15 December 2023

‘Oscar Deutsch
Entertained Our
Nation’ – and also
rebuilt synagogues

The Odeon Cinema chain was founded in 1928 by Oscar Deutsch … was Odeon an acronym for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Ever since my childhood, I wondered why cinemas had names that evoked the classics. I was born across the street from the Classic Cinema on Rathfarnham Road and a few doors away from Terenure Synagogue. The proximity of those two landmark buildings led the members of the more salubrious Adelaide Road synagogue to jest in the 1950s and the 1960s about the ‘cinema-gogue.’

But, apart from the Classic Cinema in Terenure, other cinemas in Dublin with names that evoked the classics and classic theatre included the Corinthian and the Adelphi in the city centre, and (I suppose) the Stella in Rathmines, recently named one of the world’s 20 most beautiful cinemas.

For people who have grown up in England, the big cinema chain with a classically-inspired name was the Odeon Cinema chain founded in 1928 by Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941), and the London flagship cinema, the Odeon on Leicester Square, opening in 1937.

Words such as theatre, drama and tragedy are derived from Greek and the cultural life of classical Athens. The ancient Greek ᾨδεῖον (ōideion) means ‘a place for singing’, and the original Odeons were the popular but smaller amphitheatres of ancient Greece. They include the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, built on the south slopes of the Acropolis in 161 CE by Herodes Atticus and today it remains the premiere showcase for the performing arts in Athens.

The Odeon or Theatre of Herodes Atticus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The name Odeon had been appropriated by cinemas in France and Italy by the 1920s. Mel Mindelsohn, a grocery shop owner who was an early business partner of Otto Deutsch, suggested using the name Odeon after spotting it in Tunis. Years later, however, it was suggested the name Odeon was an abbreviation of ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains our Nation’.

Oscar Deutsch made the name his own in cinemas throughout Britain, so much so that people claimed the word Odeon was an acronym for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.’

Oscar Deutsch was born in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, on 12 August 1893, the son of Leopold Deutsch, a successful Hungarian Jewish scrap metal merchant. Leopold came to England from Hungary in the 1900s with his wife Leah Cohen, a Jewish emigrant from Poland. He went into business with his cousin, Adolph Brenner, and Deutsch & Brenner went on to have a number of strip metal factories and rolling mills.

After attending King Edward VI Five Ways Grammar School, Oscar began working at his father’s metal firm in Birmingham. In 1925, He rented his first cinemas in Wolverhampton and Coventry in 1925 and started exhibiting subsequent runs of films. Then, in 1928, he opened his first cinema in Brierley Hill, Dudley.

Oscar Deutsch had 26 Odeons by 1933 and ‘Odeon’ was fast becoming a household word, used interchangeably with ‘cinema’ in some parts of England until after World War II.

The Odeon on Tottenham Court Road, London … Odeon cinemas were seen as comfortable and respectable (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The cinema-opening pace accelerated after Deutsch met the architect Harry Weedon (1887-1970) in 1932. Weedon had been in Birmingham making alterations to a factory run by Deutsch’s father Leopold and the cinema boss hired him to work on interiors for an Odeon in Warley, Staffordshire.

It was the start of a prolific partnership. They opened five new cinemas in 1933, and 16 the year after. Another 33 opened in 1936 – and the same again in 1937. Weedon expanded his team of six staff into an office employing 140. Turnarounds were fast.

Odeons became known for their art deco architecture, first used in the Odeon in Kingstanding to a design by Cecil Clavering, who worked for Harry Weedon. Clavering designed three further Odeons, at Sutton Coldfield, Colwyn Bay and Scarborough. They were seen as ‘one masterpiece after the other’ and they were considered ‘the finest expressions of the Odeon circuit style’.

Clavering stunned Weedon in 1935 when he resigned and moved to the Office of Works. Clavering was replaced by Robert Bullivant and Weedon was then commissioned by Deutsch to oversee the design of the entire chain.

The striking Kingstanding Odeon (1935) was followed by the flagship Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square, London, which opened in November 1937 with The Prisoner of Zenda. By 1937, there were 250 Odeon cinemas, making Odeon one of the three major cinema chains.

Although they went up fast, Deutsch’s cinemas were by no means slapdash. For many of the towns and cities around the Midlands and along the south coast, where most were built, they were the most exciting and modern pieces of architecture in the area.

Odeon cinemas were seen as more comfortable and respectable for middle-class filmgoers than those of the two other chains, Associated British Cinemas (ABC), which also used the Ritz name, and Gaumont-British Cinemas.

The former Odeon cinema in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In his private life, Oscar Deutsch was also a pious Jew and a highly-regarded Jewish philanthropist in Birmingham and the Midlands. He was the President of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, Birmingham’s main synagogue on Singers Hill, from 1932 to 1940.

From 1935, he had his head office in London from 1935 and lived at the Dorchester Hotel. However each week he came home to Birmingham on Friday afternoons to be with his family, and to worship at Singers Hill Synagogue.

The grand synagogue, now a Grade II-listed building, underwent a refit in 1937 to expand its capacity under the guidance of Oscar Deutsch, who used his own cinema architect to remodel the interior. The synagogue was extended by the architect Harry Weedon, with Oscar Deutsch raising or donating much of the funds.

Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham … Oscar Deutsch was President of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation from 1932 to 1940 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Deutsch was also a major financial backer of rebuilding and enlarging the Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue. The synagogue was reconsecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Joseph Hertz, on 1 September 1937 and was formally opened by Oscar Deutsch.

As the Nazis tightened their grip on power in 1930s, Deutsch worked on behalf of Jewish refugees from Germany. He was a member of the management committee of Saint Mark’s Hospital, London, and the County Homes for Cancer.

A bomb landed on his home in 1941, he was blown out of bed and Oscar Deutsch never recovered. He died of cancer of the liver on 5 December 1941. Later, his widow Lily sold the Odeon chain to J Arthur Rank and it became part of the Rank Organisation, who also bought, but managed separately, Gaumont-British Cinemas. The Odeon cinema chain he founded remains Europe’s biggest.

The former Odeon cinema in York retains its distinctive architectural style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Shabbat Shalom

Daily prayers in Advent with
Leonard Cohen and USPG:
(13) 15 December 2023

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Book of Mercy’ is a collection of psalms or short poems

Patrick Comerford

We are in the countdown to Christmas in the Church, with just 10 days to go to Christmas. Sunday was the Second Sunday of Advent (10 December 2023), and we are more than half-way through what is a very short Advent this year.

Throughout Advent this year, my reflections each day include a poem or song by Leonard Cohen. These Advent reflections are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a poem or song by Leonard Cohen;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

‘Open me, O heart of truth, hollow out the stone’ (Leonard Cohen) … ‘The Cuddling Couple’ by Ronald Rae at Milton Keynes Central Station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen: 13, ‘I turned you to stone’:

Leonard Cohen’s Book of Mercy is a personal and powerful collection of psalms. It was first published in 1984, and was republished 35 years later in 2019 by Canongate of Edinburgh. It is a slim volume of Cohen’s contemporary psalms, and it has been elegantly repackaged.

Like the psalms, the themes in the short poems in Book of Mercy include praise, despair, anger, doubt, trust and the search for the presence of God.

Constantly, Leonard Cohen speaks of God as ‘the Name’ – Hashem (השם‎) – is a title used in Judaism to refer to God without using God’s name. Rabbinic Judaism considers seven names of God so holy that, once written, they should not be erased, and restricts the use of those names of God to a liturgical context.

When Cohen says ‘Blessed be the Name,’ he is saying ‘Blessed be God.’

Speaking from the heart of the modern world, yet in tones that resonate with an older Jewish tradition, these verses give voice to the deepest and most powerful intuitions.

This morning, I am reading one of these short poems, ‘I turned you to stone’ (p 57), which is rooted in the traditions of Jewish spirituality, yet echoes many of the threads found in the spiritual writings and poetry of Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross and John Donne.

Leonard Cohen, I turned you to stone:

I turned you to stone. You stepped outside the stone. I turned you to desire. You saw me touch myself. I turned you into a tradition. The tradition devoured its children. I turned you to loneliness, and it corrupted into a vehicle of power. I turned you into a silence which became a roar of accusation. If it be your will, accept the longing truth beneath this wild activity. Open me, O heart of truth, hollow out the stone, let your Bride fulfil this loneliness. I have no other hope, no other moves. This is my offering of incense. This is what I wish to burn, my darkness with no blemish, my ignorance with no flaw. Bind me to your will, bind me with these threads of sorrow, and gather me out of the afternoon where I have torn my soul on twenty monstrous altars, offering all things but myself.

‘For John came neither eating nor drinking’ (Matthew 11: 19) … Saint John the Baptist depicted in a panel in a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 11: 16-19 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,

17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’ (Matthew 11: 17) … ‘Τα κάλαντα’ (‘Carols’), Νικηφόρος Λύτρας (Nikiphoros Lytras)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 15 December 2023):

The theme this week in the new edition of ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘The Faith of Advent.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (15 December 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Lord, thank you for being faithful and fulfilling all your promises. You have said that faith comes through hearing the word of God. Open our ears that we may be attentive to your voice. Help us to listen and respond.

The Collect:

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power
and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness
we are grievously hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
purify our hearts and minds,
that when your Son Jesus Christ comes again
as judge and saviour
we may be ready to receive him,
who is our Lord and our God.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Reading Leonard Cohen’s ‘I turned you to stone’

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org