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News

Six former cinemas in Kent and how they have changed over the years

By: Lynn Cox lcox@thekmgroup.co.uk

Published: 06:00, 11 April 2020

Updated: 14:34, 10 July 2020

There are scores of former cinemas in Kent which are no longer showing movies and many have metamorphosed into bingo or snooker halls, blocks of flats, or something completely different.

There are many reasons for their demise, town centre redevelopments, television, vandalism and changing trends, but once they have closed down and changed use, they are usually gone forever.

Long queues outside the Cannon Cinema in Chatham High Street were once typical, as this 1989 photograph shows. Picture: Images of Medway book

So we thought we would pick a few from various areas across the county which have disappeared or have been transformed into something else. In a couple of weeks we will feature some more from other parts of the county.

The Picture Palace Cinema opened in 1911 on Tufton Street, Ashford and was the first of its kind in the town.

It had a box office facing the street and a Terrazzo mosaic-paved reception hall but as there was no public supply of electricity in 1911 the cinema generated its own in the building itself.

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It's swinging doors led to the wedge-shaped auditorium which had an orchestra pit at the front of the screen and an organ was played during film intervals by a woman from the area.

In 1939 it was closed down and later became home to The Kent Paper Company until the building was pulled down in 1962.

A pub, the The Phoenix, now sits on the site where the cinema used to be.

The The Picture Palace Cinema in Tufton Street, Ashford, being pulled down in 1962. Picture: Steve Salter
The Picture Palace Cinema opened in 1911 on Tufton Street, Ashford, it is not known what date this shot was taken. Picture: Steve Salter
The Phoenix pub now sits on the site of the former The Picture Palace Cinema. Picture: Paul Amos

The Odeon Cinema was opened at the end of August 1936 in the High Street, Ashford, and the first film ever shown there was Strike Me Pink, which starred the late Eddie Cantor.

The Art Deco building had seating for more than 1,500 people, 1,102 stalls seats and 468 in the balcony.

It was popular for decades, but on August 30, 1975, it showed is last movie ever, which was The Four Musketeers, which starred the loveable rogue, Oliver Reed.

A few months later, in 1976, it reopened as a bingo hall under the name, Top Rank Bingo Club, and years later became the Mecca Bingo Club. But in March 2018, Mecca Bingo announced it was to close in July that year.

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The building has now been bought by Ashford Borough Council for £1.8m and the authority wants to redevelop the site.

A campaign by heritage bodies and people living in the area failed to get the historic building listed, probably cementing its fate of partial demolition as the building failed to meet Historic England's criteria to be listed.

In November last year, the council's chief executive Tracey Kerly said: "We are currently assembling a specialist design team to help us deliver this innovative development and we are on course to have this team in place by the end of the year.”

The former Odeon cinema in Ashford High Street which later become Mecca Bingo
The former cinema in the high street became a Mecca Bingo hall, but is now set for demolition as the area is set to be redeveloped

The Odeon Cinema in The Friars, Canterbury, has transformed completely and the Marlowe Theatre now sits on the site.

It's history began in August 1933 when it was named The Regal Cinema, it had seating for 1,750 people and an organ, cafe and ballroom.

The first movie shown there was Falling for You and starred Cicely Courtneidge and Garry Marsh.

The Regal Cinema underwent constructional changes in April 1935 because hundreds of people started visiting it.

It was purchased by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) the same month and ABC ran it for seven years, until it closed in October 1942 due to bombings, but it reopened a year later.

In 1963 it was renamed to ABC and in 1972 was twinned with Cinema Bingo Operation & ABC Cinema reopened.

In 1988 it was renamed Cannon Cinema and a year later it was renamed an MGM Cinema eventually became the Odeon in 1990.

After it was closed down it was demolished and now the Marlowe Theatre is housed on the site.

The Marlowe Theatre. Picture: Chris Davey
The Marlowe Theatre which is currently closed due to the coronavirus lockdown rules. Picture: Chris Davey
The Odeon Cinema, Canterbury, pictured in May, 1956, which is now the site of the Marlowe Theatre. Stock picture
The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury lit up at night

The former Granada Theatre/Cinema, which later became ABC, is in Lower Stone Street, Maidstone, as it meets the bottom of Gabriel's Hill and opened in January 1934.

The first films shown there as Cockoo in the Nest starring Tom Walls and Reunion in Vienna, starring John Barrymore.

The cinema had a Christie organ and a stage a cafe-restaurant, and a car park.

The Rolling Stones played there back in January 1964 as well as Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and Joe Brown.

The building was closed in April 1971, so it could be converted into a Granada Bingo Club in the former stalls area and a twin screen cinema in the former circle and cafe.

Granada 1 and 2 opened in December that year with 560 and 90 seats and was then expanded further with a third screen in December 1974 with additional seating.

The organ was removed and shipped to Australia and was installed at the Kelvin Grove High School in Brisbane.

It was taken over by the Cannon Group at the beginning of 1989 and renamed and later in 1993, it became MGM and then Virgin in 1995.

In May 1996, it was taken over by ABC and was closed in April 1999.

The bingo club in the extended part still remains open in the former stalls area, and was taken over by Gala Bingo, later Buzz Bingo and the upstairs cinemas still remain empty and unused.

The old Granada Cinema in Lower Stone Street, Maidstone
The old Granada Cinema in Lower Stone Street, Maidstone
The former Granada Cinema is now Buzz Bingo in Maidstone
Buzz Bingo, formerly Gala Bingo, at the former Granada Cinema in Maidstone
The former Granada Cinema in Maidstone pictured in February 1981

The former Majestic Cinema was located on the corner of the High Street, Rochester and Star Hill.

It was opened in April 1935 and the first films shown there were Million Dollar Ransom starring Phillip Holmes and The Iron Duke starring Ralph Lynn, who actually attended the cinema's opening ceremony.

Inside the brick exterior the auditorium had seating for more than 2,000 people, with 1,398 in the stalls and 783 in the circle area.

The Majestic Cinema was equipped with a Compton organ and there was a fully equipped stage, and dressing rooms. Also in the building was a 50-seat cafe and a dance hall.

The Majestic Cinema was re-named Gaumont in April 1950 and the cafe closed in 1957 and it was turned into a dance studio.

The Compton organ was removed in 1961, and sold to a church in Orpington.

The Rank Organisation renamed the cinema Odeon in October 1962, and in March 1974, it was made bigger with 700 seats in the former circle screen, and two mini cinemas in the rear stalls, each seating 120.

In 1967, it was equipped to screen 70mm film, and The Sound of Music was watched by audiences or eight weeks.

The Odeon was closed in October 1981 and stood empty until 1987, it was then pulled down and a block of 55 flats for senior citizens was built on the site.

The former cinema in Rochester is now a block of flats for senior citizens
The former Majestic cinema, which later became the Odeon in Rochester, is now a block of flats
The former Majestic Cinema, renamed the Odean Cinema, Rochester, picture taken in December 1982
The former Odeon Cinema, Rochester pictured in January 1984
The Odeon Cinema, Rochester pictured in the early 1980s
The closed Rochester Odeon pictured in 1984. Picture: Images of Medway book

In Chatham's High Street in 1914, the Imperial Picture Palace was opened.

It had 1,674 seats and was re-named New Regent Cinema in 1927, but was taken over by the Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in 1929, and was closed down and later demolished in January 1937.

ABC built a new larger Regent Cinema on the the same site and it opened in July 1938 and there was enough seating for 1,115 people in the stalls and 755 in the circle.

It was renamed ABC in October 1961 and was again closed on in January 1972 so it could be converted into a triple screen cinema.

The new three screen cinema opened in June 1972 with seating for 528, 366 and 172 people in each auditorium.

It was taken over by the Cannon Group in 1986 and renamed Cannon, but later went back to the ABC name in a buy-out.

The ABC showed its final films in January 2002, which were Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but only only 69 people turned up to see it the final showing of the epic film.

Later the same year there was a fire inside the derelict building and another in September the next year.

The building was finally torn down in December 2003 and a block of flats were built on the site.

Long queues outside the Cannon Cinema in Chatham High Street were once typical, as this 1989 photograph shows. Picture: Images of Medway book
The former cinema in Chatham is now a block of flats
The former cinema in Chatham is now a block of flats
ABC Cinema when it was called The Regent, the date of the photograph is unknown
The building was torn down in 2004
The cinema being demolished in the early 2004. Picture Andy Payton
The former ABC Cinema is now a block of flats
The former ABC Cinema before it was demolished

Don't forget, we will be featuring more about the history of former cinemas in the county in a couple of weeks.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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