ENTERTAINMENT venues that have closed to the public tend to be gone for good.

So the plan to reopen Bournemouth’s Palace Court Theatre – also known as the Playhouse – constitutes a dramatic comeback.

It is 35 years since a lack of public support seemed to have brought down the curtain on the building's days as a theatre and cinema. It became a place of worship, over the objections of Bournemouth council and many supporters.

Now Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) has acquired the venue – a neighbour of Bournemouth’s Premier Inn on Hinton Road and Westover Road. It plans to restore the 1930s art deco building as a teaching space with performance venue, complete with 400-seat auditorium that will welcome the public as well as students.

Bournemouth Echo:

The building was designed in 1931 by architects Seal & Hardy, who also designed the Daily Echo building and Westover Ice Rink and the Palace Court Hotel on Westover Road.

The theatre, originally seating 600, was built by Bournemouth’s oldest amateur dramatic society, Bournemouth Little Theatre Company. The playwright St John Ervine performed the opening ceremony in June 1931.

Although the grand art deco frontage was on Hinton Road, the theatre had a foyer and box office on Westover Road and it was not long before it took the name Palace Court after the hotel next door.

Bournemouth Echo:

Eartha Kitt visiting Poole Hospital's radio station during the run of her show Bunny at the Playhouse in 1973. She is pictured with  Dennis Sherwood of Radio Poole

Bournemouth had its own repertory troupe, the Barry O’Brien Company, which put on productions at the theatre from 1955 until the mid-1960s, the play changing every week or fortnight.

Members of the company included future stars Sheila Hancock, Lennard Pearce (later Grandad in Only Fools and Horses), Elaine Paige, Vivien Merchant and Anthony Bate, as well as an actor named David Baron – later to become better known as the playwright Harold Pinter.

The late Keith Rawlings – a theatre buff, Bournemouth Little Theatre member and mayor of Bournemouth – told the Echo in 2004 that he once had a half-pint of beer with Pinter on a Saturday morning. "He told me he was working on some plays but didn’t know how they would go down,” he said.

Bournemouth Echo:

A programme for Lock Up Your Daughters at the Palace Court Theatre in 1966

In the 1960s, theatrical legends Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Sir Louise Casson appeared at the venue, as did radio comedy star Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch, according to Hugh Ashley, historian of the town’s theatres.

In 1970, however, dwindling audiences prompted a sale for £60,000 to Louis I Michaels Theatres, which owned London’s Shaftesbury and Strand Theatres.

The venue was converted into two auditoriums in 1971 – with the Playhouse Theatre at the Hinton Road end and the futuristic, 200-seater Galaxy Cinema underneath.

Since the ceiling at the Galaxy was low for a cinema, a periscope-like system of mirrors was used so that the projector’s beam could go over the audience’s heads.

Bournemouth Echo:

The "duplex", now called the Playhouse and Galaxy Cinema, in 1983

The “duplex” conversion was opened by Dorothy Rowe, the last survivor among the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club's founders of 1919.

Other famous names from film, TV and stage to grace the Playhouse over the years included Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Eartha Kitt, Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips, Eric Sykes, Jimmy Edwards, Richard Todd, Gerald Harper and Roy Hudd, as well as Poole's Miss World winner, Ann Sidney.

At the Galaxy, cinema-goers could enjoy well-reviewed films that had not reached the big Westover Road screens – as well as blockbusters such as Jaws and Star Wars that had finished their first runs at the Gaumont or ABC.

As theatre-going declined further, films were increasingly shown at the Playhouse as well as the Galaxy.

But in 1986, the venue was closed until the summer season, in a move the Echo at the time attributed to “public apathy”.

That September, Pentecostal evangelical congregation that was using the cinema for Sunday services was revealed to be interested in taking over the whole venue.

Bournemouth Echo:

The venue in the 1980s, when the Galaxy was showing Broadway Danny Rose

Local efforts began in a bid to save the venue as a theatre, backed by the actors’ union Equity, but Louis Michaels’ company warned there would need to be a council subsidy to ensure the return of plays.

Equity even suggested the theatre could become the provincial base of Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company.

Bournemouth Borough Council turned down a planning application to make the building a place of worship, but the decision was overturned by an inspector at a public inquiry and the change of use went ahead.

The building became the Wessex Christian Centre, under the Rev Brian Downward, and later his son Julian, who succeeded him as senior paster.

Both told the Daily Echo in 2017 that they sympathised with the theatre lovers who did not want to lose the venue.

Bournemouth Echo:

Julian Downward in the building's art deco stairwell in 2017

Brian Downward recalled of the public inquiry: “It was full of television personalities who had come to say their part. I understand that. It’s the loss of a community building for them but it just wasn’t working.”

Julian Downward said: “The staff who worked here said ‘There’s nobody coming forward, you’re the only people interested’.

“We just had this really strong feeling, my father especially, that we were meant to be here and God was going to provide a way.

“We got it for £182,000. A guy turned up in our church and said ‘I heard you’re buying this place. How are you paying for it?’ “We said, 'It’s a step of faith'. He said, ‘That’s why I’m here’. He agreed to buy the place for us.”

More than three decades later, AUB sees the venue at the heart of arts and culture in the town.

Vice-chancellor Professor Paul Gough said as he announced the acquisition: “Soon, we’ll also be able to offer an opportunity for patrons to come aboard and join the project, helping us to create a lasting asset that the sector, town and public can enjoy, and our students are able to use to develop further their specialist skills in key performance disciplines.”