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Bill Curtis takes a nostalgic look back at Fleetwood’s lost picture houses

The cinema habit started in childhood when Saturday mornings were spent queueing up in slightly disorderly rows outside the cinema. (In Fleetwood it was often the Regent!)

And who does not remember those childhood Saturday mornings with all the noise that even the attendants could not subdue? Being assaulted (or doing the assaulting) with a pea-shooter or catapult. Trying to creep in through the back door without paying if a kid inside could be persuaded to open it for you. Leaving your chewing gum on the seat for the next patron to sit on. And even – dare we say it – sharing a Woodbine cigarette with the other six kids on the row and trying not to get caught by the manager or out you went.

The programme always included a cartoon which the audience accompanied with “hoorays” and ear-piercing whistles. After the cartoon there would be a cowboy or gangster film when the boys cheered the hero (or even the villain!) and the girls sighed over the heroine and, of course, there was the serial which always ended with the hero or heroine either tied up in front of a circular saw or tied to a railway track with an oncoming train approaching at break-neck speed. You simply had to go back next Saturday to find out if the star was rescued in time (they always were!) and again it ended on another cliff-hanging episode. There was no escape, it was like being addicted to drugs, you couldn’t leave it alone, you were hooked again the following Saturday!

I remember Pearl White, a ravishing blonde, who was always left hanging by her finger nails from a high cliff with a horrifying view of the jagged rocks and the angry sea far below, after escaping the clutches of the wicked villain who wanted his evil way with her. She was always rescued by the fair-haired hero who had been worshipping her from afar.

Personally I always did think he looked a bit of a wimp and was sure the heroine would far rather have fallen into the clutches of the virile and handsome villain and to hell with it – let him have his way!! (Well they do today!!)

Childhood Saturday mornings were followed by teenage and courting years when the boys took their girl friends to the Art or Victoria, sitting far back in the circle in order to be able to hold hands and do a bit of snogging, hoping that neither school or work mates, and particularly her family, could see them – but they always did, of course. The girls liked sloppy romances and the lads tolerated them in the hope it would get the girl in the right mood for a bit of heavy courting on the way home.

Everybody went to the cinema at least once a week, many going two or three times whenever there was a change of programme. The cinema was part of people’s lives and everyone had their favourite film stars.

Fleetwood’s changing entertainment scene

Before the era of the cinema people got their entertainment from the church hall, the music hall or the theatre, and from beginnings of the town there was always somewhere to go in the evenings.

The pier theatre seated 1200 people, and in due course this was changed into the pier cinema. Sadly the pier fire of 1952 demolished the cinema and although after the pier was restored and re-opened they tried to revive a small cinema on the pier, it never really caught on and in a year or two it was closed for good. Just before the pier fire the last show in the cinema was a film featuring Donald Peers entitled Sing along with me. Oh dear, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. (Thank God!)

There were at least three theatres or music halls in the town by the turn of the century. The Empire on Lord Street which opened in 1905 was the most prestigious and the most expensive, the best seats being 10s.6d (52p) which was an awful lot of money for those days, but in 1915 it was converted to the Art Cinema. With a café and tea-rooms on the first floor and fairly luxurious furnishings and seating it soon became the most popular cinema in town. Prices for the seats in the Art Cinema were much lower than they had been when it was a theatre but for a cinema they were still in keeping with its top status, stalls 5d (two and a half pence) circle 9d (4p) and lounge seats 1s (5p) and there were three showings daily. It was 2d extra to book and if some poor blighter was sat in your reserved seat when you arrived, he was unlucky and had to move to an empty seat, if he could find one. And the whole town was very sad when in 1959 the cinema closed and two years later the handsome Victorian building was demolished from its imposing four stories and rebuilt as a very plain two storey building which then became a super-market.

In Adelaide Street, the Queens Theatre opened in 1900 as a popular music hall type of theatre and had a bar, so attracted perhaps a livelier type of audience. It was rumoured that after the Saturday night show a private show was put on for selected townspeople. It was a somewhat naughty show where the dancing girls wore nothing but a few beads (and they were probably nothing but perspiration), and the comics told the sort of jokes you don’t tell your children. (Nowadays they probably know far worse ones that they daren’t tell you!) But when the Superintendent of Police heard about these shows he was not pleased and closed them down. He wouldn’t have minded if they’d invited him, but they didn’t! Later the Queens closed as a theatre and was converted to a cinema but was never as popular as the other cinemas in the town, so was probably not missed when it finally closed down.

The other music hall was known as the “Old Gaff” or more correctly the Alhambra and it was a rather down-market affair with third rate music hall turns and rough and ready seating. Seats were prices at 3d, 6d and one shilling (11⁄2p, 21⁄2p and 5p). The entrance was in North Albert Street, on the same side and in the same block as the Camera Centre, and you can still see the double doors where the audience went in and out and the date of the building – 1863 – is shown on the bricks above the doorway. But after the decline of the theatres and music halls they were replaced by the cinemas and soon two new ones were built.

The Victoria in Poulton Road, which opened in 1929, and closed in 1967 to become a Bingo hall, and the Regent in Lord Street, which opened in 1938, and in 1986 was the last cinema in the town to close. A friend of ours had been the projectionist for many years at the Regent and told me it was known as the “flea-pit”, but I have to say that although I only went in the Regent once I am glad to say I did not catch any fleas. But had I known its reputation beforehand I might not have risked going through its salubrious portals!

And did you know that there might even have been another cinema in Warren Street between the Ship Inn and the Crown Hotel? In 1955 an announcement in the Blackpool Gazette and Herald and Advertiser declared that a “Super Cinema” would be opened shortly seating 1600 people, but regrettably lack of subscriptions for the shares prevented the cinema being built. As all the town’s cinemas were to close during the next decade or so, perhaps it was as well for the shareholders that the scheme never got off the ground.


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