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Fire hits Maidstone's empty Granada cinema

By John Nurden

Bingo players were evacuated when a blaze broke out at a derelict cinema - but then returned to carry on playing just 90 minutes later.

Four customers and five members of staff from Buzz Bingo, formerly the Gala club in Lower Stone Street, Maidstone, were evacuated for one and a half hours while firefighters put out the flames and made the building safe.

The fire is believed to have been started deliberately in the former Granada cinema next door.

Gala bingo building on fire in Maidstone. Picture: Denna Barrett (6245730)
Gala bingo building on fire in Maidstone. Picture: Denna Barrett (6245730)

The drama happened at 4pm on Thursday.

A spokesman for the bingo hall said: "Trespassers broke into the cinema area of the building sealed off to the public.

"A small fire was started, causing minimal damage to the building.

"Four customers and five members of staff were evacuated from the club for approximately an hour-and-a-half while the fire service checked the building and ventilated it from smoke."

Bingo players were allowed back in by 6pm.

Buzz Bingo, formerly Gala bingo, at the former Granada cinema in Lower Stone Street, Maaidstone (6248936)
Buzz Bingo, formerly Gala bingo, at the former Granada cinema in Lower Stone Street, Maaidstone (6248936)

At the height of the blaze three fire engines and a height vehicle were on site and crews wearing breathing gear went into the premises.

Traffic through Maidstone was brought to a virtual standstill as one of the town's most vital roads was closed.

The cinema, a Grade ll-listed building, has now been secured.

It was once Maidstone's premier venue for not only watching movies but also live bands.

Resident Neil Carley said: "I remember seeing the Rolling Stones perform there in the early 1960s when they were starting out.

"There were a lot of the big names playing there like Marty Wilde, The Ronettes and The Searchers.

"It should be restored to encourage live entertainment back to Maidstone. It is a lovely Art Deco building inside and out."

The Who also played there.

The cinema has been closed since 1999.

The old Granada cinema in Lower Street, Maidstone (6245266)
The old Granada cinema in Lower Street, Maidstone (6245266)

The 1,600-seat cinema, once the largest in Maidstone, was opened on January 10, 1934, with the British farce A Cuckoo In The Nest and was the first of what became a chain of 12 'standard' Granadas. It boasted 15 tons of marble from Rome and Verona, five cork bases from Jerez in Spain for the electric motors and a French Christie three-keyboard organ which is now in Australia.

There was a stage but no fly-tower for scenery. It had its own restaurant and car park.

The ornate interior was by noted Russian theatre set designer Theodore Komisarjevsky.

It was converted into a Granada Bingo Club in 1971 and with two screens were the circle was.

The theatre was taken over by the Cannon Group in January 1989. In May, 1993 it became the MGM and in July 1995 it became a Virgin.

In May, 1996, it was taken over by ABC which closed it on April, 15, 1999.

Bingo is still played downstairs where the stalls were.

There have been several plans for the rest of the cinema including converting it into a theatre, youth club, shops and even a Wetherspoon pub like the Peter Cushing in Whitstable. But it has remained empty and unused.

It was one of five cinemas in Maidstone. The other four were the Ritz, Palace, the Regal and the Central.

Resident Lynda Houghton wrote on a Facebook page: "My grandmother used to work at the Granada. My father tell us about how wonderful the building is inside behind the scenes with wonderful chandeliers. I would love to see it back to its grand state."

* See also Derelict cinema on fire.

* Share your memories of Maidstone's Granada cinema with us below...

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