The Black & White Picture Place

A Brief History of Cinema in Chester

by David A. Ellis and Steve Howe

Introduction | Music Hall | Gaumont Palace | Tatler/Classic | Odeon | Park, Saltney | Majestic | Others | Advertisments

The ABC Regal

manager mr barrieregal cinema 1937Chester's last 'super cinema', the Foregate Street Regal was opened by the Mayor, Robert Matthewson, on Saturday, 30th October 1937.

The photograph on the right was taken soon afterwards. The first manager was Mr R Barrie (portrayed left).

The opening film at the 1,973-seat venue was Slave Ship starring Warner Baxter. The screening was to an invited audience. From the following Monday, a second feature, Turn off the Moon, was screened.

The hall housed a Compton organ, which could produce numerous sound effects,and change colour at the flick of a switch. Wilfred Southworth played this in the opening week. For many years, a Mr Norman Shann was the regular organist.
The colourful instrument was saved, and is still being played in, of all places, Oxley, Australia.

Projectionst from day one was Hughie Jones. His son and daughter also worked at the theatre. Projection equipment was changed several times- Ross was first with Western Electric Mirrophonic sound. Westar and finally Philips projectors followed.

On Monday, 10th Angust 1953 the Regal presented the 3D film, House of Wax which played for two weeks. This had audiences ducking, as images appeared to leap out at them. Special glasses had to be worn and tbe novelty of 3D soon came to an end.

Ardente deaf aid equipment was a feature in the cinema's early days. This was used in a number of theatres in Britain.

In 1959 the name Regal was dropped and from then on it was just called ABC. During the 1950s and '60s, many pop stars of the day appeared live at the ABC, the screen flown for this purpose.

In the 1960s the cinema started to sell microwave food. This was in part of the foyer area, and was called the Gingham Kitchen.

Left: the luxurious interior of the Regal Cinema in its heyday..

It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when major pop groups regularly performed in Chester. The Rolling Stones, for example, played at the Royalty Theatre in April 1964 and here at the ABC along with Inez & Charlie Foxx in September of the same year. In October 1965, they played the ABC again, accompanied by the Moody Blues and the Spencer Davis Group.

Mick Jagger recalled the surreal end to the September 1964 gig. The band had to escape along the rooftops after the show because the venue was surrounded by screaming teenage fans. “I remember we had a lady pianist with us also, who was one of the opening acts, I forgot her name and she was a concert pianist and it was quite funny.”
Keith Richards recalled the same Chester gig: “One time in Chester, we have the Chief Constable of Cheshire with us in full regalia with the ribbons and the medals and the swagger stick. Show’s finished earlier than he expects. The whole theatre is surrounded. Mayhem. Maniac teenage girls, bless their hearts.
rolling stones in chester"Right," he says. "The only way out, up the stairs, over the rooftops, I know the way!". Suddenly you’re in his hands. So we get up on the Chester rooftops, and it’s raining. The first thing that happens is the Chief Constable almost slides off the roof. A couple of his bobbies managed to hold him up. We’re standing in the middle of this rooftop saying: "I’m not too familiar with this area, where do we go?"
“He pulls himself together, and in a shambolic sort of way, they manage to get us down through a skylight and out of a laundry chute, or something. That was what happened every day, and you took it as normal. Everything was a Goon Show.”
Keith repeated the story in his autobiography: " I remember once in Chester, after a show that had ended in a riot, following the Chief Constable of Chester Police over the rooftops of Chester city as in some weird Walt Disney film, with the rest of the band behind me and him in full uniform, with a constable at his side. And then he loses his fucking way, and we are perched on the top of Chester city while his great 'Escape From Colditz' plan disintegrates..."

The ABC was turned into a twin cinema in 1980 by Electrical Musical Industries (EMI), who bought the ABC circuit in 1969. The cinemas were built in the former balcony area, with EMI bingo- later Coral- occupying the stalls area.

In 1987 Cannon took the helm, only to close it in December 1990 with the film Ghost in number one and Exorcist 3 in number two.
The building remained closed for nearly five years until taken over by the nightclub chain Brannigans, which opened on 6th October, 1995. The night before the opening there was an invitation-only gala with a number of 'celebrities' present. The projection room and the halls were left uncouched during the nightclub conversion, as was the upper balcony (illustrated below) as it was deemed to be not strong enough to withstand the stresses of lots of clubbers 'cavorting' on it.

But then, in early 2010, citing factors such as the increase in late night licences in many pubs, greater competition (such as the newly-opened Cruise nightclub in St. John Street) and the economic climate in general, after fifteen years, Brannigan's called it a day and the place was closed. Then, in 2011, it was announced that the budget clothing chain Primark had acquired the old cinema and was planning to extend into it from its existing neighbouring building.

regal interior"I can remember the ABC cinema well. There were always queues to go in and the queue used to extend to the entry opposite Love Street. It was a regular Saturday treat for me as mum always took me to the pictures. We saved our coupons as it was wartime rationing, and there was a wonderful sweet shop next to where C&A is today.
If I was lucky we would get sweets and then in to the 1 and 3s, 'cheapest seats'. If we stayed to see the film all over again, which you could in those days, we crept up to the 1 and 9s.
Little did I know that the commissioner, who was resplendent in red and gold uniform, was my future husband's grandfather. I thought he was wonderful- just like Father Christmas- and I always saved him a sweet". Dorothy Carline, Chester Standard 1998

...and how the forgotten balcony above the nightclub looks today.

2/7/04 Reading about the Regal Cinema in Chester, this brought back a few memories. I used to work for the ABC cinemas in 1955, I started work as a probationer projectionist at the ABC Carlton Cinema Tuebrook, Liverpool, Harold Jessey being the Chief, this mainly entailed the cleaning of all the arears that belonged to the projection dept, ie the generator room, the rewind room, the stage, underneath the organ, this was always full of cockroaches and other various insects, I was never allowed to touch a projector for at least a year, after this time I was promoted to a forth projectionist, and then finally to a third, we had a total of six working in the box, shift work was introduced, this meant that we worked a shift of three on and three off, our area engineer Mr Roley offered me the chance to take up a position as a relief projectionist, this gave me the chance to work in all of the A.B.C.Cinemas in Liverpool including St Helens, Warrington And of course Chester. The Carton Cinema Tuebrook became the area office after the Commodore in Bootle. Mr White was the area manager, I have looked on the web pages to see if there are any ex projectionists from the old ABC days but I don't see any, it would be good to exchange words if there are any about, I am always very interested in the old cinema days.  Many thanks keep up the interesting web page". Harry Wakeford  

ABC cinema 19765/11/04 "My name is Anne Baker and my father Doug Baker was the Manager of the ABC Regal Chester for 12 years from the late 50's to 1968 when we moved to Bristol where he took over the ABC Cinema (now also gone).
I was about 4 years of age when we moved to Chester and at that time I was an only child.  Dad had previously being managing the ABC Cinema in Lichfield, Staffs.
Many good times were spent in the ABC Regal and I remember it with fond memories.
I note that you mentioned the screen had to be flown (well, it was on my Dad's watch that it happened).  I was allowed to go to the "one night stands" and saw many groups of the 1960's. 
The Gingham Kitchen was also introduced on my Dad's watch - actually he showed them how to make an apple pie or some such thing.
His picture was hardly ever out of the Chester papers in those days!" 

The ABC in 1976. Advertised is the X-rated 'To the Devil a Daughter', starring Richard Wydmark and Christopher Lee.

"Cinemas in those days, as you probably know, operated a continuous performance.  Dad had to change into evening dress in the evenings and at one time had must have had a staff of about 40 to 50 people working for him. He had an Assistance Manager, Ken Cooper, a couple of Trainee Managers (one of whom was Dennis Davidson - who went on to do something or other in London!!!! - but my Dad taught him the trade), a secretary, and many many more.  One of his employees actually went on to manage the Cinema herself, Lil Rogers. Of course my friends thought it was wonderful to have a friend to get them into the pictures for free.
Doug is 83 approaching 84 in January and is in ill health but he still remembers the days in Chester with great affection". Anne Baker

regal press release25/8/03 "Having finally entered the computer era at the age of 72, I discovered your Chester Cinemas web page recently, and would like to tell you what wonderful memories it brought back to me. I lived in Mollington and Chester from 1932 until 1948, when we emigrated to Canada. The first movie I saw was 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' at the Gaumont, in 1937 if memory serves. In later years I spent many happy hours in the various cinemas, usually with a girl-friend. Your reference to courting couples in the back row of the Park Cinema brings back particularly pleasant memories!

regal organistMy enduring love of the cinema organ started, I think, when a family friend took me to the Regal in the early 1940's, and we listened to Norman Shann at the Compton. As I recall, he wore a powder-blue jacket which stood out brilliantly in the spotlight. After Norman left, there was not always a resident organist, as after the war the owners cut back on expenses, and the organ was the first area of cost-cutting. I do remember a Joseph Storer (pictured left around 1950), who was resident for a while.

I also liked the Gaumont organ, which had a white console, which also stood out brightly in the spotlight. The organist I best remembered was Ronnie Padgett, who also emigrated to Canada in the late 40's or early 50's, and whom I saw and heard playing in Toronto. I always hoped he would get the position at the new Odeon which opened in Toronto in 1948, but he did not. That organ was opened by Al Bollington, who played at the Paramount Odeon on Tottenham Court Road in London. One of my fondest memories of Ronnie Padgett was the opening of the film "A Matter of Life and Death" in 1947, when he played the overture to Orpheus in the Underworld, as a contrast to the film (also known as Stairway to Heaven), which partly took place in Heaven.
I am glad to hear that the Regal organ is still in use in Australia. I have an old vinyl record which has one track of the organ, at the Regal, played by Frank Gordon, who used to play in Birkenhead.
Thank you again for your web-site. I have lived in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for many years, but still look back fondly on my childhood in Chester, where I attended Miss Denson's kindergarten, the Ursuline Convent School, the Cathedral Choir School, and the King's School, and went to the Gaumont, Regal, Odeon, Music Hall, Majestic, and Tatler many times". Barry Kington

12/5/03  "I was interested to see the use of the word "ironic" to describe the fact that old Regal ABC (the Canon cinema as it was at the end) was showing the same film ("Ghost") when it closed as the Multiplex on the Greyhound Park was showing when it opened. Remembering that this was originally the Canon Multiplex before Virgin and latterly UGC took over the premises clears up any confusion.  
There is nothing ironic or co-incidental about this fact: the Canon did not actually close, it relocated to the Multiplex premises on the Greyhound Park, transferring the majority of its existing staff (those who could drive, as the site is very poorly served by public transport) as well as taking on several new employees". Paula M Briggs

So that's telling us. But, just a few years later, this Greyhound park multiplex- Chester's last cinema- together with the popular neighbouring bowling alley, were demolished to make way for an Asda store. Sometime words fail us. And possibly Ms Briggs too.

Now go on to learn a little about a listed building that was Chester's last city centre cinema- the Odeon...

Top of Page | Chester Cinema I | II | III | IV | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | The Royalty Theatre | Chester Gallery Intro
Old Pics of Liverpool & Chester
| B&W Picture Place | Site Front Door
| Site Index | Contact us