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The Kilburn State Cinema

Most people who live here know the local landmark the Kilburn State and its 120 feet tower. When it opened in December 1937 as the Gaumont State, it was the largest purpose built cinema in Europe with 4,004 seats. Today it is a Grade II* listed building.
Kilburn State, 2015, (Dick Weindling)

What was there before the cinema was built? 
Stand and Deliver!
Originally there was a large house on the site called The Elms, which was home to a number of wealthy people. These included the widower John Ebbers who moved in with his two daughters in 1832. He was a publisher in Old Bond Street and the manager of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (which is now Her Majesty’s Theatre). In 1826 he met a young writer called William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) who had moved to London from Manchester. It was an eventful year for Ainsworth; Ebbers published his first novel ‘Sir John Chiverton’ and he married Ann Frances or ‘Fanny’, Ebbers’ youngest daughter.

While living at The Elms with the Ebbers, Ainsworth began to write a novel called ‘Rookwood’ which was published in 1834. It is a fictitious story of Dick Turpin, but includes the story many of us heard at school, about his famous ride to York on Black Bess. Ainsworth also includes a scene in the novel which he sets at Kilburn, at the ‘Jack Falstaff’ pub, which he modelled on The Cock Inn. But there is no evidence that Turpin was ever in Kilburn or Hampstead, most of his robberies were in Essex.

The novel sold extremely well and Ainsworth followed it up with more stories including one about Jack Sheppard, another famous highwayman. In 1835 his marriage to Fanny failed and the couple separated, Ainsworth moving with his three daughters to Kensal Lodge. Fanny died on 6 March 1838 in Notting Hill. Ainsworth died in 1882 while living at Reigate and he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Allen and Sons
John Allen and his sons built many of the houses in the Hemstal and Lowfield Road area. In 1887 they constructed the large building in Kingsgate Road, which today is the Kingsgate Workshops, home to more than 50 artists. About 1894 Allen and Sons left Kingsgate Road and moved across the Kilburn High Road to The Elms site. The old house was converted into offices and they built a factory in the grounds called the Palmerston Works. The building firm prospered and in 1901 it obtained a large contract to build the new stands at Ascot Race Course, where they employed 500 men.

1894 map, showing Kingsgate Workshops in Red, and Palmerston Works in Blue

Kilburn Aerodrome and the Central Aircraft Company
In November 1916 Richard Cattle, another London carpentry firm, combined with the Allens, and opened the Central Aircraft Company at No.179 High Road, Kilburn. They build wooden Centaur aircraft which they initially flew from ‘Kilburn Aerodrome’ (as it was jokingly called, but which was really a nearby field on Willesden Lane), before offering flying courses and joy rides from Northholt Aerodrome. The company was very successful and sold flights over London, Kent and the Welsh beauty spots, even going as far as the Belgian battlefields, with prices ranging from £2/3/6 up to £60. By June 1920 there were 100 flights a week over London.

A Centaur Aircraft, built by CAC

CAC thought that people would have their own private aircraft, just as they had cars. You could buy a Centaur for £250 (the equivalent of over £7,000 today). But the project wasn’t a success. A further setback occurred in September 1920. Seven people died when a twin-engine Centaur hit the ground soon after taking off from Northolt. The aircraft company closed in May 1926 and went back to furniture making.

The State Cinema
In August 1937 the Palmerston Works on Kilburn High Road and Willesden Lane was bought by the Gaumont Super Cinemas Ltd who were looking for a site for a large cinema.

The State, designed by the renowned cinema architect George Coles, and reminiscent of the Empire State building in New York (1931), opened in December 1937 at a cost of £320,000 (about £19M today). The opulent decorations included black marble pillars, pink mirrors, and candelabra which was a replica of one in Buckingham Palace. Queen Mary (grandmother of Queen Elizabeth), paid regular visits to the Gaumont State matinee performances, saying it was her favourite cinema and she preferred to go there rather than the West End.

Regular film prices were 9d and 1/- for the stalls, and from 1/6 to 3/6d for the circle.

Gaumount State, c1938, (English Heritage)

There was a magnificent Wurlitzer organ that rose from beneath the large stage which still survives today. A special broadcasting room was built in the tower and this allowed Van Dam and his State Orchestra and Sidney Torch the organist, to be heard regularly on the radio. In January 1939 Sidney Torch played a special programme of music which the Nazi had banned in Germany, to raise funds for refugees. The following year in February Torch was playing his selection of classical music to a large audience during the interval between films. What they didn’t realise was that his foot had become trapped between the steel stage and the half-ton organ. After he finished playing, Sidney bowed to the audience and pressed the button for the organ to descend. In hospital it was found that he had broken his big toe and damaged his foot. He was unable to play for several weeks.

The opening night was a major event with huge crowds. The programme had the band of the Grenadier Guards and featured major stars of the day: Gracie Fields, George Formby, Henry Hall, Vic Oliver and Larry Adler. 

Opening night programme, 20 December 1937

The excellent Arthur Lloyd site has a full copy of the opening night programme here:

As a large London venue, the cinema was ideal for major concerts, ballet and musicals. Here are a few of the people who have played at The State:

  • Paul Robeson, the famous American singer and equal rights activist, 1937.

  • On 23 July 1938 the Hyams brothers who ran the State, organised a midnight performance to raise money for Eddie Cantor’s fund for refugee children from Nazi Germany. This was an amazing show with Paul Robeson, Max Miller, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Lupino Lane, and many other stars of the day. Eddie Cantor was the compere; he told jokes, sang songs and even appeared in golden curls and rompers to imitate Shirley Temple singing ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’. The show was a great success.

Hot Club of Paris

  • Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist, with violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of Paris, July 1938 and August 1940.

  • In the 1940s there was the ‘Jazz Jamboree’ shows with British musicians, such Geraldo and his orchestra, and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, (the first UK black band leader), who was tragically killed by a bomb which fell through the Café de Paris where he was appearing on 8 March 1941.

  • Frank Sinatra, 21 June 1953 as part of his UK tour.

  • The Count Basie band, 24 November 1957, and March 1962.

  • Harry Belafonte, 10 August 1958. He had a huge hit with ‘Day-O’, better known as ‘The Banana Boat Song’ (1957). He starred in several films and was an early supporter for US civil rights.

  • More ‘Jazz Jamboree’s followed in the 1950s with English bands such as Tubby Hayes, Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth, and Humphrey Lyttelton.

  • ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ had the top American stars, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane in the late 1950s and 1960s.

  • During the rock and roll era all the major bands played at the State. I was at two of these gigs: Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Buddy Holly

  • During their tour of England, Buddy Holly and the Crickets performed at the State to a sell-out audience on 2 March 1958. It was a punishing tour lasting from 1-25 March, with two shows every night. Less than a year later on 3 February 1959, tragically Buddy died in a plane crash which also killed Ritchie Valens and the ‘Big Bopper’ (J.P. Richardson). This became known as ‘The Day The Music Died’ from Don Mclean’s song ‘American Pie’.

Jerry Lee Lewis with his young wife Myra, May 1958

  • On 25 May 1958 Jerry Lee Lewis played the second night of his UK tour at the State. But that day the press headlines revealed he had married his 13 year old cousin Myra. Some of the audience screamed for his big hit ‘Great Balls of Fire’, others shouted ‘Go home cradle snatcher!’ The noise was so loud Lewis stopped the show and walked off. The tour had to be abandoned and the subsequent media storm ruined Jerry’s career for many years. Cliff Richard and the Shadows were in the audience and got to meet Jerry backstage.

  • Duke Ellington, 15 August 1958 and 26 Oct 1958 at the beginning and end of the UK tour.

  • Louis Armstrong, 28 April and 1 March 1959.
Cliff Richard programme, 1959

  • Cliff Richard and The Shadows, 16-21 Nov 1959.
Beatles on the stairs of the State, 1964

  • The Beatles, 9 April 1963 and 23 October 1964.

  • The Rolling Stones, 19 November 1963.

  • David Bowie, 13 June 1973.

  • Deep Purple, 22 May 1974, live album recorded.

  • Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, billed as 'Woody and Friends', 14 July 1974. ‘The Return of Woody Wood Breaker’ was recorded live and released in 1992. In 2007 a DVD of the show called the 'The First Barbarians: Live from Kilburn' was released.

  • Ian Dury and the Blockheads, 22 December 1978.
His band ‘Kilburn and the High Roads’ formed in 1970/1971, has led many people to believe that Ian was from Kilburn. Although his parents briefly lived at 1b Belsize Road when they married in 1938, they moved to Harrow Weald where Ian was born in May 1942. He never lived in Kilburn, but liked the name. In 1970 he and his friend the pianist Russell Hardy, were driving up the High Road when Ian said, ‘I’ve thought of a great name for the band. What about Kilburn and the High Roads’. The Kilburns played their first gig in December 1971 in Croydon.

Plus many more.

Decline of The Kilburn State
With the rising popularity of TV, the number of people going out to films declined. In September 1957, some seats in the State cinema were removed to provide a ballroom, and the Victor Sylvester dance studio. About 1960 the main cinema was reduced further to 2,800 seats and the building divided to form a bingo hall. A second smaller film screen was added in 1975. The main cinema closed in September 1980 and the smaller screen the following year. After a gap of several years, the smaller cinema became the Odeon Kilburn from 1985 to June 1990. After which the State was only used for Top Rank bingo. Later this became the Mecca bingo club which closed in 2007. The building was sold in December 2007 to Ruach Ministries reputedly for £5.5M. They opened it in 2009 and are still there today.

On 20 April 2018 Andrew Holness, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, addressed a packed audience at the State. He told them he had just met Theresa May who reassured him about the future of the ‘Windrush’ generation in Britain.

You can see Anna Bowman’s 2007 film of 70 years at the State here:


  1. Dick maybe you might add to the list of artists the great Jimmy Cliff, who appeared there in I think 1971?

    1. Now found that Jimmy Cliff, supported by Chairman of the Board, appeared at the Kilburn State on 22 Oct 1972.

    2. My mum worked at the State in the mid 1950s' (54-57) and met many of the artists who played there mentioned in your article.

  2. I saw Rod Stewart & The Faces at The Kilburn State on 23rd December 1974.


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