THIRTY years ago, the future of a small but much-loved Bournemouth entertainment venue was being hotly debated.

The struggling Playhouse Theatre and Galaxy Cinema had been bought by Wessex Christian Centre – but Bournemouth council was fighting a losing battle to prevent it being used as a place of worship.

The 600-seat theatre was built on Hinton Road by the town’s oldest amateur dramatic society, Bournemouth Little Theatre Company and opened in June 1931 by the playwright St John Ervine.

The club put on its own plays but the venue also hosted touring shows, revues, chamber concerts and productions by Bournemouth School Old Bournemouthians Association.

Before long, the venue was renamed the Palace Court Theatre, to take advantage of its proximity to the grand Palace Court Hotel next door. The venue had a box office and foyer next to the hotel on Westover Road.

Bournemouth’s own repertory troupe, the Barry O’Brien Company, put on weekly productions from 1955 until the mid-1960s. The company included Sheila Hancock, Elaine Paige, Vivien Merchant, Anthony Bates and a young actor named David Baron – later to become better known as the playwright Harold Pinter.

The late Keith Rawlings, a councillor and lifelong theatre-lover, told the Daily Echo in 2004 how he once enjoyed 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.

Hugh Ashley, who has chronicled the town’s entertainment venues in his book Bournemouth Entertains, recalls: “I worked there in the 1960s as the stage electrician and remember the biggest stars to appear – a married couple who were international thespians, Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Sir Louis Casson, and radio comedian Richard Murdoch of Much Binding in the Marsh fame.

“Some of the touring shows at this time were presented by one of Britain's biggest impresarios, Bournemouth-born Paul Elliott, including Lionel Bart's racy musical Lock Up your Daughters with Bill Maynard.”

But audiences were already dwindling and in 1970, the building was sold for £60,000 to Louis I Michaels Theatres, which owned the Shaftesbury and Strand theatres in London.

The venue reopened as a “duplex” in 1971 – consisting of the Playhouse Theatre and a 200-seater cinema, the Galaxy, underneath. Guest of honour was Dorothy Rowe, then the sole survivor among the founders of Bournemouth Little Theatre Club in 1919.

The Echo was impressed by the Galaxy, designed by Felix Holton, who was responsible for the cinema on the QEII. The paper noted the "distinctive wall display with light projected through glass tubes at different angles".

Christian Knighton, now technical coordinator at the Pavilion, worked there. He recalls: "The success of the theatre at this time was that it was so intimate and that its compact design allowed all the audience to be close the performers."

Top names to appear at the time included Phyllis Calvert, Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips, Gerald Harper and Roy Hudd.

The Galaxy showed major films like Jaws and Star Wars after they had finished their runs on the big Gaumont and ABC screens nearby, as well as movies that never made it to the major cinemas.

Because the cinema lacked height, the management used a periscope system of mirrors to direct the projection beam above the audience’s heads.

From the late 1970s, the Playhouse also began to show films, in another sign of deteriorating cinema attendances.

In February 1986, an Echo headline read: “Public apathy has beaten Bournemouth Playhouse”. The venue was to close until the summer season.

That September, the paper reported: “Theatre could become church”. The Pentecostal evangelical congregation that was renting the cinema for Sunday services was looking to take over the venue.

The actors’ union Equity backed efforts to save the theatre, but Louis Michaels’ company warned there was little prospect of plays returning without a council subsidy.

That November, Bournemouth’s planning committee went against its officers’ advice by voting against its use as a church.

A number of actors backed the campaign, with Equity even suggesting that Kenneth Branagh and his Renaissance Theatre Company might make it their provincial base. But a public inquiry in 1990 led to Wessex Christian Centre being given its planning permission.

The Rev Brian Downward, who set up the church in Bournemouth more than 30 years ago, is still at Wessex Christian Centre, though his son Julian has succeeded him as senior pastor.

Both say they sympathised with the theatre-lovers who wanted the venue kept open.

But Julian says: “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.”

Brian recalls 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,” he says.

They have maintained and restored the art deco interior of the theatre. “We always said if we were going to renovate it or make any changes, it would be sympathetic to the building," says Julian.

Downstairs in the former Galaxy, the seating has gone but the screen is where it always was, and that wall display that impressed the Echo in 1971 is still there.

Julian recalls: “My friend said he saw Jaws here and when the shark jumped up on the boat, everybody jumped back.”

Wessex Christian Centre directs a lot of its efforts towards children’s and youth work, and says the theatre makes an ideal venue.

“My dad wanted to go for a secular venue, not a traditional church building," says Julian.

"That’s helped a lot of people going into church. People could come to a venue where they felt comfortable.

“We even had a family of actors and it was the first thing that attracted them to us.”