Cinema architecture fan and photographer Ian Grundy returns with another article focused on an individual bingo hall. After his overview of the history of bingo in the UK he has moved on to cover the unique histories of some of Britain’s oldest and most loved bingo halls. In this article Ian looks at how the Kingston Gala has developed since its initial conversion from a church in 1909, through its life as a cinema, and on to the present day.
Author: Ian Grundy
From Church To Cinema
In 1909 a church on the corner of Richmond Road and Canbury Park Road was converted to a small cinema with accommodation for 600 patrons, 100 of whom sat in a small balcony. It was converted to sound around 1930, but was acquired by the County Cinema Circuit shortly after to be closed and demolished between May and July 1931 to allow for the construction of the massive Regal Theatre.
The new cinema was designed by Robert Cromie, one of the foremost architects of the super cinema era. In addition to the Kingston venture, Cromie designed such prestigious venues as the Davis Theatre in Croydon, The Hammersmith Gaumont Palace (now the Apollo Theatre) and The Prince of Wales Theatre in London’s West End. The Regal Kingston was to be his fourth largest cinema behind Hammersmith, Croydon and the Regal Hull. It held 2,445 patrons split between the stalls and the single large balcony. It was designed in the Art Deco style and many of the original fixtures and fittings remain in the bingo hall today.
The Regal opened with a flourish on 15th February 1932, with the films “Splinters of the Navy” and “Keepers of Youth” with a Laurel and Hardy short in support. An elegant tea room on the first floor provided refreshments and had a small stage to enable the space to be used as a ballroom, complete with sprung dance floor. Appropriately this is now in use as a dance studio, separated from the main theatre.
In addition to the film fare, the Regal was equipped with a large stage, orchestra pit for 30-40 musicians, and an unlucky thirteen dressing rooms. Odd days or entire weeks of live entertainment were common. At Kingston in 1954 Variety was tried, but appears to have met little success. The touring pop bands however proved a big draw. The stage was twenty seven metres wide and there were 17 counterweight lines for flying scenery.
To The Present Day
There was also a 3 manual 12 rank Wurlitzer organ installed. This had been intended for a Chicago millionaire’s private house, but ended up in Kingston-upon-Thames! The reason for the cancelled transatlantic crossing I have not been able to verify, but the 1929 Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression is a likely cause. It was a notably fine instrument which was often broadcast, and was played by all the great organists of the time such as Sidney Torch, Phil Park, Dudley Savage, Harold Ramsey and Robinson Cleaver. In 1972 this was sold and removed to the Brentford Musical Museum, where it remains to this day, still being played.
Back to the early days, and County Theatres, who had the Regal built, were soon taken over by Union Cinemas and the name was changed to Union Cinema, Kingston in March 1937. In October the same year Union were taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) and just before the war the name reverted back to Regal, it was not renamed ABC Cinema until August 1961.
During the war the Regal suffered a direct hit in 1940 which damaged the roof and the organ chambers; both were repaired.
When cinema attendance declined the Regal was hit hard as the massive capacity was almost impossible to fill. It was not however sub-divided and closed as a cinema on 17th July 1976 with “Blondie” and “Adventures of a Taxi Driver”. It was immediately converted into a Coral Bingo Club.
Very little alteration was made to the Regal to achieve this: part of the foyer was opened out and a stairway from the balcony to the stalls was unobtrusively constructed on each side of the auditorium. It was redecorated from the original scheme of pale green, dull gold and lacquered silver to a cream, maroon and blue. Later still under Gala this was changed to yellow, blue and gold. In the front part of the circle an unusual, but neat, arrangement was made whereby three rows were built out to create a deep single level which was then furnished with semi-circular bays of bench seating. A small table was also inserted between seats for bingo players.
Some of the circle tables in 2009
The Coral chain was taken over by Gala in the early 1990s and the club continued to prosper. On 17th June 2004 the building was grade 2 listed, the listing citing “Included as an early and well preserved example of an Art Deco cinema from the 1930s, and a good, rare example of the work of a major cinema architect, Robert Cromie. Many of Cromie’s designs were for Davies or Union cinemas, and consequently do not survive.”
It has been well maintained under the bingo regime, having had a half million pound refurbishment in 1996/7. In 2010 the Gala Club continues to offer players a luxurious setting to play their favourite game, thirty four years after the first “eyes down” at this great venue. Sadly however the downturn in bingo admissions has meant that Gala have put the Regal up for sale, whilst the club is still trading, at an asking price of £2,250,000.
Gala Bingo Club
25 Richmond Road,
Kingston Upon Thames,
0208 549 8807