Never had there been such a vision of beauty in North Cheam.

Jessie Matthews, the first superstar of British film, sashayed along London Road, her saucer eyes dancing under the neon lights.

It was September 22, 1937, and the gamine young actress had been pressed into opening the new Granada cinema with her husband Sonny Hale.

The Granada was not your average cinema just as Jessie was not your average screen siren.

The building was a fantasy cathedral where local people would be transported to a world of dreams. And Jessie was a sylph-like figure with a wide smile and a legion of admirers.

Variety magazine reckoned she was a "million dollars worth of magnetism". Others knew her simply as the Dancer of Divinity.

Sidney Bernstein, head of the film circuit organisation, was certain only a diva of her standing could possibly give the Granada the grand opening it deserved.

Surviving audience members will tell you about the green and red illuminated letters that upstaged the surroundings that night.

They will tell you how they breathed in air "laundered in a synthetic mountain stream".

Theodore Komisarjevsky, who had trained in architecture at St Petersburg and produced opera at Covent Garden, shaped the interior in Italian Renaissance style.

The result was a picture palace as fantastical as anything on screen.

The walls were painted in blue, gold and green hues. Classical motifs enriched the foyer. And a perfect view could apparently be obtained from any of the 2,000 seats.

"Everything is lavish in this new super cinema," a brash advertisement proclaimed from beneath its circle lounge.

Even the car park was the biggest for miles, with 200 spaces.

What most set the auditorium apart was its mighty Wurlizter organ, rising majestically from a 12ft orchestra pit, sumptuous enough to lure a stellar cast of musicians to North Cheam.

Among them was Reggie Dixon, the dazzling theatre organist, who achieved worldwide fame with his radio broadcasts from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Mostly, though, the Wurlitzer simply provided limitless sound effects for the motion pictures.

There was much sadness when the cinema was eventually demolished in October 1969, to be replaced by a Sainsbury's store, and the hallowed organ was sold. The site is now an office block above a Wetherspoon's pub.

Precious few signs remain of its glorious past, of the packed houses, projections and music-hall acts.

In the age of faceless multiplexes, it will be hard for modern movie-goers to appreciate the opulence that had existed here once upon a time.

"We sell tickets to theatres, not movies," the showman Marcus Loew once remarked. Those wearied by plasticated popcorn and Dolby surround sound can now glimpse the truth of his words, with a celebration of the silver age of Sutton cinemas, at Whitehall in Cheam Village. The exhibition, Moving Pictures Come to London, runs until March 31.

It draws on research from Birkbeck College, University of London, to chronicle how the cinema became one of the only authentic building types of the 20th century, alongside the airport and the shopping mall.

Between 1927, when the first talkie was released, and the Second World War, a race was on to build the biggest and brashest new theatres.

Avant-garde architects clearly viewed the buildings as temples of escapism, on to which they could project their boldest Baroque fantasies. Twisted columns, writhing cornices and painted plaster were the order of the day.

The influence could be seen at the Surrey County Cinema, which opened at 98 Sutton High Street. The picturehouse, known for its resident orchestra and tea dances, had the distinction of showing the first sound film in the borough, the Singing Fool starring Al Jolson.

But there was another reason why it soon entered into local lore. Valary Murphy, the museums and historical houses officer for Sutton, says: "The manager of the Surrey County Cinema for many years, Mr. E.C.H. (Reg) Rowland, was famous.

"He had been a London music-hall comedian before the First World War, and in 1915 wrote the song Mademoiselle from Armentieres, which became one of the most popular tunes among the British forces, and still typifies the era to all who hear it."

The song would endure longer than the cinema, which was renamed the Gaumont having been bought by the Rank Organisation in 1947.

It was given a new fascia in August 1956 but the renovation was not enough to halt declining audiences. The Gaumont closed three years later and is now part of the Times 2 shopping centre.

Another Gaumont cinema, in Rosehill, still stands as a bingo club in Bishopsford Road.

The building, designed by Harry Weston, was a shrine to modernism with its vertical windows and geometric patterns.

Circle motifs in the foyer resembled aircraft roundels and those on the wall recalled a ship's portholes.

The auditorium was perhaps eclipsed only by the extravagant Art Deco interior of the Plaza cinema in Carshalton Road.

Designed by Eugene Mollo, a Russian, and Michael Egan, an Irishman, it merited a five-page feature in Architecture Illustrated when it opened in September 1934.

In the first programme, managers proudly stated: "The Plaza is a monument to British materials bought with British capital and handled by British workmen."

Valary says: "The auditorium seated 2,000 and the fashionable and luxurious interior was designed to provide a top-class ambience for Sutton film-goers in the cinema-hungry 1930s.In short, the Plaza really was a picture palace."

The Odeon cinema at Worcester Park had a more homely feel. It was the first purpose-built cinema in the suburb but not the first venue where pictures had been shown.

Cinema historian Montague Meyer discovered that early shows were held at the Huntsman's Hall public house, near the railway station.

The newer building was created by the architects Yates, Cook and Derbyshire, and boasted a cafe in a cosy lounge, said to be an attraction to all the women in the district.

Asked at the opening ceremony why a larger cinema had not been built, Oscar Deutsch, chairman of the Odeon Theatre Company, revealed a philosophy that would soon become outdated.

He replied that he would rather there was an intimate atmosphere than a barn of a place, half full most of the time.