The Early Years (1911-1917)
In February 1911, local actor and businessman, Frank Stuart opened the East Oxford Picture Palace, Oxford’s first purpose-built cinema. Early programmes included short comedies, serials, melodramas, and news items such as the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.
In 1915, Horace Froude, another local businessman, became the managing director. In 1917, his application for exemption from conscription failed, and he was called up to fight in the First World War. With no one to manage it, the cinema closed and remained shut for decades.
The Penultimate Picture Palace (1974-1994)
In 1974, Oxford University alumni Bill Heine and Pablo Butcher stumbled across the building, which was being used to store furniture at the time, and decided to bring it back to life as a cinema.
They opened in 1976 after a two-year renovation, which included the digging out and installation of toilets in the auditorium. A huge 3D pair of Al Jolson hands were mounted onto the front of the building by local artist John Buckley, who also installed the 25ft shark on the roof of Heine’s home in Headington. The cinema became notorious for wild, late-night screenings, adventurous programming, and a combative attitude to censorship.
Early in 1994, the cinema closed due to managerial clashes and dwindling audiences. ‘Cinema Paradiso’ was their final film.
Squatters and a new name (1994-2011)
In the summer of 1994, the cinema was taken over by squatters for a few months and renamed Section 6 Cinema. It became a cultural and political hive in East Oxford showing free screenings for families as well as putting on live music and community events.
In September 1994 the cinema was awarded Grade-II Listed status by Historic England for being a building of special architectural and historical interest.
Former Penultimate Picture Palace employee Saied Marham together with his brother Zaid reopened the cinema in 1997 under a new name, The Ultimate Picture Palace. Saied devoted plenty of time and energy into making the UPP a success, continuing the tradition of screening alternative and obscure films which could not be found easily elsewhere.
Jane Derricott and Philippa Farrow took over in 2009 and re-energised the cinema, fixing some crucial problems before putting the cinema back up for sale.
It was during this time that local filmmaker Philip Hind made a documentary about the history of the UPP called The Ultimate Survivor. You can watch the film online for free.
Current Ownership (2011 onwards)
Local resident and regular customer Becky Hallsmith bought the cinema in 2011, in what she describes as an impulse purchase. As ticket sales increased, the money was channelled into making significant improvements; this included the installation of a digital projector to join the 35mm, a new screen, and upgrading the sound system.
The interior and exterior of the building were also re-decorated, the washrooms improved, and a successful crowdfunding campaign helped pay for the installation of new, more comfortable seats. In 2013, the cinema was given an Oxford Preservation Award for the restoration and lighting of the facade.
Thanks to Becky, the cinema is now a thriving part of Cowley Road’s vibrant cultural community and, with all our programming done in-house, continues the tradition of showing an eclectic mix of independent, mainstream, foreign language, and classic films.
Becky sadly passed away in September 2018. Shortly after, a group of friends and family got together to help realise Becky’s dream of making the UPP into a community-owned cinema.
In the summer of 2022, after a couple of years of planning and set-backs (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) the Ultimate Picture Palace successfully became a community-owned cinema. You can read more about the campaign here: www.uppcinema.com/owntheupp