Recalling the days of ‘super cinemas’

THE REGENT ... was one of the 'super cinemas' of the 1930s.
THE REGENT ... was one of the 'super cinemas' of the 1930s.

IT rained on the day it opened. The inaugural film was The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, and the net takings at the box office were £453 11s 5d.

With a formidable number of other picture halls in the town in competition, it was important that this new ‘super cinema’ in Shields, The Regent, at Westoe, should return the investment in it.

Well, £453 equates to nearer £17,000 today, so it wasn’t doing too badly.

Over the next 30 years, the fortunes of this 1930s generation of luxury picture houses would fluctuate.

From blockbusters like The Ten Commandments to low-budget howlers like The Creature With The Atom Brain, through the introduction of CinemaScope and live wrestling, it reflected changing tastes in entertainment across a defining period of the 20th century.

And somebody wrote it all down.

Who it was, we may never know. But a battered ledger recently handed into South Shields Museum has proved an incredible record of the old cinema.

Found during refurbishment of the building some years ago, it lists every single film that it showed over more than three decades, noting as well, how much was taken on the day, the size of the audience, the weather at the time (a warm summer seemed to indicate fewer customers) and what other events were going on, locally, which might have affected attendances.

Thus you have July 30, 1946, being clocked up as a record, with 4,196 people queuing up to see the musical Bitter Sweet, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

At other times, audiences plunged to fewer than 300 on some days during the heatwave that was the summer of 1957.

Old Regent Cinema ledger

Old Regent Cinema ledger

Alan Hayward, at Tyne and Wear Archives, said of the book: “It’s fascinating on a number of levels.

It’s very interesting because it documents the fall in attendances at The Regent, reflecting perhaps the rise of television as a form of entertainment.

During the 1930s the cinema usually had well over 10,000 people through the doors each week, but by the 1960s, numbers were often down to less than 5,000.”

The Regent – which closed this autumn as the Mecca bingo hall – was described as “luxuriously modern” when it opened on October 21, 1935, boasting refreshment kiosks in all parts as well as air conditioning.

It came close to being destroyed on May 24, 1943 when it was severely damaged in an air raid which wiped out the front of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) stores at the adjacent Regent Garage. Two people were killed.

The ledger shows the cinema closed for two weeks, re-opening with My Sister Eileen, starring Rosalind Russell.

The cinema, though, was also designed to accommodate variety performances.

It became a popular venue for South Shields Amateur Operatic Society, which performed Showboat there in 1953.

The ledger also shows a fundraising concert for the Lynmouth flood disaster in 1952.

The cinema embraced widescreen, showing films like The Robe.

The Ten Commandments was so popular it ran over four weeks.

By the early 1960s, Hammer horrors started to feature, and colour shorts like UK Swings Again – a series that captured the music of the era.

But cinema-going was in decline, squeezed out by the rise in popularity and availability of TV.

The Regent eventually closed in the summer of 1966, House of Frankestein and Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday among the last films it screened.

Looking through the ledger is to see a town at play – the illuminations in the parks and on the seafront that were a rival for the Hollywood features of the day in 1937; the movies – David Copperfield, Brewster’s Millions, The Man From The Folies Bergere – that were there to escape into, in peace and war.

Says archivist Alan Hayward: “I’m sure it will give a lot of pleasure to people who visit the Archives to take a trip down memory lane and see the names of films they enjoyed in their youth.

“The Regent Cinema seems to have shown all the big films, from The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1935 through to The Magnificent Seven, as well as many lesser-known films, which maybe haven’t passed the test of time.”