presented during the annual Tombland Fair where the highlights included film of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession in London the previous year.
Not far from Agricultural Hall was another of the city's early cinema venues – the Assembly Rooms at the corner of Bank Plain and Queen Street, opened in 1903 by two local men Ernest Priest and Alfred Lemmon. They showed what they advertised as Franco/British films supplementing the entertainment with sideshows. It was short-lived, lasting until about 1908.
It was Charles Thurston, a Norwich-born showman, who would become associated with the new medium and develop it in his home city. The son of a showman, Thurston took his travelling show, which included silent films, around East Anglia, to various fairs in London, and as far north as Grantham.
Recognising the increasing popularity of moving pictures, Thurston decided to build his own cinema in Norwich, and on 31st October 1912 opened the Cinema Palace on Magdalen Street to serve the working class area north of the river. It was the first purpose built cinema in the city. It was truly a picture palace, accommodating 600 in the stalls and 250 on the balcony, all in plush surroundings. The exterior was faced with green glazed terracotta and a central panel of glass mosaic.
The Cinema Palace was not the only cinema in Norwich. Two years earlier the Electric Theatres Company had opened the Theatre de Luxe in a converted hall on St Andrew's Street. Admission cost three pence for which you got 'eight hours and a half continuous entertainment' according to the manager Edward Burges. If you wanted to sit on the balcony it would cost six pence. The doors opened at 2pm and the films were accompanied by a pianist.
On Prince of Wales Road two new cinemas opened in 1912; the Prince of Wales Palace in June, followed in December by the Electric Palace a few doors away. The former utilised what had been the premises of a vinegar works while the latter was purpose built as a combined cinema and variety theatre by Fredrick Cooper.
In 1915 the city's most unusual cinema was opened on All Saints Green where a lecture hall behind several thatched cottages became a cinema, complete with orchestra and afternoon teas known as The Thtached. It had a sliding roof to provide ventilation during the warmer months.
But the most impressive of the city's new cinemas was the Picture House on The Haymarket had which opened its doors in February 1911 in a converted bank building. No expense had been spared and judging by the ticket prices and the publicity it was aimed at a middle class audience with money to spare, being advertised as 'The best conducted, most refined and cosiest cinematograph theatre extant. Heated and ventilated on scientific principles'. There were continuous performances from early afternoon until ten in the evening and the programme was changed twice a week. In keeping with its status the Picture House had uniformed commissionaires on the door and usherettes to show the customers to their seats.
The inter-war period saw the golden age of the Norwich cinemas with at least five new cinemas opened and several existing cinemas extended and refurbished. In 1922 the Regent opened in Prince of Wales Road. Built by Frederick Cooper, the former owner of the nearby Electric Cinema, he inserted a grand entrance through the façade of the Alexandra Mansions on Prince of Wales Road and built an 1800 seat auditorium behind, running parallel to St Faiths Lane from where the 'Regent' motif is still visible. The entrance led into a spacious foyer, complete with fountains, which remained a feature for many years. The Regent also had a café and ballroom and a large stage. For the first six years the Regent put on the best silent films and a varied selection of vaudeville acts, which included acrobats, conjurors, animal acts, dancing troupes and musicians of popular and classical genres. The Regent was the city's most luxurious cinema until 1938 when the Odeon opened.
As cinema-going became increasingly popular new picture houses were built to meet the demand. Victor Harrison, another of the city's cinema proprietors, opened two new cinemas in 1938. The Regal on Dereham Road, provided 914 seats. Further west on Dereham Road was the Ritz, built to serve the new council housing estates in west Norwich. With 700 seats it was built in only 21 weeks and opened a few months after the Regal, with Charles Watling, the Lord Mayor of Norwich, doing the honours in September 1938.
Other suburban cinemas included the Capitol on Aylsham Road and the Enterprise in Northumberland Street, one of the city's more unusual picture houses. Opened in 1934 it was run by the Warminger family. The son Alfred went on to build up the city's largest waste paper businesses. The Enterprise seated only 250 and, in keeping with the working class area it served, admission could be paid for in jam jars or rabbit skins.
But the most impressive of all the Norwich cinemas was the Odeon in Botolph Street. Opened in February 1938 it marked the arrival in Norwich of Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain. A number of properties between Botolph Street and Magdalen Street were demolished to accommodate what was then the biggest cinema north of London, able to seat over 2000 patrons. It was a fitting end to two decades which had seen a massive expansion in the number of cinemas and the range of films that were available to the public.
The period also witnessed the closure of some of the earlier smaller cinemas which could not compete with modern more comfortable venues. The Prince of Wales Palace closed in 1922 to be converted into a billiard hall and the Thatched in 1930 when the proprietor decided not to invest in sound for the new 'talkies'.
For a few years after the end of the Second World War film-going boomed. Cinemas were modernised as new technology was applied to film making and projection. Fifty more seats and a new entrance were installed in the Electric Palace in 1949 which was renamed the Norvic. At the Regent 3D was tried and 70mm film projection equipment allowed it to show wide screen films while the Haymarket was completely refurbished internally and renamed the Gaumont.
However, by the mid-1950s things were changing. Entertainment tax, the cost of installing new equipment and perhaps most all the arrival of television was affecting cinemas in Norwich and across the country. The first cinemas to close were the smaller ones. The Ritz and the Mayfair (the former Cinema Palace in Magdalen Street) closed in 1956, the Theatre de Luxe in 1957; its last night marred by vandalism, the Gaumont in the Haymarket in 1958 and the Regal in 1959. When the Gaumont closed after months of rumour about its imminent demise a Rank spokesman commented that although there were currently about 4,000 cinemas in the UK, he would be surprised to see more than 2,500 in 10 years' time.
Subsequently some of the city's other cinemas closed including the former Regent/ABC in Prince of Wales Road and the Carlton (renamed the Gaumont). The late twentieth century witnessed something of a renaissance in Norwich cinemas with the building of two new multiplexes, the re-opening of the Odeon as the Hollywood and the continued existence of Cinema City.