Tooting Gala - Charles S. P. Jenkins
Charles S. P. Jenkins has over the years collated a cultural history of the East End, including a vast collection of photographs, all of which can be seen on his website East End Memories. In this article he has written specially for Playing Bingo he recounts his experiences and provides a detailed background of the the Granada Theatre, which is now the Tooting Gala. Charles has also provided us with a fantastic set of photographs which can be seen on the Tooting Gala gallery page. He has also published stories which can be purchased via Amazon UK, or Amazon US, and another website Stories Of London.
The Tooting Gala
What do the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and a number of other high-profile buildings have in common with the Gala Tooting? No, this is not a riddle or a trick question. Give up? Well as of 2000, the Gala Tooting joined these and other national treasures as a listed Grade 1 building as designated by English Heritage. Was this done because the Board of Trustees of English Heritage enjoys a game of Eyes Down for relaxation? Although the answer to this question remains unknown, it seems that it considers the Gala Tooting to be of value to the nation and worthy of nurturing for future generations to enjoy. It is the first such edifice to be granted this honour, which is not purely symbolic, but rather allows the owners to apply for public funding to help maintain the building. I am happy that Gala has been elevated to these dizzy heights, as I can attest to it being a spectacular building and well-deserving of preservation. Hopefully it will soon be returned to how it looked when it opened as a cinema on 7th September 1931 as the Granada Theatre Tooting.
I visited the Granada/Gala Tooting for the first time in November 2011. I was greeted by a number of staff members and patrons of the Gala Bingo Club and shown great kindness. In addition, I was given free access to much of the building, which allowed me to appreciate its spectacular grandeur. I would like to thank everyone that I met, staff and patrons, for their kindness and warmth.
The Granada Cinema Circuit was owned by Sydney Bernstein who later went on to found Granada Television. Granada cinemas were special and always known as Theatres. Each theatre of the circuit was remarkable in that it had a distinctive architectural style quite unlike any other in Britain. They were exotic and promised something special once a patron bought a ticket and passed through the foyer and into the auditorium.
The Granada Theatre Tooting opened with the film Monte Carlo, a film that staring Jeanette MacDonald and Jack Buchanan and with Alex Taylor at the Mighty Wurlitzer. Monte Carlo was directed by Ernst Lubitsch who enjoyed great success in his career and was the director of both Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and To Have and Have Not (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. He is also credited with the discovery of Jeanette MacDonald and for her pairing Maurice Chavalier.
All seats were filled on opening night and it is said that an additional two thousand people were unable to gain access. The cinema received much praise when opened and was considered to be the grandest built in Britain. It was always well patronised well, as going to a Granada Theatre was undoubtedly seen as an event.
The Granada Theatres played mostly films on the Gaumont circuit release, but occasionally obtained Odeon circuit release films. In 1948, the stage was brought fully into use when productions of “Goodnight Vienna” starring Bruce Trent, and “The Dancing Years” starring Barry Sinclair both played for one week runs. From January 1934 and at this time of year for the following four years, a circus (with real elephants) took to the stage supporting the film programme. From 1936, pantomimes were also staged, usually for two week runs around Christmas, and these continued into the early-1950’s.
For the next forty years, it continued to show films and present stage shows and organ recitals until cinema-going declined, which led to its closure in 1973.
I remember the first time I went to a Granada Theatre. It was to the Granada in High Street Slough. I remember its richness, its ornate design and Miss Candy, the sweetshop associated with the cinema …… sorry theatre. They were lavish and ornate and decorated in regal colours. Red was a predominant colour, but not just a simple postbox red or scarlet, but more a port wine red, a full-bodied burgundy colour together with splashes of gold. To my untrained young eye, I felt as if I was walking into a palace in a far off land. Cinema going was never to be the same!
The richness and lavish appearance of the Granada Theatres is best exemplified by the Granada Tooting and was a direct result of the endeavours of the circuit’s most famous designer, Fyodor Fyodorovich Komissarzhevsky (Фёдор Фёдорович Комиссаржевский; 1882-1954) or as he was later known, Theodore Komisarjevsky.
Mr. Komisarjevsky had led an interesting and controversial life before turning to theatre design. He was born in Venice and brought up in the theatre of Moscow by his father, an opera singer, and his mother, an actress. Although interested in architecture, he began to direct plays and eventually formed an acting school where he was free to practice his own theories on acting. In 1917, he became the director of the Bolshoi Ballet, however Comrade Lenin was not inclined towards theatre, which caused Mr. Komisarjevsky’s move to London where his influence was soon felt on most aspects of theatre. Here he continued to advocate his avant garde approach to acting and quickly scandalised society with his productions of Shakespeare plays where for example he staged Macbeth with the principals adorned with saucepan lids for crowns.
On a less controversial note, he was responsible for introducing the plays of Chekhov to the British Public. During the 1930s, he was recognised, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, as one of the most colourful figures in European Theatre. He also lectured at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he exerted a strong influence on acting students who later were to receive worldwide acclaim and in 1932 he published a defining book on The Costume of the Theatre. Despite his influence on theatre, it was his sorties as a theatre designer that would allow him to be widely remembered. Amongst his accomplishments as a designer are the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End and the Granada Theatre in Tooting.
Ceil Aubrey Massey was the architect for both the Phoenix (1930; along with Giles Gilbert Scott and Bertie Crow) and the Granada Tooting Theatres. Mr. Massey had trained with Bertie Crow who was the architect for a number of London theatres and who in turn had trained with Frank Matcham, perhaps the most famous of all British theatre architects and designers. Massey enjoyed an accomplished career, having produced in 1919, the New Wimbledon Theatre, which is now a Grade II listed building and the Rex Theatre, Hayes in 1936 now unfortunately demolished.
The exterior of the Granada-Gala Tooting shares some similarity to the Phoenix Theatre in that both have Corinthian-style pillars over the entrance. However those of the Phoenix are more decorative and much smaller. The Granada-Gala is a huge imposing Moderne Italianate tower of a building that dominates its space on Mitcham Road, Tooting in the Borough of Wandsworth. Its exterior appearance is somewhat austere and perhaps unremarkable looking except for its imposing size and a passerby could be easily forgiven for not expecting the remarkable treasures found inside.
I entered the theatre by climbing a few steps, which are protected by a small canopy extending over the entrance area. They lead up to a number of wooden doors with large windows that open into an imposing reception area. Today this space is used as a reception area where members of the Gala Bingo Club may log in by swiping their cards through a machine and where newcomers may provide the necessary information to join. Once the administrative formalities are over, the patron is now ready to pass through a second set of doors and make their way into what promises to be a magical world.
The whole of the interior of the building, designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, is in Gothic style and is decorated throughout with masterful ornamental plasterwork by Clark and Fenn. Joseph Bernard Clark was an ornamental plasterer who with Harry Fenn, a surveyor, specialized in ornamental fibrous and Plaster of Paris plasterwork. Much of their work was prefabricated in their factory in nearby Clapham. This allowed them to transport mouldings in a ready-made state and for installation. Their work may also be seen at the church of St. Clement Danes in The Strand, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the London Palladium.
As I passed into the foyer of the Granada-Gala Tooting, it becomes difficult to know where to look first for the scene that welcomes is nothing short of breathtaking. I remember standing in place for a minute or two astonished at what was surrounding me.
The foyer is huge and decorated in Gothic style with a marble floor and a highly ornate ceiling from which hang a number of shimmering glass chandeliers. The walls are decorated with a series of arches, columns and mirrors together with some quietly understated frescos found high up close to the ceiling, which can escape the visitor’s immediate attention. On the left, a counter has been placed where various commodities sanctioned by Gala are sold to members and visitors.
However, it is the staircases on either side of the foyer area that immediately catches the visitor’s attention. Each staircase leads up and joins a central gallery that in turn allows the visitor access to the balcony and a magnificent waiting area, but more of this later. Between the staircases at ground level is an atrium that leads through to the auditorium. This area now filled with slot machines for the enjoyment of patrons.
When I visited the building, I have to confess that I could not wait to enter the auditorium. I was literally bursting at the seams and rushed through the foyer and the atrium in order to get there as fast as possible! Naturally I had seen pictures of it and knew that I was in for a special treat. However, nothing, absolutely nothing that I had seen prepared me for my initial view of this magnificent sight.
I passed through the atrium with the sounds of the slot machines in my ears and found myself standing before one of the most spectacular and breathtaking sights that I have ever had the good fortune to see. No matter how much I try, I will never be able to do justice in words to the majesty of this Gothic Aladdin’s Cave.
The auditorium is huge and as a cinema it could seat over 3,000 patrons, which it did regularly during the heyday of cinema going. The coffered ceiling is high and remarkably ornate, but it is the side walls, which are spectacular, that immediately caught my attention. On either side of the proscenium is a huge Gothic window, which extends upwards and comes to a point at the ceiling. The windows consist of a number of small diamond shaped panes of coloured glass – yellow, green, orange and red. In front of each is suspended a large candelabra that holds rings of candle holders, one above the other, with each filled with small unlit candles.
Next to the window is a Gothic arch, which is highly ornate and supported by a series of short columns. The arch leads to an open space and to an exit. Above the arch stands a heraldic lion holding a coat of arms with what would appear to be the glass face of a clock, but with no hands. Within the arch at its pinnacle and on either side of it are murals depicting scenes from medieval court life that include damsels, knights, musicians and jesters. Stretching up to the ceiling from the arch and murals are a series of ornate portals, several of which are filled with coats of arms.
Looking past the Gothic arches, on each wall is a series of ornate panels at balcony level that hold a series of painted murals depicting additional medieval figures. These paintings and those associated with the arches were executed by Alex Johnson from originals by Lucien Le Blanc. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any information on these artists. Each wall continues into the balcony, which is decorated with false windows and other decoration together with a series of double medieval torches that look as if they should be holding flames rather than electric light bulbs.
Naturally the combination of the Gothic windows together with the arches and portals impart onto the auditorium an ecclesiastical look reminiscent of the great cathedrals of England and France and could easily deceive visitors into thinking, albeit momentarily, that they are standing in the naive of such a cathedral. However, the presence of the Bingo tables throughout the auditorium and stage together with the strategically placed slot machines soon return the visitor back to present times.
Changes have been made to the stage and proscenium now that the building no longer functions as a cinema. The stage appears to have been lowered and is seen to extend to the back wall of the building against which a diner has been installed for the nutritional needs of the patrons while enjoying the Bingo Sessions. Tables for patrons are provided on the stage for the purpose of both eating and playing the game.
High above the stage is an elaborate and remarkable wooden proscenium arch, which again brings to mind a Gothic cathedral rather than a cinema-cum-Bingo Hall. Although seemingly made of heavy material, the arch appears light due to the number of empty spaces between its struts.
At the front of the stage area is a Bingo Caller’s Console. When I visited the building, a game was just coming to an end and the caller, a woman in her early 40s, was reading out the last of the numbers. I was intrigued by this. She read them out in a matter-of-fact manner without the injection of any of the chirpiness that I associated with this art.
When Bingo was first introduced, Calling the Numbers proved to be an art and required a certain talent to perform, as part of the job was to amuse the crowd. Callers introduced amusing alternatives for numbers: two fat ladies, eighty eight; key of the door, 21; and so on. This lady called with no joviality in her voice and without any intonation. When someone had a line, a member of staff who had been walking around the auditorium between the tables, went over and checked the numbers. Once it was proven that the patron had indeed a complete line, they were declared the winner and the session came to an end. No curtain call, no applause, no sign of pleasure.
Later I asked the Caller why numbers were now read out in such a plain manner. She told me that Bingo was a much more serious pastime now. Apparently since big money was at stake most patrons no longer appreciated any joking around and wanted to get down to the business of serious competition. I had noticed that some patrons played with a huge number of cards and not just one, as most people used to do. I learned that the greater the number of cards a player has, the greater their chance of taking home the prize and today prize money could be big. I found this change to be a little sad, as I had always seen the pastime of Bingo to be one of community where one spent some money and had an enjoyable time in the presence of friends and acquaintances rather than one of serious gambling.
From the stage I looked out into the auditorium and up at the ceiling. As with the foyer, the ceiling was dark and heavy with decoration and looked as if it was made of an exotic dark wood that had been carved to produce a pattern that was repeated across the vast expanse. From it hung light fixtures that once illuminated the whole auditorium during the intervals between the presentation of films or mid way through a stage show where the latest rock sensation was performing or when a pantomime was presented and allowed time for the patrons to purchase ice cream and soft drinks from the ladies that carried these refreshments on trays hung around their necks.
As I stood at the front of the stage area, I noticed a number of markings on the floor. These lines jogged my memory and I suddenly remembered that the theatre once had an orchestra pit under where I was standing. I also remembered that when the theatre opened it did so with a fully-functioning Wurlitzer Cinema Organ installed for the audience’s delight. The organ had come from the Majestic Theatre in Sacramento, California where it had been installed in 1926. It was brought to the Granada Theatre Tooting in 1931 following some modification and enlargement. Most famous cinema organists from the 1930s have played here and many have made radio broadcasts and gramophone records while playing it. Even the great Reginald Dixon played this Mighty Wurlitzer during his tours of Granada Theatres between 1936 and 1940. The organ continued to be featured on the BBC’s The Organist Entertains between 1970 and July 1973, when the organ chambers became flooded following a huge thunderstorm. Sadly, the cinema closed later that year and the building did not reopen until almost three years later. It was not until 1984 that the organ was repaired and returned to its former glory.
I remember reading that the organ had been restored and a new lift installed. The first concert since the 1970s was given on 22nd April, 2007 and began as it rose like the phoenix up from the pit. One can image the applause that such a sight brought! Sadly, the Tooting area is prone to flooding when London is hit by severe rain storms and on 20th July, 2007, such a storm occurred and rain water flooded the organ console and chambers. I hoping to learn if there are any plans to repair it and once again allow its sound to echo through the building.
I looked at the circle, which stretches upwards to the back wall of the auditorium. The front of the circle is decorated in the same ornate style seen decorated the arches of the side walls and serpents its way across the auditorium. The cinema seats of the circle are still in place and the rows steadily extend back and upwards. The seating ends before long wood balustrades, which separating it from a walkway that extends across the circle. The back wall is also generously decorated, but is interrupted by a couple of small open areas cut into it. These apparently were where spotlights were aimed at the stage or else where the film was projected onto the screen that once hung at the front of the stage.
The circle extends over part of the stalls and looking up at the underside of the circle I was able to inspect the series of cinema lights, which are still in place. These are glorious examples of 1930s Art Deco cinema lighting fixtures, but do seem a little modern perhaps, compared to the decoration chosen to grace the remainder of the auditorium.
The back stalls is raised and again the cinema seating has been removed and replaced by small booths. A number of players were still sitting in this area and talking despite the session being over. I asked them if any of them remembered the building when it was a cinema. They all did and each one told me about going to see their favourite film or star there together with their husbands or earlier boyfriends. I asked if they were going home or if they were going to wait for the next session. Apparently they were going to wait since they lived some distance from the Gala and did not have enough time to go home and then travel back.
While chatting to these ladies, I noticed a man and woman going about their work in the auditorium. I learned that they were part of the cleaning staff. They were very friendly and came from Poland. The lady said she had worked at the building for a number of years. I thought that they were related, however this turned out not to be so. The man told me that they were great friends and that he rented a room from the lady and that she had got him his job at the Gala.
I spent an enormous amount of time walking around the auditorium. Each time I made a circuit, I would discover something new that I had previously missed. The lights of the auditorium had been lowered slightly and the place was almost empty and had become extremely quiet once again adding to the ecclesiastical feel of the place. Despite my enjoying this peace and tranquillity, I eventually had to move on as the evening session would be starting soon and I still had a lot more to explore.
I hate to admit that I did have one complaint about the auditorium and that was the carpet, as it was not in keeping with the overall décor of the place. It was predominantly blue in colour with a repeating motif, which was the preferred colour of Gala. Since the building was now a Gala Bingo Hall, it was in keeping that the company be allowed to make its presence felt than to display a characteristic motif on the carpet, and besides, it was obviously durable, which is of importance when it is going to be walked on by an enormous number of people each year.
I made my way back to the atrium where I found the manager talking to some patrons. He was very friendly and invited me to take some of the chips that he had provided for the remaining patrons to eat between sessions. He spoke almost lovingly about the building and was very proud of being manager there.
Once back in the foyer, I took time to look at the things I had missed earlier thanks to my eagerness to enter the auditorium. I noticed something of special interest on the left wall, close to the staircase to the circle. This was a huge framed document containing autographs of many of the stars that had appeared on stage at the Granada Theatre. Unfortunately many of the autographs had faded with time, but some were still discernible. People such as Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, Lena Horne, The Andrew Sisters and Carmen Miranda and numerous other American artists performed here, as well as many British stars. In addition, pantomimes were successfully presented between 1936 and the early 1950s each Christmastide.
In the late 1950s, people began to go to the cinema less and less. As a result, the cinema chains looked for other way to generate revenue. In the late 1950s and for most of the 1960s, the Granada Theatre Circuit provided venues for wrestling bouts and rock concerts. Jerry Lee Lewis appeared here, as did Roy Orbison who appeared here when the Beatles topped the bill in 1963. The final live show given here was by the Bee Gees on 28th April, 1968.
Sadly cinema audience attendance continued to decline during the early 1970s, and on 10th November, 1973, the Granada Theatre Tooting closed as a cinema. The final films shown were A Man Called Noon with Stephen Boyd and Richard Crenna and Perfect Friday with Stanley Baker and Ursula Andress. Despite next week’s feature being advertised, which was to be The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, with Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach, however when patrons went to the cinema, they found posters on the doors announcing that due to the lack of public support this cinema is now CLOSED. This was a sad way to end the building’s reign as the most glorious cinema in Britain.
The building remained empty and shuttered for almost three years after its closure as a cinema, but on 14th October, 1976, it reopened as a Granada Bingo Club. Granada continued to operate the building until May 1991 when it was taken over by Gala Bingo and it then became known as the Gala Tooting.
As I went up one of the staircases, I took the opportunity to inspect the foyer wall decoration more closely. I saw that the pseudo-columns that appeared at periodic intervals along the walls were gloriously decorated with large golden leaves on green and red backgrounds. Between the columns were pointed mirrors consisting of several panes. Some of the mirrors had candles and other decoration around them. Halfway up the right staircase was positioned a large highly decorated medieval styled golden chair with a long red velvet cushion added for comfort and a candle holder on a long pole.
Each of the staircases led up to a central gallery, which opened into a small colonnade with mirrored walls. One of the mirrors showed arrows that pointed the way to the Hall of Mirrors to the right and to the circle to the left.
I decided to go to the Hall of Mirrors first! I wondered if it was going to be like the hall at the Chateau de Versailles? I entered the hall through a decorative opening and found it to be another spectacular sight! As a consequence of each wall being mirrored, I had the illusion that the hall went on to infinity. In reality, The hall was nowhere near as large as that of the Chateau, but neither was it as over-the-top or as gaudy either! The hall was lined by a number of short Corinthian columns that extended around the perimeter and supported a series of rounded arches. The mirrors were positioned behind these columns and were set between a second set of more decorative ones. The ceiling was highly decorated with a repeating motif of ornate beige roses and leaves. The effect was spectacular. Apparently The Hall had been used as a waiting area for patrons who had chosen to sit in the circle when the building was used as a Theatre and entered it through large wooden doors. Again, I hate to mention the carpet, so I won’t!
I walked back to the central gallery above the foyer and made my way to the circle. I walked up a number of steps and came out into the middle of the circle area. The entrance area is bounded by a brown coloured balustrade that I found attractive. I am unsure if the circle seats were original or not, but I feel certain that they had been recovered. Under the projection area at the rear of the circle was a walkway. The walkway and the final row of seats were separated by a large balustrade built to be in the same style as the proscenium arch. On each side of the circle was a staircase that led up to the walkway. The walls of the circle were decorated in a style that was in keeping with that of the auditorium with brown being the predominant colour and featured a series of faux arched windows and medieval torches.
The view of the auditorium from the circle was spectacular. I sat in one of the circle seats and imagined how it might have felt to sit and watch one of the great films that were produced in the 1950s and 1960s. I could imagine the grandeur of hearing the fanfare in sensational stereophonic sound from every wall announcing a 20th Century Fox spectacle produced in magnificent CinemaScope and Colour by De Luxe. I remembered sitting in the centre of the sixth row of the Essoldo Bethnal Green, which allowed my total visual field to be filled by what was projected onto that wonderful crude curved screen before me. I remembered how I was transported each week to some exotic locale: to ancient Rome, where I sat in Caesar’s box; to the central plains of North Dakota where I rode with the Sioux; the scenes were endless and all memorable. I could only imagine how these scenes would have looked sitting here in this most glorious of picture palaces.
Sadly I got up from my seat in the circle and made my way towards the stairs to the foyer. Walking down the stairs, I passed the decorated golden seat complete with a red velvet cushion and the tall candelabrum both in medieval style and took my time to examine them. I noticed that on the wall above the chair was a plaque that commemorated a visit by the television personality, Michael Aspel.
I walked across the foyer and climbed one of the staircases that flanked the exit doors that led up to the Minstrel Gallery. The staircase ended in a pulpit-like area that marked the entrance. Once inside the Gallery, I saw that the predominantly colour is the same brown as seen in the circle. The far wall is decorated with a number of decorative mirrors, which were arranged between frosted windows. I realised that these windows were not faux like those of the auditorium and that they looked out onto the street since the Gallery had been built over the top of the entrance and reception area below.
I believe that the Gallery was once used as a Café or Tea Room, which closed in 1954. Unfortunately, it now sits empty except for a few boxes containing various things that were to be given as gifts to patrons. I noticed that there was a series of funny hats with a huge St. George’s flag motif across the front. I suspected that these were left over from the World Cup, when they were most likely given to patrons as an incentive to support England’s efforts. I took one and put it on and looked at my reflection in one of the mirrors on the far wall. I had to laugh. I looked amusing. I could not resist slipping the hat into my backpack. This would make a great souvenir of this wonderful building.
I came out of the Gallery and made my way back down to the foyer. I looked for some of the people I had met earlier to wish them well in the evening session and also thanked those staff members that I had met for their kindness in allowing me total access to the building. I went through the swinging door that now served for exiting and into the reception area. There were patrons arriving now for the evening session. People were greeting each other and swiping in. I allowed myself one last look into the foyer through the glass of the door and then turned and made my way out. It was dark now. I crossed the road and looked over at the glorious Granada-Gala Tooting. Huge, imposing, slightly austere? Perhaps yes, but certainly a place full of treasures.
Another Memory Of The Tooting Granada
A most interesting item. I never realised the Tooting Granada was such an auspicious building. When I first came to London as a 9-year old in 1949, I lived in Tooting. A little later we moved to Wandsworth and for almost two years I commuted to the same school by trolleybus.
Almost everyday, I used to get off the 612/630 trolleybus at the bus stop almost opposite the Granada and walked down Mellison Road to my school. In the afternoon, I often walked round past the tram change pit to watch the numbers 2 and 4 trams and get the bus from Tooting Broadway tube station. I did this until the trams were withdrawn from service in January 1951. After I had finished my tram watching, I picked up the 630 trolleybus or 44 bus from the stop near the cinema.
I visited the Granada several times with my parents and never realised how far up-scale the cinema was. To a child or my age, it was just "posh". I remember the Wurlitzer coming up out of its place under the stage and used to enjoy the great sounds that it made. Over the years I visited the cinema on occasion and remember when it was converted to Granada Bingo. I never went to the Bingo Club there, but I am happy to see how spectacular the auditorium, circle and Hall of Mirrors have been maintained.
Thanks for the memories.
By Geoff Bannister