Cinema architecture fan and photographer Ian Grundy returns with his second article. After an overview of the history of bingo in the UK via its bingo halls. In the first more focused article, Ian is this time looking at a single hall, to give us an in depth look at its changes in use and special features.
Author: Ian Grundy
Early Days Of Opera And Cinema
On the 7th September 1891, the Opera House in Southport’s prestigious Lord Street threw open its doors to the people of the town. It had been designed by Frank Matcham, the pre-eminent architect of theatres in the United Kingdom, seated 2,000 patrons, and cost around £20,000 to build! The theatre was considered to be one of Matcham’s finest creations and was a great success until December 1929 when a fire raged through the building completely destroying it.
Plans were drawn up for a replacement. Such was the success of the Opera House that no concession was made to the rising popularity of cinema, so that when the Garrick (as the new theatre was named) opened on 19 December 1932, it was purely as a theatre for live shows. The Garrick Theatre was designed by George E Tonge, a Southport based architect who was responsible for many notable buildings including the Royal Birkdale clubhouse, the Palace and Palladium cinemas in Southport and the Scala Cinema in Ilfracombe. The Garrick cost rather more than its predecessor at approximately £120,000.
It was constructed in the fashionable Art Deco style with a brick exterior dressed with Portland Stone and concrete, which remains largely unchanged today. The entrance is on the corner of Lord Street and Kingsway with the theatre running along the Lord Street axis, set behind several shop units. Above the two storey shops was an open colonnade and ornamental garden which was used by theatre patrons during the summer months. In the centre of the colonnade is a carved panel bearing the comedy and tragedy masks.
Inside Tonge had provided a two tier theatre seating 1,600, which was (with the exclusion of a single chandelier in the dome above the circle) lit by indirect lighting. The stage was wide, a 50 foot opening, and deep. Over the years it presented all types of productions, plays musicals, opera, ballet, pantomimes and (on Sundays) when theatre was not permitted, concerts. On each side of the stage was a range of four boxes, these were at quite an extreme angle and were better to be seen in by the rest of the audience, than to view the production! The poor view from these seats were the exception as all the others in the auditorium provided excellent sight lines. There are only two columns, and these are at the rear of the balcony and do not obstruct the view from any seat. Just behind the boxes is a spectacular Art Deco arch running across the ceiling containing musical motifs and stylised figures.
It continued successfully until January 1957 when the Garrick was sold to Essoldo Circuit Ltd by the owner Victor Sheridan, in the belief that Essoldo would continue live usage. In fact Essoldo almost immediately closed the theatre on 19th January at the conclusion of the Pantomime “Robin Hood’ and installed a projection suite in the former follow spot room at the rear of the dome above the balcony. This was not ideal as the projection of the film was at a very steep angle, and the 37 foot screen had to be tilted to minimise distortion. It was renamed Essoldo around 1959/1960. The name of the circuit was derived from the owner’s family: Esther and Solomon Sheckman and their daughter Dorothy.
As a cinema the Essoldo suffered from the competition in the town. Each of the two major circuits had a large cinema, and as they controlled much of the distribution of films, the Essoldo was left with the films that neither the Odeon nor the ABC wanted as a first run presentation, and it also had the Grand, Palace, Queens and Scala cinemas competing for the available fare. Accordingly, Essoldo turned the theatre back to live presentations inter dispersed with films. Sadly this was a very lean time for theatres across the country and the Essoldo Southport fared badly. Although Essoldo tried hard, success was elusive and in 1963, bingo sessions were introduced on Fridays and Sundays, with films on other nights. By the end of the same year the final film “Tom Jones’ was screened on the 16th November.
Bingo membership had grown to over 4,000 by this point and the Essoldo was turned over to a full time hall under the name of Essoldo National Bingo Club. In April 1973 the entire group of Essoldo Clubs were sold to the Ladbroke Group who operated under the name of Lucky 7 Bingo and the Southport club was again renamed. Ladbrokes spent a considerable sum in refurbishing the Lord Street club, retaining the Art Deco features. The club later passed to Top Rank Bingo and thence to Mecca who continue to run this popular hall. A staircase has now been constructed to link the balcony with the main playing floor, otherwise the building is little altered and was Grade II listed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on the 29 July 1999.
Although known as a friendly club, there is always the potential for a fallout! As was demonstrated in 2003 when friends Nora Sinkinson, Kathy Durr, and Doreen Currie attended a session at the Southport Mecca. The three women had an agreement to pool any winnings, which was adhered to when Mrs Currie won £119, but not when she later won the £213,000 National Jackpot. Clearly a lucky lady on that day, her luck ran out when her two friends took her to court and were awarded a third of the win each, plus interest.
The club continues to try new ideas. In 2007 a new advertising campaign on the local buses proved particularly beneficial with the manager reporting that:- “At Mecca Bingo we are constantly looking to attract new members and extend our customer database. By advertising through PSV Media and putting our name out in the local community we have done exactly that. In the first three weeks of the campaign we have improved the number of first visits to the club by 25% against a market average of a decline in first visits of 15%, effectively a positive swing of 40%’ Not bad going!
After the closure of the theatre in 1963, Southport was left without a major venue and in 1972, a decade after the Essoldo had closed, the Southport Theatre was opened as a dual purpose theatre and cinema. Located on the promenade, the Southport Theatre is a rather poor theatre with 1,700 seats on one floor. However this would be ideal for adaptation to a modern bingo club! The two tier Mecca Club is of a style which many bingo operators are now eschewing and the ideal solution would seem to be for the two operators to swap buildings, restoring theatre to the more suitable ex Garrick and converting the current Southport Theatre to a new bingo casino.
Now how can that be brought about?
Mecca Bingo Club