Cinema Historians reflect as Mecca Bingo closes

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With the doors having closed on Chester’s Mecca Bingo Club for the final time, local cinema history enthusiasts have been revisiting the history of the building which was originally Chester’s first “Super Cinema”.

Local cinema historians Peter Davies, David A Ellis and Roger Shone have a wealth of knowledge and experience between them of the history of Chester’s long-lost cinemas as well as a treasure trove of memorabilia and archive photographs, much of which forms part of an invaluable resource on their hugely popular website – Chester Cinemas and U.K. Picture Palaces. 

By an amazing co-incidence, the building which closed its doors for the final time on Sunday 26th February had originally opened exactly 92 years ago almost to the day,  on Monday 2nd March 1931, as The Gaumont Palace, Chester’s first 2000 seat Super Cinema. 

Designed by Birmingham architect, William T. Benslyn and built by Mc Laughlin and Harvey of Highbury, the cinema was to be part of the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres circuit who intended that it should be named, The Regent. However, the company was taken over by Gaumont British and the cinema was re-branded to The Gaumont Palace before opening.  

For many locals, a palace it was, providing escapism from the troubled times of the early 1930s. The opulence of the ornate decoration was described as breath-taking. The auditorium was a masterpiece of plasterwork design, finished in pastel tones of orange, green, mauve, relieved in red and gold. The central ceiling feature was a dome that had concealed lighting. The cinema contained richly upholstered seats with luxurious carpet fitted throughout. It was boasted that the wide, 800 seat balcony, was probably the largest in Northern England. 

Customers sitting in the cheaper seats in the stalls would, from a point of view of comfort, be equal to those people in the balcony. A full working stage was included with the intention of providing stage performances together with big screen entertainment. 

A luxurious addition was the oak panelled Tudor Restaurant which could accommodate 150 customers. It was to become a favourite dining venue for cinema goers and shoppers alike. 

The Mayor of Chester, Councillor John Morris, officially opened the building. The first feature film shown was ‘On Approval’ starring Tom Walls & Yvonne Arnaud. 

A John Compton 3Manual/8Rank Theatre Organ was installed at a cost of £10.000 and was played on the opening by renowned Organist, Leslie James. Many HMV gramophone recordings and radio broadcasts were made at the Gaumont, mainly by the famous Organist, Sydney Gustard. 

The cinema had the choice of all the main film releases and included many stage concerts, quickly establishing itself as Chester’s main entertainment venue. However, with the Odeon and ABC Regal opening in 1936/37, the Gaumont Palace’s film choice became restricted with the two new cinemas taking a large share of the first run feature films. After five years the cinema’s name was shortened to The Gaumont. 

Business was buoyant during the cinema’s heyday during the 1940s. Stage shows remained popular, even a spectacular ice show ‘Rose Marie’ was staged during the 1950s. Many top stars of the day like Cliff Richard and Billy Fury appeared at the Gaumont.  

Speaking about the demise of the cinema, Peter Davies, a former projectionist at the City’s ABC Regal and Odeon cinemas said “Extended runs of films like ‘South Pacific’, ‘The King and I”, drew thousands of movie goers to see the films to full advantage on the giant CinemaScope screen. Unfortunately, television and other sources of entertainment were beginning to impact large cinemas, who began to struggle to keep the huge buildings viable. The Gaumont was one of several cinemas in the city that the then owners, The Rank Organisation, decided to close. The final film, ‘The Marriage-Go-Round’ was shown on Saturday 9th December 1961.  

At a cost of £100,000, the building underwent major internal structural alterations which included removing the balcony and transforming it into a 24 lane, ten pin bowling alley. Top Rank Bowling lasted little more than nine years when the company decided to move the bingo operation from what was once the Majestic Cinema, also on Brook Street, to the much larger capacity of the old Gaumont building during 1970.

Despite name changes, bingo continued for more than five decades. The massive exterior is a reminder to many of a once superb ‘Super’ cinema that was worthy of the name The Gaumont Palace. 

The full history of The Gaumont Palace Cinema together with archive photographs and memories of all of Chester’s long lost cinemas can be found at 

One Reply to “Cinema Historians reflect as Mecca Bingo closes”

  1. On Saturday mornings was the kids cinema there was a talent contest which I entered the song I sang was Scarlet Ribbons and I won !!! And once we went upstairs to have a drink we had broken biscuits as well. Nice times

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