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Woolwich Gala - Charles S. P. Jenkins

The Granada Theatre Woolwich opened in April 1937 and was advertised as The Most Romantic Theatre Ever Built. It was, without doubt, remarkably beautiful, and a glorious sister-theatre to the circuit’s Flagship, the Granada Theatre Tooting.

It remained a cinema until 1966 when, as a result of falling ticket sales, it was converted into a Granada Social Club.  In 1991, the building was sold and became a Gala Bingo Club.  After forty-three years as a Bingo Hall, the Gala Woolwich closed its doors for the final time on the 30th August, 2011. The building was sold to the Christ Faith Tabernacle (CFT) International Churches  and after a number of changes and a lot of hard work, the building was restored and transformed into The CFT Cathedral and Ebenezer Building with the first service at the Cathedral was held in March 2013.

I first visited the Granada-Gala Woolwich in November 2010. Cecil Aubrey Masey designed the theatre except for the exterior façade, which is curved and follows the sweep of the road and which was the work of Reginald H. Uren. The theatre is built of dark brick and, to my eyes, did not appear especially imposing or interesting except for the curvature.  I remember thinking that if this theatre was the most romantic cinema ever built, it could not have gained such a reputation based on its less than spectacular exterior!

Exterior, 2010

Exterior, 2010.

The opening of the theatre proved to be an event.  As with the openings of the first Granada Theatres at Dover and Walthamstow, those who had played a major part in the planning and building of the theatre appeared on stage seated at a table and seemingly in full activity, which was broken by a pause when their names were brought to the attention of the audience.   This display of showmanship was well received by both public and press alike and each person received a thunderous round of applause. In addition, the opening programme also included Reginald Dixon who at The Mighty Wurlitzer  and who was billed as The Ace of Organists.

Going through the entrance doors led into a small reception area, which had once served as the outer foyer where the box office was found.  Although the area was small, it had what I can only describe as a cosy feel to it despite it being highly decorative in pseudo-Gothic style.   Most of the wall area was covered by blue wallpaper with a recurring diamond-shaped motive, which was punctuated by a number of small Pilasters decorated in red and gold.

Outer Foyer - Gothic Style

Outer Foyer - Gothic Style.

Since becoming a Bingo Social Club, the area had been transformed into a reception area, at first for Granada and then, Gala.

Outer Foyer - Gala Logo

Outer Foyer - Gala Logo.

I went through the doors and entered the inner foyer and was met with quite a surprise!  Although the inner foyer was highly ornate and grand, what surprised me was its size.  The ceiling was lower than expected and it was much smaller than I had imagined.

I spent some time looking at, and examining, this seemingly small anti-chamber and marvelled at its understated grandeur.  And after studying it closely, I came to the conclusion that its size and decoration imparted a more intimate feel, which was - dare I say ....... almost cosy even with the one-armed bandits?

The interior of the Granada Theatre Woolwich was designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky. As soon as I entered the inner foyer, my eyes were immediately drawn towards the magnificent gilded staircase and panelling at the far end of the Hall.  The panelling with its arches gave the structure an ecclesiastical appearance.  Again it is not the size of the staircase and panelling that make their appearance spectacular, but the grandeur that is imparts through their delicateness.

The Gilded Staircase

The Gilded Staircase (1).

The Grand Staircase rises up to a landing at the far wall and then divides to continue via a right and left fork to the balcony walkway.  Stretching across the far wall and rising up to the ceiling is the highly decorative gilded panelling or screen consisting of nine arches.  There are medieval figures painted between the final two arches at each end.

Paintings at the far end of the screen

Paintings at the far end of the screen.

During its Gala Bingo days, most of the outer (right) wall of the inner foyer was taken up by a long counter, where Bingo-related merchandise was sold. Next to the counter and at various other places on the side walls of the inner foyer, I noted that a number of fruit machines had been installed for the pleasure of the patrons.

The Inner Foyer facing the exit doors

The Inner Foyer facing the exit doors.

The ceiling of Inner Foyer was of coffering with repeating motifs inside wooden squares together with a series of wooden beams arranged around an area of recess from which a large glass chandelier hung.  Four smaller chandeliers hung from the beams at the corners of the recess.

The Ceiling

The Ceiling.

Most Granada Theatres were built with a cafe-restaurant, and that of the Granada Theatre Woolwich had its cafe-restaurant built at the far end of The Balcony directly over the outer foyer.  There were additional tables set up on the long sides of the balcony walkway.  The cafe-restaurant was very popular, but patronage declined over the years and was closed permanently in 1954. 

The Balcony Walkway

The Balcony Walkway looking to where the Cafe once was.

I walked down a few steps and entered the auditorium through the open doors to the left of The Grand Staircase and found myself greeted by a site that proved to be every inch as remarkable as I had hoped.

The Auditorium

The Auditorium from the Circle.

The problem with sites that they are remarkable is that it is difficult to know where to look first. At first, the general décor gives the impression that one has entered a cathedral rather than a cinema-cum-Bingo Hall since there are a number of Gothic and Romanesque arches, porticos and pseudo-stained glass windows for the splays on either side of the stage. The auditorium not only looked huge ....... it was huge and tall. The height was accentuated through the use of ceiling steps marching across the width of the auditorium across the circle.

The Auditorium from the Stage

The Auditorium from the Stage.

The Proscenium Arch is elaborate in Gothic in style.  Although seemingly made of heavy material, the Arch appears light, as a result of the number of empty spaces between its struts.

11. The Proscenium Arch

The Proscenium Arch.

The stage is of sufficient size to have allowed stage shows to be performed until it closed as a cinema.  The Stage shows presented here included pantomimes each Christmas and concerts given by a number of singing stars popular at the time. Rock 'n' Roll Stage shows were also presented here until the theatre was converted into a Granada Social Club. Once the building became a Bingo Club, the stage was given over to Bingo Tables.

12. Bingo in the Auditorium

Bingo in the Auditorium.

Reproductions of parts of the paintings collectively known as, Lady with a Unicorn, appear either side of a Gothic Arch, which forms part of the splay on either side of the stage.

13. Splay from the Stage

Splay from the Stage.

14.  The Lion & The Unicorn on either side of the Stage

The Lion & The Unicorn on either side of the Stage.

Standing in the front stalls, I was also able to note the undulating form of the balustrade or parapet of the Circle and of the rows behind it. This feature of the Circle seating was a characteristic of the architect, Cecil Aubrey Masey and appears in many of the theatres that he worked on.

15. Undulation of the Circle Balustrade

Undulation of the Circle Balustrade.

Due to the manager holding a meeting in The Hall of Mirrors, I was unable to visit it or the Circle during this visit. This was a major disappointment, but I was grateful for what I had been able to see here.

-oOo-

A year later, I went back to the Gala Woolwich. Sadly, by this time the building had closed as a Gala Bingo Club and was being prepared for the new owners. I arrived at the building late in the afternoon on a cold November day. The street lamps were already lit and the building was in darkness except for one small later in the former outer foyer area. No one seemed to be home.

I knocked on one of the outer doors, which still bore the name Gala. After a good while of waiting, a young man came, who after much coaxing eventually opened the door. I told him who I was and how I had travelled a long way to see The Hall of Mirrors and the Circle area. After much thought, and after I promised that I would not take up more than five minutes since I could tell that he was eager to close up for the day and go home, he agreed to show me the upper level of the building. I was, to say the least, overjoyed.

I entered the outer foyer and noted the absence of the reception desk. We went through the open doors and into the inner foyer.  The light was dim, but The Grand Staircase still looked remarkable and impressive.  There were all kinds of tools and pots of paint on the floor.  I suspected that work on the building would soon begin.

16. The Staircase with paint pots

The Staircase with paint pots.

We started to climb the staircase and when we got to the landing, I stopped in order to look at the panelling more closely.  I asked the young man a number of questions in order to slow him down, as I needed to look at the panelling and the paintings more closely and, despite the poor lighting, try to take some photographs. The young man was impatient and so we continued on to the top where we turned left and continued on towards The Hall of Mirrors.

17a. .... as it was

.... as it was.

17b. ..... as it was

..... as it was.

17c. ..... as it was

..... as it was.

The Hall was in darkness.  The young man disappeared leaving me alone in The Hall.  Suddenly, there was light and I could see it in all of its faded glory.  Even though it had long been neglected, The Hall of Mirrors was still very impressive and had a Moorish look to it.  Unfortunately the light was not as bright as I would have hoped, but beggars can't be choosers, and I did my best to photograph it in record time.

The Hall of Mirrors was built as a waiting area for patrons to the Circle and was built under it and had two openings, one at each end, which led to the Circle.  The entrances opened at the rear of the auditorium.

All too soon, I had to leave. Although not an ideal visit, I did get to see The Hall of Mirrors, and one has to be thankful for this.

18. The Hall of Mirrors as it is today - Panoramic View

The Hall of Mirrors as it is today - Panoramic View.

-oOo-

The Granada Theatre Woolwich has the distinction of being the first of the original purpose-built theatres of the Circuit to offer Bingo.  Apparently, Granada was not initially in favour of allowing the introduction of Bingo to its theatres, although Sidney Bernstein was not of this mind.  He thought it a good idea mainly because it was profitable. Mr. Bernstein won over the support of his fellow board members and Granada began to introduce Bingo Sessions to many of its theatres on a limited basis.

The Granada Theatre Woolwich offered Bingo Sessions on Tuesdays starting on 5th December, 1961 with films continuing to be screened during weekends.  However in April 1965, the theatre returned to the full time screening of films, which continued until the 26th October, 1966 when the theatre closed permanently as a cinema. Closure of the theatre as a cinema occurred before the trend to convert such large theatres as this into twin or triple screens took hold of the cinema chains.

On the 30th October, 1966, just four days after its closure as a cinema, the Granada Theatre Woolwich and erstwhile Most Romantic Theatre in the World,   re-opened as a Granada Social Club.  The building functioned in this capacity for almost twenty-five years until May 1991 when Granada sold its Social Clubs to Gala Coral and marked the end of an era. Gala Coral continued to operate the building as a Bingo Club for almost twenty years, until the 30th July, 2010, when it closed following its sale to Christ Faith Tabernacle (CFT).

Today, the building is a fully restored and looks remarkable and is the Cathedral of Christ Faith Tabernacle and who celebrate their twenty-fifth year in the U.K. this year.

For those readers wishing to read more about the Granada Theatre Circuit, please visit Charles S.P. Jenkins' website - Stories Of London.

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