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Bury St Edmunds memories of cinemas and stages including the Odeon and Theatre Royal fire



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Many Bury St Edmunds residents have fond memories of the town's cinemas – in particular the Odeon, which was demolished to make way for Cornhill Walk Shopping Centre in the 1980s.

We have taken a look at Suffolk News sister title's Bury Free Press archive publication Millennium Memories, which was printed in 1999, for its history of the screens and stages in the town before the year 2000.

The ABC cinema - now the Abbeygate cinema - in the late 1990s
The ABC cinema - now the Abbeygate cinema - in the late 1990s

Cinemas

Cinemas have been popular since the invention of moving pictures – and the Hatter Street cinema remains so today.

Now called the Abbeygate, in 1924 the Bury Free Press advertised its opening in November as the Central Cinema.

It has changed names many times since.

A 1990s artist's impression of the Parkway cinema multiplex
A 1990s artist's impression of the Parkway cinema multiplex

In September 1930 there was a serious fire at the venue and families had to be evacuated from the building.

According to Brian Hornsey in his book Ninety Years of Cinema in Bury St Edmunds, restoration work began immediately and it reopened in November with the film Sunny Side Up, starring Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Shawn Lynn and Mary Forbes.

The old Odeon, demolished in 1982
The old Odeon, demolished in 1982

Many people in the town fondly remember the old Odeon cinema in Brentgovel Street, which opened in July 1937 and seated 1,289 people – 867 in the stalls and 422 in the circle.

A wider screen was installed in 1954 to fight off competition from television. One of the first wide screen showings was White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby.

Sadly, the Odeon began to struggle in 1975 and was leased to a different company for five years, changing its name to Focus.

A 1929 production of HMS Pinafore by Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society at The Playhouse
A 1929 production of HMS Pinafore by Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society at The Playhouse

The cinema closed in 1982 and was demolished soon afterwards, despite being a listed building of interest by the Department of the Environment.

Theatre

One of the most significant buildings in the town is the Theatre Royal, in Westgate Street, which has a rich and varied history.

The reopening of the Theatre Royal in 1906
The reopening of the Theatre Royal in 1906

The theatre was built by William Wilkins in 1819 under the name The New Theatre.

Some of the most popular performers of the day delighted audiences from the town, who crammed in to watch.

It originally seated more than 700 people – a number reduced to nearer 300 in modern times.

The Theatre Royal at the end of the last century
The Theatre Royal at the end of the last century

The theatre closed down briefly in 1904 for the repair of a leaking roof, reopening two years later after extensive decoration and alteration.

It kept going until 1925 when Greene King, which owned the property, converted it into a barrel store.

In the 1950s The Playhouse, in the Buttermarket, closed. With nowhere left to perform in the town, members of Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society decided to try to bring back the old theatre, finally succeeding in 1965.

The Playhouse, in the Buttermarket, which closed in the 1950s
The Playhouse, in the Buttermarket, which closed in the 1950s

Fire

A blaze broke out on the stage of the Theatre Royal on December 9, 1998, destroying scenery for the Christmas pantomime Aladdin the day before it was due to open.

More than 30 firefighters were called to the Grade I-listed building after an automatic fire alarm went off while young dancers were rehearsing on stage.

The Theatre Royal stage after a fire in December 1998
The Theatre Royal stage after a fire in December 1998

The fire, which spread to roof timbers, was caused when gauze on part of the set got caught on one of the stage lights and ignited.

Performances were postponed but the cast finally took to the stage one week after the fire.