THERE have been state-of-the-art cinemas in Bournemouth’s Westover Road practically as long as there have been talking pictures.

Today, the Odeon group – which owns both the Odeon and the nearby ABC – is signed up to plans for a multiplex at the former bus station in Exeter Road.

A Facebook group, Save Bournemouth Odeon, is campaigning to keep the cinemas where they are. And wherever you stand on that debate, the campaign has brought to light some vivid memories and pictures of the 85 year history of film-going on Westover Road.

The Regent, as the current Odeon was originally known, was only the second purpose-built ‘super cinema’ in Britain when it opened in 1929.

It originally consisted of one huge, ornate auditorium, with a domed ceiling and 2,300 seats.

British cinemas were converting to sound that year and the Regent was kitted out to show talkies, although the first film shown there was silent – Two Lovers starring Ronald Colman.

The building was designed by WE Trent and, as well as its extravagant auditorium, it had a first floor restaurant seating 300.

The current ABC cinema was opened in June 1937 as the Westover Super Cinema, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to the songs of the Gershwins in Shall We Dance.

It opened next door to the Westover Palace Cinema, which closed the previous night, and which probably pre-dated the Regent. The Westover Super Cinema was a grand art deco building, seating 1,605 in the stalls and 910 in the circles, and had its own restaurant and balcony cafe. Both cinemas underwent name changes in the coming decades – the Regent becoming the Gaumont in 1949 and the Westover becoming the ABC in 1958.

Bournemouth Echo:

The Regent Cinema

By the 1960s, cinema audiences were falling, and the Gaumont was increasingly using its auditorium for live shows – most famously, a week of concerts by the Beatles, in August 1963.

But as Dr Guy Walker found out when researching a proposed book on cinema of the 1970s, Bournemouth remained an important market for the cinema chains, with films taking a lot of money in the resort. For that reason, at the end of the 1960s, both the Gaumont and the ABC were expensively converted into twin-screen cinemas.

The Gaumont’s upstairs auditorium became one of only 16 Cinerama cinemas in the country, with a 75ft wide screen – deeply curved so that the centre was 17ft further away from the audience than the edges were.

It reopened to the public on July 16, 1969, the day after a glitzy VIP launch.

Later that year, the ABC also closed for ‘twinning’, reopening on June 13, 1970, with the 644-seat ABC1 equipped for the large-format 70mm widescreen presentations. ABC2 held 982 seats. The opening films were Paint Your Wagon, in 70mm, and All the Way Up.

Many would say this was the heyday of film presentation, with giant film formats and huge screens giving razor-sharp clarity. It was claimed some people in the front rows took fright and ran up the aisles during a screening of the Cinerama epic Krakatoa East of Java at the Gaumont At both cinemas, the upstairs auditoriums were designed for ‘roadshow’ films that would stay for the season and benefited from top quality projection. The second screen would be for regular releases that would change more frequently.

The concept of the ‘roadshow’ release didn’t last long, perhaps because the quality of the films was not always that high. But the Westover Road cinemas were ready for the arrival of the blockbusters of the 1970s.

The release of Star Wars in February 1978, saw police helping marshal the queues that stretched down Westover Road and up to Gervis Road.

It played on both screens at the Gaumont, so 1,850 people could see it at any one time.

Bournemouth Echo:

The Gaumont 2 screen at the Gaumont cinema. Picture from Guy Walker

Meanwhile, the ABC – where a third screen had been added in 1973 – had been fitted with the Sensurround system which made the main auditorium shake to the sound of Earthquake and Battlestar Galactica.

By the mid-1980s, the cinema industry had decided multiplexes were the future. Bournemouth’s Gaumont was one of the last in the chain to be re-branded as Odeon in 1986. In 1989, the huge downstairs auditorium was divided into four screens, and in 1995, the 140-seat Odeon 6 was opened in the former bar area.

The ABC became a Cannon in 1983 and an MGM in 1992 before a management buyout turned it back into an ABC in 1996. The Odeon group took over the chain in 2000 but kept the old name.

ABC1’s 48ft screen is thought to be the biggest non-Cinerama design in the south outside London, according to Dr Walker.

He says the Odeon 1 screen, which still has its Cinerama-design deep curve, shrank to 45ft wide for a long time but has been extended to 60ft for 3D use.

“Very few of these big town centre movie palaces still exist,” Dr Walker points out. “All of the Odeon/Gaumont circuit contemporaries have gone.”

In the 21st century – with multiplex schemes suggested for Bath Road, Exeter Road and the former Winter Gardens site – the future of cinema in Bournemouth continues to be hotly debated. But its history in the town has enough glamour to fill a movie itself.

Bournemouth Echo:

How the Odeon cinema looks today

  • More information can be found at Vintage pictures of the Odeon and ABC are at the Facebook group Save Bournemouth Odeon.

Re-opening of the Gaumont marked with celebrations

THE official re-opening of the Gaumont after its ‘twinning’ was marked by plenty of film industry razzamatazz.

Ahead of the event, there was a ‘top twins’ competition, won by 11-year-old identical twins Kim and Caryn Coleman, from Poole.

The Rank Organisation, which owned the Gaumont, also had a 33 per cent stake in Southern Television, whose programme Day By Day trailed the re-opening. A special train was laid on to bring the VIPs from Waterloo station, where a stage was built to represent a submarine conning tower from the Gaumont’s opening Cinerama presentation, Ice Station Zebra.

At Bournemouth Central station, there was another stage set, peopled by models dressed as glamorous native Americans in a reference to the first Gaumont 2 presentation – the western MacKenna’s Gold.

Several celebrities – including Keith Fordyce of Ready, Steady, Go and Tony Booth of Till Death Us Do Part – were aboard the train but did not come straight into town.

Instead, they went to Southbourne, from where they were taken to Bournemouth beach by hovercraft. There was a marching band, right, an open-top bus and a procession of classic cars from Beaulieu’s National Motor Museum, with Lord Montagu himself at the wheel of one.

When the public were allowed in the next day – July 16, 1969 – the media coverage might have been enough to distract them from Apollo 11 blasting off on its journey to the moon.