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Suffolk's old cinemas and what they are now including the former Odeons in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, and Sudbury's The Gainsborough




There was a time when every small town had at least one cinema where for a few pence film fans could briefly swap everyday life for a taste of Hollywood glamour.

In their heyday from the 1930s through the ‘50s even some villages had their own picture house - often rejoicing in names like the Cosy Cinema or the Electric Palace.

As the population endured the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the drabness of the post-war years the silver screen was an eagerly-awaited escape from gloom, fear and frugality.

Old cinemas in Suffolk (43419561)
Old cinemas in Suffolk (43419561)

Long before every home had a television it opened up a magical world where Fred and Ginger’s feet flew lightning-fast as they whirled through dance routines, and Bing Crosby dreamed of a white Christmas.

Worries could be forgotten as Clark Gable smouldered, Errol Flynn was swashbuckling, Rita Hayworth exuded impossible glamour and Greta Garbo breathed huskily that she wanted to be alone.

In bigger towns like Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds there was even more choice of places to watch classics like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca or Brief Encounter.

Gone with the Wind (1939) with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
Gone with the Wind (1939) with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable

And the back row of the cinema was often a ticket to real life romance which flourished in the darkness away from the beam of the usherette’s torch.

But those days are gone and with them most of the cinemas that once held Suffolk audiences spellbound with love, action, and adventure - replaced by a few giant multi-screen venues.

A few exceptions like The Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds, The Regal in Stowmarket, 101 year-old Aldeburgh Cinema, and Suffolk’s oldest working cinema the Leiston Film Theatre, have gone on to prosper in the 21st century.

And some have new roles, including conversion into clubs, apartments, entertainment venues, a restaurant, a charity shop, and a church.

Bury St Edmunds

The Odeon in Bury St Edmunds was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1937. It was part of the original Odeon circuit, built to impress with a stylish facade and tall central tower, and seated more than 1,200 people.

The grand opening, featuring a showing of Beloved Enemy with Merle Oberon, was attended by the Hollywood star in person.

The Odeon in Bury St Edmunds
The Odeon in Bury St Edmunds

In 1975 it changed hands and was renamed Focus Cinema. It was made a Grade II listed building in May 1981 but delisted three months later amid plans to redevelop the area.

It was demolished in 1983 and replaced with the Cornhill Walk shopping arcade - now itself derelict and awaiting redevelopment.

Bury Odeon audience in 1937
Bury Odeon audience in 1937

One of Bury’s other cinemas, The Playhouse, opened in 1925. It originally doubled as a theatre and had a large stage and dressing rooms.

By the 1930s it was operating as a cinema. It closed in 1960 when the building in the Buttermarket was sold to the Co-Op to be replaced by a shop.

But Bury’s great survivor is The Abbeygate which started life as The Central Cinema in 1924 with an auditorium built at the rear of houses in Hatter Street.

It was damaged by fire in 1930, and immediately restored. In 1959, with new owners, it was refurbished and renamed The Abbeygate.

Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds. Picture by Mecha Morton
Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds. Picture by Mecha Morton

The reopening was marked by the UK premier of Please Turn Over starring comedian Ted Ray, who made a personal appearance together with other stars of the film Jean Kent, Leslie Phillips and Joan Sims.

From 1971 until 2010 it changed hands and names numerous times - the circle was split into two screens and the former stalls turned into a bingo hall - until in 2010 it was taken over by the Picturehouse Cinemas chain.

It reopened as an all digital cinema with 3D, and was named Abbeygate Picturehouse. In 2014 it was sold to a new company Abbeygate Cinemas Ltd, and now shows a mixture of new and classic films, plus live screenings of ballet, opera and plays.

The Abbeygate has not only survived but expanded. The bingo hall closed in 2014 and in 2018 work began to convert the space into a new luxury auditorium which opened in July 2020.

Ipswich

When Ipswich Odeon opened in 1991 it was one of the first generation of multiplex cinemas, with five screens and space for more than 1,500 people.

But that was not enough to save it from closure less than 15 years later after losing out to a larger rival.

Now, after remaining unused since 2005, it is set for a new future as The Hope Centre.

It was bought in 2018 by the Hope Church which is currently converting it to include a 700-seat auditorium, other meeting rooms, offices and a cafe.

The Hope Centre in Ipswich, formerly Ipswich Odeon
The Hope Centre in Ipswich, formerly Ipswich Odeon

Project manager Matt Cornish said: “Hope Church has been in Ipswich for over 25 years and we are aiming to make a full move from our current building, the Orwell Centre, to the former Odeon cinema in spring 2021.

“We’ve a vision to refurbish this building to create a superb centre for the church and a facility that will be a blessing to the town of Ipswich.”

Ipswich Regent opened in 1929 and has remained an entertainment centre ever since.

The Regent Cinema was renamed Gaumont in 1955, and in 1985 a 186 seat Gaumont 2 was created in the former restaurant area. Both screens were re-named Odeon in 1987 and they closed as cinemas in March 1991.

The building reopened six months later as the Regent Theatre. It has since been restored and seating more than 1,500 people is now the biggest theatre and concert venue in East Anglia. It was listed Grade II in 2000.

Ipswich’s oldest cinema was Poole’s Picture Palace which showed films from 1909 but was showing dioramas as early as 1900.

The building later became Ipswich Arts Theatre, and most recently a pub and music venue called The Rep.

Ipswich ABC cinema, formerly the Ritz, is gone but one part of it lives on ... the Wurlitzer organ removed when it was converted into a triple screen in 1973.

The organ was installed in the Hollywood Plaza in Scarborough in the 1980s and has now been moved to the Plaza Cinema in Liverpool.

The ABC opened in 1937 and was closed in 1986. Two years later it was demolished to make way for a new British Home Stores and the Buttermarket Shopping Centre.

Sudbury

The Gainsborough in Sudbury, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1982, was one of the county’s oldest purpose-built cinemas and was made a Grade II listed building in the 1970s.

Sudbury Gainsborough Cinema between the wars
Sudbury Gainsborough Cinema between the wars

It was converted into a nightclub in 1985 and since then has operated under several different owners and names before its current incarnation, Infinity.

The cinema - named after Sudbury-born artist Thomas Gainsborough - was well established by the peak of the silent movie era, during which townsfolk would have flocked to see screen idols like Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino.

Sudbury’s second cinema was built on the site of the old Rose and Crown hotel which burned down in 1922.

The County opened around 1934 with up to date facilities including a restaurant. It closed in 1963 and was demolished around 1970. A supermarket was built on the site which in turn made way for the Winch & Blatch homewares store, recently bought by Townrows.

Cavendish

The village of Cavendish had its own cinema for around 20 years. The Cosy Cinema was built in the 1930s by owner Garth Cox who demolished part of his large house opposite the village green to make way for the new venture.

During the war it was popular with servicemen based at airfields close by, and in 1945 was renamed Cavendish Cinema.

Cavendish cinema closes - press cutting (43419411)
Cavendish cinema closes - press cutting (43419411)

It closed by 1955, and was converted into a factory. Unlike so many redundant cinemas it escaped demolition and was later bought by Sue Ryder Care, which had a home nearby.

After several years as a depot, it is now one of the charity’s chain of shops.

Sue Ryder charity shop, The Old Cinema, Cavendish. Picture by Mark Westley
Sue Ryder charity shop, The Old Cinema, Cavendish. Picture by Mark Westley

Stowmarket

Stowmarket’s Regal Theatre is a major success story. The cinema hub is currently undergoing a £3.6 million upgrade which will see it reopen with three screens and a new cafe and bar.

It was built in 1936, and flourished for 30 years, but by 1972 was up for sale and destined to close.

Stowmarket Urban District Council stepped in to save the day and ownership was then transferred to the town council.

Stowmarket Regal Theatre. Picture by Mark Westley
Stowmarket Regal Theatre. Picture by Mark Westley

It was refurbished in 1974, with a new stage and dressing room suite added two years later.

During the 1980s and ‘90s competition from multiplexes meant it was sometimes a struggle to keep the cinema going, but its fortunes changed after another upgrade in 2007.

It suffered a major blow in 2009 when a fire caused serious damage but hard work and determination saw it reopen the following year.

Since then it has gone from strength to strength. In the past 10 years visitor numbers have increased from 10,000 to 70,000 a year.

The new work is being paid for by Mid Suffolk District and Stowmarket Town Councils and is due to be completed next year.

Woodbridge

The former Woodbridge Electric Theatre is another success story that spans more than 100 years of cinema.

It opened in 1915 and went through several changes of name and ownership until 1985 when it had a total refit, and reopened as the Riverside Theatre which combines cinema and live performances.

Leiston

Leiston Film Theatre - formerly Leiston Picture House - opened in 1914 and is the oldest operating cinema in Suffolk. Originally the seating capacity was for 700. The façade of the cinema is designed in a half-timbered Tudor style.

When the Picture House was fitted for sound in 1933, the re-opening film starring Janet Gaynor "Sunny Side Up" was attended by British film star Anna Neagle and her husband producer Herbert Wilcox.

The cinema was renovated in the mid-1970s and was re-named Leiston Film Theatre. Further improvements and refurbishments have been carried out in 2001 and 2007. Occasional live theatre productions are also held in the theatre.

Hadleigh

The Palace Cinema in Hadleigh has also vanished without trace. It opened in the early 1920s as The Picture House, and was renamed when it changed hands in 1930.

It appeared on the listed buildings register in 1950, described as a 19th century malthouse with modern frontage adapted as a cinema.

It was praised for being a good example of an old building adapted for modern use without destroying the general picture of the street.

But the cinema, which closed in 1961, was demolished in 1972. The site where it stood is now occupied by a shop.

Newmarket

Newmarket’s Kingsway Cinema had grand beginnings - it was a conversion of a mansion known as Stamford House with the auditorium built at the rear.

The cinema operated from 1926 to 1977 after which it became a social club, then the Grand Ole Opry specialising in country and western music. It later became a nightclub and is now the Ark entertainment venue.

Kingsway Cinema, Newmarket
Kingsway Cinema, Newmarket

The building that housed Newmarket’s Doric Cinema has also survived. The Doric opened in 1937 and in the 1950s was equipped with a 30ft wide Cinemascope screen.

It closed in 1964, and stood empty for 15 years until it was renovated and reopened as a cabaret and variety club, and was later a nightclub, most famously De Niro’s which was the largest of its kind in East Anglia..

The much-loved High Street landmark, with its distinctive Doric columns, has now been converted into luxury apartments.

Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh Cinema has been in operation since 1919 and is one of the oldest in the country.

The auditorium was built at the back of a shop with a half-timbered frontage dating from the 18th century.

It nearly closed in the 1960s but a group of local people led by Lettie Gifford and including composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears banded together to save it.

Since then it has been a community enterprise, and is now a registered charity with a Friends support group of more than 1,000 people.

Beccles

Beccles Cinema also dates from the era of silent films and is another building that has survived in a different guise.

It opened in 1914 and closed in 1960 after which it became a showroom. The building where movie-goers once doubled up at the antics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton is now a Prezzo restaurant.

Brandon

Brandon’s Avenue Cinema replaced an earlier wooden cinema which was destroyed by fire in 1934. It took just 12 weeks to build and was sold by the original owner to Breckland Cinemas in 1965.

It later became a bingo and social club which closed in the mid-2000s. After standing derelict for many years it is finally set to be demolished after planners granted approval for an eight-home development.

Avenue Cinema in Brandon
Avenue Cinema in Brandon

Haverhill

Haverhill’s Electric Empire Cinema - Electric was later dropped from the title - was built behind a house in the High Street and opened in 1912.

It doubled as a theatre, staging a week-long musical play to celebrate the end of the First World War in 1918.

Competition arrived in 1928 with the opening of The Playhouse and for around 20 years the two cinemas were run together by the same owners.

The Empire closed in 1948 and was empty for several years before being turned into a motorcycle showroom. Later it was bought by Barclays Bank.

The Playhouse was built in the back garden of Chauntry House, and its imposing entrance was through the hallway of the house.

It continued as a cinema until 1973 when after several years of decline it closed and was turned into a bingo hall, which ran until 1985. The auditorium was later demolished to make way for a shopping centre.

Mildenhall

The Regal in Mildenhall was the town’s first purpose-built cinema and opened in 1935. Before that films had been shown in the old town hall.

But the name Regal only lasted a couple of years. It was renamed The Comet after the aircraft that won the England to Australia air race that started from Mildenhall airfield in 1937.

Around 50 years ago it became a bingo club. The building was later demolished and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall built on the site.

Felixstowe

Felixstowe’s Palace Cinema - originally The Ritz - opened in 1937 and is another survivor from the golden age.

Through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s it was first turned over to bingo, then became a combined cinema and bingo hall. Since the mid 1990s it has been independently operated.

The town’s Playhouse Cinema, opened in 1914, was closed in 1970 and demolished to make way for a supermarket.

Southwold

Southwold’s original cinema may have closed but its spirit lives on in the new Electric Picture Palace.

The new cinema, launched in 2002, is a conversion of a cart shed and hayloft, and is owned and run by Southwold Film Society.

It has been built to match the first one to bear the name - which opened in 1912 when a screen was painted on the back wall of the Assembly Rooms and a projector installed.

It shut in 1963 and later uses included a furniture warehouse before it was demolished in the 1980s.

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