A time when Yarmouth had eight cinemas!

THERE was time when I was an avid picture-goer. As a child in the war, when my father was at sea mine-sweeping, my mother met me from the Stradbroke Road School in Gorleston and took me to the Coliseum every Monday and Thursday, the days the programmes changed completely.

There was another full change every Sunday, for one day only, but we never went on Sundays.

Each programme was great value for money at 1s 9d (nine pence today) for an adult and a shilling (five pence) for me, with a main film, a B-picture in support, often an adventure serial, always a newsreel (Gaumont-British at the ‘Coli’) and possibly a travelogue or a Three Stooges short. For a little lad, it was the era of Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, the Bowery Boys (with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall) or the Dead End Kids...

I wallowed in it all then but, after cuddling in the back row as a teenager, my cinema-going dwindled, and I cannot recall the last time I went to the pictures. Possibly my movie habit is mirrored by others of my generation.

My interest and curiosity were roused when a national newspaper reader asked in its question-and-answer column: “Cine City, originally The Scala in Manchester, built in 1912, is reputed to be the third oldest cinema in Britain. Where are the two older ones?”

On the two days I read that paper, the replies included places that opened in 1911, 1912 and 1914, none of them in Great Yarmouth. Perhaps our claim to fame had already been lodged before I chanced upon the feature, but the Gem immediately sprang to my mind. The sea-front Gem, known since the war as the Windmill, was up and running as a cinema years before those mentioned in that paper.

What better way to check than to consult local author and historian Colin Tooke’s 2001 book, Great Yarmouth and Gorleston: Beside the Sea, in which he stated: “The Gem on Marine Parade was the first purpose-built cinema in the town, opening in July 1908 and advertising ‘a continuous flow’ of Electric Vaudeville showing all day long.”

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It continued as a cinema until 1939, reopening after the war as the 900-seat Windmill and playing a prominent role in the resort’s summer programme with variety shows and comedy plays, often spin-offs from television sit-coms featuring some of the original artistes, but as changed public tastes led to a reduction in demand for live entertainment, it was put to other visitor-orientated use.

Last year my reflections on notable events a century ago in 1911 included the erection of the Empire Picture Playhouse, a cinema rather than a theatre adapted for screening films, unlike the Royal Aquarium, for example.

Back in 1939, when Through the Porthole was a nightly column in our sister paper, the Eastern Evening News, the then Peggotty wrote: “Though the Royal Aquarium is the oldest building in the borough in which films are shown – the foundation stone was laid in 1875 by Lord Suffield – it had a long and successful career as a theatre long before it became a cinema in 1931.

“The Gem thus claims the honour of being the oldest cinema, for it was opened as long ago as 1908 by Mr C B Cochran. Its sister hall, the Empire, followed in 1911.

That Peggotty jotting was about the opening Gorleston Palace, bringing the number of cinemas in the borough up to eight which the columnist described as “a goodly collection for a town the size of Yarmouth”, and continued: “There have been two others, but the cinema on Beach Road at Gorleston has been closed for many years, and the Hippodrome’s spell as a cinema shortly after the advent of talking films did not last for long.

“Two cinemas were opened during the (1914-18) war. The Regent, which opened its doors on Boxing Day 1914, was the first hall in the town to introduce talking films. This was in August 1929 and I believe Weary River was the name of the film.

“The other halls soon followed the Regent’s lead. The Plaza (or, as it was known then, the Central), was opened in 1915 in the Market Place on the site of the old Bijou Hall (Poundland trades there today). The Regal, on the site of the old Theatre Royal, was opened on New Year’s Day 1934.”

As for the Gorleston Coliseum, my twice-weekly haunt in wartime, it opened in 1913 and closed in 1970, demolished for retail redevelopment, the same fate as the Regal/ABC/Cannon in 1989, this latter screening films off-season but staging top-star entertainment in summer.

In 1945, reporting the death of Douglas Attree – a cinema pioneer who ran the Coliseum – Peggotty wrote that in 1913 he started his career at the Filmland cinema on Beach Road in Gorleston, only a week before the Coliseum was opened by Mr Ernie Barr with whom he joined in partnership in 1936. A year after his Gorleston start, Mr Attree went to the Regent in Yarmouth as operator and soon became assistant manager.

“After the 1914-18 war he had a very successful spell at the Grand Cinema in Lowestoft and it was here that he built up his reputation as a showman. It was during this time that he arranged a mannequin parade at the cinema, probably the first man outside London to do so.

“During his proprietorship of the Coliseum, he instituted several events which became almost a tradition among the young life of Gorleston. Outstanding among these were the egg matinees for Gorleston Hospital (admission cost, one egg, regularly mentioned in this column by folk with long and happy memories) and the Christmas matinee at which he always appeared as Santa Claus.”

That national “oldest cinema” quest has muddied waters. Oldest built specifically as a cinema and not converted? Oldest still in business? Longest continuous run as a cinema? Pass...

The only cinema in our borough today is the Aquarium, once a theatre but now a multi-screen picture house named Hollywood.