In 2012 Glasgow City Council reopened Bridgeton Library with Scotland’s first BFI Mediatheque in an effort to restore the magic that the Olympia building formally had.
The Olympia was first opened as a music hall in 1911. Later, it became a cinema between the years 1928 to 1978. Then it was reopened again as a bingo hall until the doors closed for the last time in 2000.
The Olympia was one of the first large scale cinema’s in Scotland: it was known to sit over 1638 people in one screening. In 1938 the theatre was remodelled to accommodate the large numbers by architects McNair and Elder.
Bridgeton local John Welshe spoke of his fond memories of the Olympia Cinema. “The place was huge when you saw it from a child’s point of view, as I got older and grew up more it got smaller but it was still an amazing hall and my family visited frequently.”
After sitting derelict for four years, in 2004 the Olympia building caught on fire and was left in a state of disrepair. John Welshe said how the fire effected the Bridgeton locals: “The Olympia held a lot of pleasant memory for the locals in Bridgeton and when it caught fire you really couldn’t help but feel a part of the areas history and your own history had disappeared. It was a sad day when it caught on fire, especially considering a person lost their life in the fire also which was a terrible thing to happen.”
The council had planned to demolish it to make way for new housing but locals who held fond memories of the Olympia during their childhood protested against it and won. The many locals that came together to fight the demolition were happy to find out that the council now had other plans for the building that was once the heart of Bridgeton Cross.
Welshe said that the council took some convincing and the protest was an important part of that:”At first, the council wasn’t really interested in what was going to happen to the building and essentially just wanted to demolish the rest of the building to make way for new housing but the locals like myself really wanted to keep what was left of the historic building so we protested against it and we won. When I found out that it was going to have the UK’s first mediatheque I felt that it was a great homage to the buildings former glory days of it being a picture house.”
The new-look Olympia re-opened to great acclaim in December 2012 with a public library and café on the ground floor, a High Performance Centre for Boxing on the first floor and two top floors of spectacular and distinctive office space. By 2018 it had become home to almost 150 employees across a number of high profile organisations, including Glasgow City Council and the University of Glasgow
Welshe said the new building had been a success. He said:”I am someone who remembers the place fondly in its hay day and I think what they have turned it into is so much better than destroying an area’s crowning jewel to make way for more housing.”
The page Glesgapals allows the public to write stories about what they remember about public places like the Olympia/ ABC cinema and some of them are absolutely fantastic in getting an insight into what the place was like .
A bridgeton local called Willie Gibson recollected his times at the Olympia.
He said:”My fondest memory about the Olympia was the concession for about under 15’s, if they were accompanied by adults. Subsequently, under fifteens on their own would have to pay a shilling, 12d (5p), however when with an adult, half price i.e. sixpence. we may have been very young but we quickly learned that if you approached a young couple the guy (perhaps keen to impress his bird) would not only agree to the ‘request’ you would very often be told to ‘keep yer tanners son.’ Fifty five years on I still like to tell people, with considerable qualification, no matter where I travel, that Glasgow people are the most generous people in the world. Great times, many good memories.”
After visiting the Bridgeton Library and hearing stories from people who were able to visit the building as its original structure and purpose, I can see why the locals were so passionate about keeping the spirit of the building alive.
It holds so many memories and milestones for the people of the east end like John Welshe who said: “I also had my first date in that cinema when I was around 16, I paid for me and the lass I was seeing from my wages that I had saved up. I doubt I was the only person to have taken someone to the Olympia on a wee date, the Olympia was an amazing place to go to and it still holds a lot of fond memories for people.”
Hopefully, the new Olympia building can be the host to many more milestones and memories for the future generations of Glasgow’s East End.