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Chatham Buzz Bingo club history as former Ritz cinema rebuilt as Gala bingo after fire

The next chapter in a dramatic history of a bingo hall in Chatham is now being written after bosses revealed today the venue would be closing.

Current operators Buzz Bingo say the club is one of its 26 branches that won't reopen due to losses following the forced closure caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ritz cinema in Chatham opened in 1937 and was eventually closed in 1972 and converted to a bingo hall
The Ritz cinema in Chatham opened in 1937 and was eventually closed in 1972 and converted to a bingo hall

Uncertainty remains for the dozens of jobs at the town centre location which has been an entertainment venue for more than 80 years.

A cinema was built on the site in 1937 in an Art Deco style on the High Street which has seen major changes from the narrow Victorian street it used to be.

Union Street and The Brook has been redeveloped in the past 30 years and is now the main road route through Chatham town centre.

The magnificent Ritz cinema was built on the site of housing next to the former British Queen pub at 330 High Street.

It opened on March 22, 1937 and was operated by the Union Cinemas chain.

Inside the Ritz cinema which was built in 1937 on the site of the now set to close Buzz Bingo club. Undated file picture
Inside the Ritz cinema which was built in 1937 on the site of the now set to close Buzz Bingo club. Undated file picture
Chatham High Street looking towards the river from opposite the Ritz cinema area before Union Street (pictured on the left) was redeveloped. Undated file picture c1960s
Chatham High Street looking towards the river from opposite the Ritz cinema area before Union Street (pictured on the left) was redeveloped. Undated file picture c1960s

The first screening was My Man Godfrey featuring William Powell and was attended by West End and Broadway star of the day Jack Buchanan with Billy Cotton and his band performing on the stage.

When it opened, the Ritz was the largest cinema in Kent with 2,300 seats.

It featured ornate and bright Art Deco style decoration and it also had a cafe and restaurant.

The cinema, which screened 70mm films, was open for 35 years eventually closing on May 20, 1972 with Naked Countess and I Do It My Way on the billboards.

The original Wurlitzer organ installed when the venue opened was removed and installed in the Buttermarket in Shrewsbury.

The building was then converted to a bingo hall and was taken over by EMI, Star, Coral before Gala eventually ran the club.

Gala Bingo opened in the early 2000s following the devastating fire in 1998
Gala Bingo opened in the early 2000s following the devastating fire in 1998

It was being considered for listed status when it was hit by a huge fire on September 30, 1998.

The landmark was completely destroyed when flames ripped through the building and plumes of smoke filled the sky across Chatham.

An incredible photograph taken by a resident in the Regent Court flats overlooking the site shows the scale of the blaze and the massive firefighting operation to try to save the building.

An excellent photograph from the Bryant Road flats shows the fire at the old Gala bingo hall in 1998
An excellent photograph from the Bryant Road flats shows the fire at the old Gala bingo hall in 1998
Fire ripped through the old Gala bingo building on September 30, 1998
Fire ripped through the old Gala bingo building on September 30, 1998
Plumes of smoke filled the sky across Chatham as the bingo hall went up in flames
Plumes of smoke filled the sky across Chatham as the bingo hall went up in flames
Fire crews try to douse the flames from a height vehicle but the building - which was in the process of being given listed status - was destroyed
Fire crews try to douse the flames from a height vehicle but the building - which was in the process of being given listed status - was destroyed

But the battle was in vain and the building was doomed to demolition.

Fortunately, nobody died in the fire.

The former Ritz cinema was for a while in direct competition with the former Regent cinema (later the ABC cinema) just across the High Street.

The former ABC Cinema, opposite the Gala bingo hall, closed in 2002
The former ABC Cinema, opposite the Gala bingo hall, closed in 2002
The nearby Regent/ABC cinema in Chatham - opposite where Buzz bingo is located – shared a similar fate when it was destroyed by fire in 2003
The nearby Regent/ABC cinema in Chatham - opposite where Buzz bingo is located – shared a similar fate when it was destroyed by fire in 2003
The old ABC cinema building in Chatham is now flats
The old ABC cinema building in Chatham is now flats

The two buildings shared a similar fate though as the Regent – located next to the former Medway Messenger offices – also burned down in 2003.

It was derelict at the time however, with the ABC closing down in 2002. It is now a block of flats.

With the fire, it might have been expected the Gala hall had seen enough of its share of drama and disaster.

But another episode wreaking havoc was just around the corner and could have easily ended with fatal consequences once again.

The front facade with many of the Art Deco and classic 1930s architectural features was saved in the fire.

However, it was all about to come crashing down – quite literally just a few months later – with plans in place to rebuild the structure.

An overly forceful blow with the wrecking ball sent the scaffolding crashing to the ground in the High Street crushing parked cars but fortunately nobody was killed
An overly forceful blow with the wrecking ball sent the scaffolding crashing to the ground in the High Street crushing parked cars but fortunately nobody was killed
As if trial by fire wasn't enough for the old bingo hall, a massive scaffolding collapse finally consigned the historic building to demolition just two months after the fire in 1998
As if trial by fire wasn't enough for the old bingo hall, a massive scaffolding collapse finally consigned the historic building to demolition just two months after the fire in 1998
The bingo advertising sign hangs perilously after part of the building collapsed during demolition work on November 25, 1998
The bingo advertising sign hangs perilously after part of the building collapsed during demolition work on November 25, 1998

Scaffolding erected at the front of the building was sent smashing to the floor in a horrendous incident on November 25, 1998 crushing cars parked on both sides of the road.

Miraculously, nobody was injured as poles, wooden planks and parts of the masonry were sent flying.

An all too forceful push from the wrecking ball being used to demolish the interior was found to be the cause.

The incident meant the building would never be saved and was later demolished to be replaced by the new building currently on site
The incident meant the building would never be saved and was later demolished to be replaced by the new building currently on site

The new purpose built Gala bingo hall was built on the site and reopened in the early 2000s.

Buzz took over the site from Gala and has run the club until its closure this year with bingo off the cards for a return... for now.

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