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The Regal- an Aladdin's cave in Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 14:15 31 December 2008 | UPDATED: 12:39 03 July 2010

SHOWTIME! The cast of a pre-war musical, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, line up in front of the Regal.

SHOWTIME! The cast of a pre-war musical, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, line up in front of the Regal.

IT was the talk of the town - even before that phrase had been coined. In shops, on the Market Place, on buses, in front parlours and living rooms and kitchens, on street corners and in pubs, the residents of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston had but one topic of conversation on their lips three-quarters of a century ago: the resplendent new Regal cinema and theatre that was formally opened on New Year's Day 1934.

IT was the talk of the town - even before that phrase had been coined. In shops, on the Market Place, on buses, in front parlours and living rooms and kitchens, on street corners and in pubs, the residents of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston had but one topic of conversation on their lips three-quarters of a century ago: the resplendent new Regal cinema and theatre that was formally opened on New Year's Day 1934.

The borough was already well-endowed with a range of places of entertainment but the luxurious Regal set a new standard, surpassing them all in every respect. In the first week there were long queues as the audiences shuffled to the paybox and paid for admission tickets, eager to see whether the interior matched not only the hype but also the imposing exterior of the building.

None was disappointed. And the fact that a film star featured in the opening ceremony added a frisson of glamour and excitement.

As the Regal was sited in the town centre, Yarmouthians had followed its development with mounting anticipation through 1933. In his address at the opening, the mayor, Percy Ellis, declared: “This theatre has been built on a site which, surrounded by a horrible hoarding, has been an eyesore to many of us for many years, more particularly because it was set in one of the main arteries of our wonderful borough.”

He also told the capacity audience: “The Regal will prove to the country that Yarmouth is not only famous as a seaside resort but also that it possesses men, brains and firms of which any town could be proud.”

The dear old Mercury waxed lyrical: “An Aladdin's Cave in the heart of Yarmouth - glittering, full of the magic of modern science - offering inexhaustible treasure to the seeker in the form of perfect filmic and stage entertainment. Thus, without any imaginative licence, can be described Yarmouth's own super theatre, the £500,000 Regal.

“It is a striking fact that local enterprise has enabled any Yarmouthian to pronounce 'Open, Sesame!' to such a wonderful building in the town of his or her birth. Indeed, it is more than this. The Regal is a lasting monument to that same enterprise and the vision of men in whose progressive minds it had its birth.”

Unfortunately, the Regal was no lasting monument - it was demolished in 1989. “Lasting” meant a mere 55 years, to the chagrin of many townsfolk.

The edifice was as impressive as the promise it offered, the “locally made and financed” tag it justified, and the statistics it involved: bricks made at Somerleyton; built by J Balls & Sons, of Northgate Street, whose employees were warmly praised for their expertise and efficiency by the Regal shareholders; 1,400 yards of purpose-woven carpet designed, supplied and fitted by Bonings, of King Street (although made in Kidderminster); seating for 1,500 - 674 of them in the steeply raked circle - supervised by Arnolds (the town centre department store renamed Debenhams in 1972)…

The specialist equipment needed so films could be screened and stage shows presented was not sourced hereabouts, and neither was the awesome Compton organ - almost an essential in that pre-war era when major theatres and cinemas included a musical interlude between the main feature and the so-called B picture, along with a newsreel, perhaps a travelogue or cartoon, serial, advertising…

The Regal's Compton took half a minute to rise from the orchestra pit, and it was capable of 17 colour changes, plus a vast selection of instrumental and orchestral sounds and effects - anything from a Boy Scouts' band to a steam railway locomotive, according to the Mercury. On the opening day's two performances the organist was the nationally renowned Reginald New (“the esteemed broadcaster”) whose name is forever linked in my mind with his BBC contemporaries like Sandy Macpherson and Reginald Foort.

The corps of successful Yarmouth and Gorleston businessmen who put their money where their hearts lay - even though some of them ran rival cinemas - became directors of the Regal, names woven into the fabric of business in the borough and still recalled by today's older generation: chairman and managing director Ernest Valentine Barr, and Douglas Attree, Thomas Boulton, Charles Chapman, Leonard Freeman, Frank Johnson, Frederick Lawn,Humphrey de la Lynde, Walter Nightingale, David Rist and Arthur Beevor.

As for the grand opening, the Mercury told its many readers: “Until Monday afternoon the interior of the Regal Theatre remained an intriguing mystery to most of our townspeople but this week they have been able to satisfy their curiosity. It has been a most enjoyable experience, and not only Yarmouthians but also visitors have been amazed at the brilliance of this proud local enterprise.

“The luxurious appointments, the perfection of the sound and projection, and the detailed arrangements made for the public, have been keenly appreciated.”

In addition to the mayor's address to the packed audience, there was a speech by Merle Oberon, described by the Mercury as “the charming brunette who plays the part of Anne Boleyn in the brilliant film success, The Private Life of King Henry VIII, which is the Regal's opening attraction”.

She expressed delight to have been invited to participate in the opening ceremony of “this lovely new cinema”, and added: “You may be interested to hear that I am much more nervous at having to speak to you than I was at being executed in the film!”

She had been discovered only two years earlier by Alexander Korda, the film's acclaimed director, and was heading for Hollywood soon, a rags-to-riches story worthy of filmland, for she was born in India into a mixed-race family, moving to the UK at 17 and being a dance hostess.

Her on-screen beauty masked the fact that she was scarred for life in a car accident, but careful lighting, camera angles and make-up ensured she remained a star, making dozens of films before she died in 1979.

Telegrams of good wishes were received from Korda, Charles Laughton (Henry VIII), and Wendie Barrie and Binnie Barnes who played two of his other wives.

Tucked away at the bottom of the broadsheet page of coverage of the Regal was a brief report headlined: “Miss Oberon talks to the Mercury.” It said that after the opening ceremony, she joined the audience for a time to watch some of the film, her appearance on screen producing a burst of applause.

“She appeared to a Mercury reporter very much more charming in real life than as the distracted queen, Anne Boleyn.

“Away from the shadow of the executioner's sword, she talked happily. 'What do I think of Yarmouth?' she said. 'Well, unfortunately, I have not been able to see much of it, but what I have seen has convinced me it is a very charming place.'”

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