A vivid tale lies behind the story of the ABC 02 venue on Sauchiehall Street.

The site has in its time been home not just to various cinemas under different owners but also to a place called Hengler's Circus between 1904 and 1927.

Hengler's was, says author Bruce Peter in his book, 100 Years of Glasgow's Amazing Cinemas, a well-known city institution, screening films full-time in betweeen circus seasons.

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But the location's history pre-dates even the circus. It had originally opened in 1875 as the Diorama, renowned for its canvases of historic events. In 1878 it became the Glasgow Panorama, where - in the words of the Evening Times in 1979, "the very latest in epics was a pictorial representation of the Battle of Bannockburn, complete with martial music and noisy off-stage sound effects.

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"In 1896 out went panoramas, and in came ice-skating. Short-lived, unfortunately, because The Real Ice Skating Palace didn't do too well, and to boost the take the owners gave the first commercial showing in Scotland of the Lumiere Cinematographe - thrillers like 'The Arrival of the Calais Express from Dover'."

By 1902 the place was occupied by the Hippodrome - nightly cinematographe and variety shows - and Hengler's arrived in 1904. Its dramatic water spectacles were a genuine crowd-puller.

When Glasgow went dancing-mad in the late Twenties, the venue was rechristened the Waldorf Palais de Dance. There was intense competition from other dance-halls, however - and the site then became home, in November 1929, to the elegant, 2,359-seater Regal Cinema.

The Herald: The ABC in its Cannon Cinema incarnation in 1987The ABC in its Cannon Cinema incarnation in 1987 (Image: Newsquest)The building had been bought by John Maxwell, a Glasgow lawyer who in 1916 had established Scottish Cinema and Variety Theatres Ltd, pioneer of the Associated British Cinemas, or ABC. The original company's office was on the seventh floor of the block at 105 St Vincent Street. Maxwell commissioned the noted cinema architect, James McNair, to turn Hengler's into the well-appointed flagship, the Regal.

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The Regal, notes Peter, was a long, three-storey building with tall, arched windows framing a portico clad in cream and black facience tiles and ornamented with neo-classical and art deco motifs. "The site sloped steeply up from Sauchiehall Street so that the auditorium had to be at first-floor level with shop units and a car-park below", the book adds.

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The Regal's high-profile premiere was a showing of the Al Jolson film, The Singing Fool. It was, reports Peter, "something of a sensation but an unusual choice having already enjoyed a record-breaking run at ABC's Coliseum south of the river".

No effort was spared to make a visit to the new cinema a classy experience: "The army of usherettes, page-boys and ticket-checkers were all dressed in the Regal's smart, brown uniform with gold braid and buttons; the usherettes, for example, wore a brown tunic and skirt, a black Spanish hat, silk stockings and high-heeled shoes. Every customer was personally shown to their seat".

The Herald: The world premiere of the film, Geordie, at the Regal cinema in 1955The world premiere of the film, Geordie, at the Regal cinema in 1955 (Image: Newsquest)

The Regal was a lasting hit amongst Glasgow's legions of film-goers. It added a widescreen cinema in 1955, and the interior was overhauled.

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A key change in the site's fortunes took place in October 1967 with the opening of the 922-seater ABC2 cinema, with the Regal being renamed the ABC. The ABC2's premiere was a screening of Far From the Madding Crowd, starring Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Peter Finch and Alan Bates.

The Evening Times said enthusiastically that the ABC2 "is indeed a cinema designed, equipped, and furnished to meet the high efficiency and comfort standards of the space age". 

The manager of both the ABC and ABC2 was Alan Dale, a Second World War veteran who had served in Greece and the Middle East, and who arrived in Sauchiehall Street from the Coliseum Cinerama.

Mr Dale was still in charge in December 1979, when an even bigger innovation occurred - a new, five-screen ABC multiplex was opened, capable of seating a total of 2,605 patrons.

"We have always prided ourselves on being among the top cinemas in Britain", said Mr Dale, "and this conversion job, which makes us one of the very few 'quintuples' in the country, confirms our position".

The conversion yielded much of interest. Bruce Peter reports that the demolition of the ABC1's once-beautiful interior "resembled an archaeological dig; the builders kept recovering evidence of various past uses as they removed layers of plaster and cement. 

He quotes one projectionist, Barney McCue, as saying that "when they opened up the floor to build the new supporting frames, they found the old stables and even elephant traps from Hengler's Circus days!"

Over the next decade or so the ABC passed to new owners and was renamed successively the Cannon cinema, then MGM, then back to ABC again.

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The last of the five screens closed in 1999. The site remained empty for several years before it was eventually given a new lease of life in June 2005 as the ABC music venue, rebranded in 2019 as the O2 ABC.

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It was one of the city's busiest and most renowed live-music venues, but all that changed forever when it was devasted in the Art School blaze of June 15, 2018.