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Silver screens illuminated town history

By Western Gazette - North Dorset  |  Posted: August 02, 2012

  • CINEMA CLUB: The Gaumont on Stars Lane, Yeovil, is now enjoying a new lease of life as the thriving Neo nightclub. Picture by Jane Duffus

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WHILE writing Yeovil's Cinematic Screens (published by Amberley later this year), people asked what there could possibly be to say of interest about the cinemas of Yeovil, adding that they think there were only ever two cinemas in Yeovil (the old Odeon and the current Cineworld).

By the time I've told them about the Art Deco Central, the military Globe, and Ronnie Biggs robbing the Odeon, they start to change their minds. And there's so much more to say.

Yeovil has had seven cinemas: the Assembly Rooms, Albany Ward's Palace of Varieties, the Central Cinema, the Globe, the Gaumont, the Odeon and Cineworld.

Despite starting as a fad, cinema became one of the biggest mass entertainment industries in the world. My book celebrates the 'night architecture' that was built to house the glittery strands of Hollywood as they dip and weave across the world, illuminating even the sleepiest of English towns.

In cinema's heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, movie-going was about more than seeing a film – it was also about the experience of going out with friends or lovers to relax in a plush theatre, in a space that could transport you to anywhere in the world… or even the universe.

The first film licence in Yeovil was granted in 1896 for the Assembly Rooms on Princes Street, and Yeovilians were on top of the game – the first public film screening in the UK was also in 1896, in London.

In the subsequent 116 years, Yeovil has seen seven cinemas – not bad going for a town with a population of approximately 40,000 people in 2012. Yeovil has also been home to one of the most prominent cinema architects the UK has produced: Leslie Kemp.

It says something about the enthusiasm for going to the pictures by Yeovilians that, apart from the Central, none of the cinemas were allowed to run into dereliction, as was common in many other parts of the country. Even though six are no longer cinemas, the former buildings are now shops (Assembly Rooms, Odeon), a nightclub (Gaumont) and a warehouse (Globe). Only the Central and Albany Ward were demolished.

The Central Cinema on Church Street was demolished in 1988 and replaced with offices. It is particularly sad that this Persian-inspired cinema failed to survive because over its years it had risen from the ashes of two fires.

In the early hours of May 24, 1930, a devastating fire broke out. While proprietor Mr Thring was pulled to safety, the building was not so fortunate. Flames destroyed the partition doors into the auditorium, heat scorched the walls of the auditorium, and the seats were destroyed after blazing rafters fell on them. The building underwent an enormous revamp in 1930 and it was at this time that the building got the grand Persian-inspired exterior that it became known for.

Twenty years and one day later, a second fire broke out on May 25, 1950, and this put the building out of action for more than a year until its last reopening in November 1951 with both a fancy new lighting system and the Charlie Chaplin film City Lights.

The Gaumont on Stars Lane had a more prosperous past. It opened in 1934 and was humbly billed in the programme as "Yeovil's latest Wonder House of Entertainment". Its restrained frontage was built on Georgian lines with red brickwork and white stone dressings. There was a separate entrance for front stall patrons on South Street with a covered queuing space that remains virtually unchanged.

The Gaumont thrived until 1960, when there was a change in the rules of the Gaming Act, which meant bingo was now permitted in a cinema. Bingo was duly introduced several days a week and proved so successful that the cinema closed to films in November 1972. The building thrived as a bingo hall until 2009, and reopened in 2010 as the Neo nightclub.

Yeovil's Odeon on Court Ash is surely the town's best-known former cinema. Opened in May 1937, this ocean liner of a building was splendidly out of place beside the Victorian cattle market and on the edge of a Somerset market town, but Yeovilians loved it.

Odeon boss Oscar Deutsch loved it, too. And in 1936 he chose the proposed Yeovil site to be the prototype for his forthcoming flagship cinema on London's Leicester Square. The Yeovil Odeon was more elaborate than any others in his rapidly expanding chain because Deutsch was testing out various design features to see if they'd work on the London link of his chain, which opened at the end of 1937.

Yeovil's Cinematic Screens celebrates all of Yeovil's cinemas, and I'm enormously grateful to Joseph Lewis at the Yeovil Community Heritage Centre for his help.

However, I would be delighted to hear from any Western Gazette readers who have memories or photos of any – or all – of Yeovil's cinemas… however insignificant they may seem.

The cinema I am struggling the most with is the military Globe on the former Houndstone Army Camp. I am sure there must be former servicemen and women who remember using the Globe, and I would like to hear from you.

I would also particularly like to hear from people who may remember Leslie Kemp, who died in Yeovil in 1997.

Please e-mail me on madamjmo@gmail.com before August 24.

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