THE GRANADA THEATRE CIRCUIT
PART SIX – THE GRANADA THEATRE DOVER
The picture was provided by Ms Lorraine Sencicle, The Dover Historian
A LESSON IN SHOWMANSHIP
By January 1929, Cecil Massey had found a suitable site in Dover for Sidney Bernstein’s purposes and, in February 1929, County Theatre Dover Limited was registered and construction began that summer on what was to be his first purpose-built cinema. The name of the theatre was to be the Country Theatre & Tea Room, however this was changed later to Granada.
The building and opening of Granada Theatre Dover represents a remarkable display of showmanship in true Barnumesque style, and is still, to me at least, a lesson in well-executed hullabaloo and worthy of any modern advertising agency (and this includes those members of Tate & Stephens and even those at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (later Sterling Cooper & Partners)! Allow me to explain…… but first let me add that despite the hoopla surrounding the theatre, it was built in an amazingly short period of time …. in just six-and-a-half months from laying of the foundation stone to opening ceremony. But now ….. back to what I was saying ………….
The reasoning behind the choice of Granada as the name for this theatre is shrouded in romance, fantasy and mystique and, although I do not doubt that it was inspired by Mr. Bernstein’s memory of his first sight of the Alhambra while walking in the hills surrounding the City of Granada during the early hours of the morning, his description invokes a remarkably romantic scene worthy of any Hollywood film setting. Mr. Bernstein said that he was enjoying a walking holiday in Spain, and that just before his arrival, the City of Granada experienced a snowfall, which apparently did not occur often. Apparently during the early morning hours, the young Mr. Bernstein was walking in the hills surrounding the now snow-covered city, when suddenly, the sun came up and the snow began to melt and the glorious Alhambra began to appear before his eyes from under its covering of snow and revealed a fabulous sight for him to behold!
The cynical amongst us may smile and agree that this story makes for a wonderful tale and is the basis for a great piece of publicity for using when advertising a new theatre. Sidney Bernstein was known for being a showman and readily admitted his admiration of P.T. Barnum. His choice of the name for the theatre is both romantic and exotic and his explanation for his coming upon it is all of this, as well as being interesting. And of course, his choice of the flamboyant, and highly talented, Russian theatre-director-cum-costume-and-set-designer-cum-a hundred -and-one-other-additional-professions, Theodore Komisarjevsky, who Mr. Bernstein claimed to have lured to England direct from the Moscow Art Theatre, to design an interior decór, which he did in Moorish style while not directly copying the architectural features of the Alhambra, only adds to the romance and the exoticism surrounding the theatre. Incidentally, the presence and obvious complicity of Mr. Komisarjevsky in all of this clearly demonstrates that he was as much a showman himself as Sidney Bernstein, if not more so!
Perhaps I appear cynical here, but allow me to tell you something that happened to me during a visit to Helsinki in the early 1970s and then you might judge me otherwise.
I was on holiday in Scandinavia where I had visited a friend of mine studying in Copenhagen. I was coming to the end of my trip and had visited Norway, Sweden and Denmark and was now discovering Finland. I remember being horrified at the cost of essentials throughout this region. I lost a great deal of weight during that trip, as working in France, I was not paid a fabulous salary and so had to choose with care when I went to a supermarket! Anyway …………
I remember getting up early on my first morning in Helsinki. It was early September and there was a chill in the air. As I was staying in a youth hostel close to the harbour, I decided to walk down to the water and look around. The morning was under a heavy white mist that stretched up into the sky. I could not see further than a few yards ahead of me. As I walked along the cobblestone street, I could hear the water lapping against the dock close by. It was an eerie and silent sight, and although more than a little frightening, one that was very appealing. As I slowly and gingerly made my way forward, slowly the mist began to clear. Suddenly I was filled with a sense of fear for, as the mist began to recede, the top of a sailing ship began to appear. I remember standing still and wondering if, somehow, I had been transported to another time! Was I now walking along in the eighteenth century? If I was, what was I going to do?
I stood there at the edge of the harbour and felt more than apprehensive about where I actually was. And as I stood and thought, the mist continued to slowly clear and more of the mast came into view. Suddenly a second and then a third mast slowly came through the disappearing mist and the outline of a sailing ship formed. I could now see some of the rigging and noted sail tied to the horizontal struts of the masts. It was a beautiful, if somewhat disturbing site. I remember wondering if I had stumbled upon the Flying Dutchman. Perhaps he had steered his ship into the harbour and was to come ashore where he hoped to find the woman willing to give up her life and save him of his fate.
While lost in this romantic fantasy, the mist continued to lift and more and more masts came into view. Suddenly I heard the sounds of others and then just as suddenly a man on a bicycle came whizzing past me! And then I knew that I had not been transported back in time and that I was still in the 1970s.
As I walked on, I came across people setting up stalls and began to hear the sounds of city traffic in the distance. Meanwhile, the last of the mist disappeared and there before me was the harbour, which was filled with Tall Ships, as these vessels are called. I later learned that these ships were visiting the city and were apparently traveling through the Baltic Sea area and stopping at various cities and towns during their journey!
Often the most unimaginable can be perfectly true!
The construction of the Granada Theatre Dover was not all hullabaloo and thoughts of former romantic walking holidays in the hills around Granada in the early morning. Like all construction, serious work was going on. However the building did hit a snag when a stream across the site had to be dealt with. As a result, the opening date was put back.
Meanwhile while construction was going on, the Town of Dover found itself ablaze with publicity developed by Sidney Bernstein et al, Here the company’s full force, in true Barnumesque style, was brought to bear. Posters appeared all over the city, on hoardings and trams and in the press.
The posters told the populace that:
ALL ROADS LEAD TO GRANÃDA
START SAYING GRANÃDA
EVERYBODY WILL GO TO GRANÃDA
and once the residents realised the meaning behind the posters, they went in huge numbers to look at the new cinema.
The architect of the Granada Theatre Dover was Cecil Aubrey Massey. The exterior was of brick and its prominent feature was a large round-headed window extending up above the entrance ending just below the name sign of the theatre. There was a plain simple overhang that extended out over the pavement and ran the width of the building and which was able to carry lettering to announce the title and stars of the film currently being screened. On either side of the vestibule were frames for the housing of photo-stills and small posters to advertise current and future films in the hope of choxing undecided patrons to enter. There seems to have been no steps leading to the small vestibule where the box office was positioned on once side.
After purchasing a ticket, entrance to the theatre was made through four doors that led into a very high and spacious foyer decorated in neo-classical style and dominated by a large crystal glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The floor was of decorative stone and without a carpet. On the far side of the foyer was a staircase with a Corinthian-style column on either side. Also in the foyer was a cloakroom and a counter were refreshments and sweets were offered for sale. The foyer became the prototype for those of other Granada Theatres to come.
The staircase allowed patrons to go up to a carpeted promenade that extended around the perimeter of the foyer. Apparently during the official opening of the theatre, tasseled Spanish shawls were hung over the handrail perhaps in the hope of further creating the mood of sunny Spain and Granada, which might have been welcome on a January day on the South Coast of England!
On the walls of the promenade hung drawings and photographs of the Alhambra. At the top of the staircase was a large round-headed mirror and doors leading into the balcony. Unlike many future Granada Theatres, there was no tea room or cafe-restaurant leading off from the promenade area.
(I only visited one such cafe and this was at the Granada Theatre Slough, which I will return to later.)
From the foyer, entrance to the auditorium was through double doors. The combined stalls and balcony areas apparently had seating for 1,717 patrons. The auditorium was decorated to resemble a courtyard with flat Moorish arches along the side walls and between which was painted a continuous scene of the countryside. Surrounding the stage, which was thirty-eight feet wide and fifteen feet deep, was the Proscenium arch consisting of a series of steps. The theatre was fully equipped to stage live shows with a fully-functional lighting switchboard and three levels of dressing rooms backstage.
Left: The stage – note the Proscenium Arch & the right-hand exit and grill above
Right: The Auditorium & Balcony – note the undulating rows of the Balcony seating, the Moorish arches on the wall and the lighting-grill work beneath
Note the decorative Proscenium Arch and the Freeze at the top of the side walls.
Many thanks to Justin & Andy for allowing this photograph to appear here.
On each side of the stage was an exit door positioned in a diagonal fashion. Above these exits were pseudo-windows covered with decorative grills The right-hand grill also served to hide the chambers of the Christie organ from public view. The organ was a 3-manual, 7-rank instrument built by Hill, Norman & Beard and the console was installed in the centre of the orchestra pit enclosed within an electric lift and rose up during intermission with the organist already seated at the keyboard.
Left: built in 1931 for the Regent Cinema Poole and now restored and installed at the Curzon Community Cinema in Clevedon, North Somerset
Lighting of the auditorium was provided by suspended light fixtures from the ceiling and by small fixtures on the lower walls placed behind grill coverings.
The balcony seats were arranged in parallel undulating rows, which was to become a characteristic of the architect, Cecil Aubrey Masey. He had seemingly introduced this feature during the remodeling of the Empire Willesden.
The undulation of the Balcony rows can still be seen today, as can (if you look carefully) the Moorish arches on the side wall
The now photograph was taken by Stuart Kinnon
At one time, going to the pictures was an event, as patrons were generally treated to a stage show, often together with a short organ recital and one or two films. By the time I was going to the pictures, I had no idea that stage shows & films were ever offered in Britain, as they had apparently disappeared by then. I remember going to the Radio City Music Hall on a visit to New York, as the theatre was presenting a film with Lassie, called The Magic of Lassie, and she was scheduled to make an appearance before each screening. Imagine seeing Lassie ….. live! One certainly could not miss that!
Lassie Come Home – the original and still the best!
When I got to the theatre, it seemed that the presentation had ended its run on the previous evening! I have to confess that I was not best pleased to have missed the opportunity of seeing Lassie, even though I knew full well that this current dog was not the original!
I eventually went to see my one and only stage show and film several years later in 1979, but by then, the spectacle was less than sparkling! I saw was at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. I saw its last presentation of a film (The Promise) and stage show before the policy of the theatre changed. When I went, the theatre was almost empty of patrons and it was quite sad to see such a majestic theatre with such poor patronage.
Although it was good to see the Rockettes, I can not say that I was impressed with either the stage show or the film although. The Rockettes worked hard and deserved better backup. Despite this, I did manage to enjoy the short organ concert. I feel certain that today the Radio City spectacles are much more ……… fresh and spectacular!
The Granada Theatre Dover opened on the afternoon of Wednesday, 8th January 1930. However, the immediate time leading up to its opening, as well as the actual opening ceremony itself, were also filled with excitement and a certain sense of romance, thereby making it worthy of being a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-Busby Berkley film where everything turns out alright in the end! (For those wishing to see the rest of the finale ….. click here.)
According to an account that appeared in a book on the local history of Dover, Picture Palaces Remembered, given by W.T. Moore who was present during the building of the theatre, many people worked continuously for some thirty-six hours, stopping only for meals, to ready the building for opening. These included, with paint brushes in hand, both Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein together with Mr. Komisarjevsky.
While they worked, the stage was filled with performers rehearsing their acts including a troupe of dancing girls. In addition, the practice sounds of a 20-piece orchestra and those of the organist running through his pieces filled the air. As I said, a sight and scene is certain worthy of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-Bush Berkley plot! And to top this, as the workmen were leaving the theatre by the back door, patrons began swarming in via the front door unaware of the wet paint!
The opening ceremony (described in depth under Part 4 – The Giants who made Granada great: Sidney Bernstein) was obviously one like no other complete with a toastmaster as Master of Ceremonies and a tableau vivant, which was revealed as the curtain parted. On the stage stood Cecil Aubrey Massey, Theodore Komisarjevky, the Clerk of Works, the Musical Conductor and others; each stood with a quill pen in hand and pretended to be working feverishly. As they toastmaster introduced each one, he stopped for a moment, looked out at the audience and then resumed his worked at the same feverish pace. Now, how about that for an introduction?!
On July 1st, 2013, the community of Beloit, Wisconsin came together on the banks of the Rock River to recreate (Bottom) a tableau vivant of George Seurat’s painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (Top)
But the way ….. behind these gentlemen was a blackboard on which had been written in large letters the characters:
THE GRANADA MUST BE OPENED BY JANUARY 8TH
The opening of the theatre was a success, although the Opening Ceremony, which was to be used at other openings, was perhaps not as rousingly received as it was a little later at the opening of the Granada Theatre Walthamstow. Here it was greeted with thunderous applause that lasted for quite some time.
The theatre opened just as talkies were introduced. Sidney Bernstein insisted that the opening programme was to be an all-talkies affair and would also insist that only talking-pictures be shown there including Sunday rivals.
The first presentation at the theatre was The Last of Mrs Cheney starring Norma Shearer. The film was accompanied by a forty-five minute stage show comprising of West End Varieties together with Eight Granada Girls. Leonardi & His Band performed and went on to perform on a daily basis and Hedley Morton was the resident organist at the Christie Organ. Obviously Sidney Bernstein produced quite a spectacle for the opening of his first-purpose built theatre!
Seats were bookable in advance and this could also be done by telephoning Dover 6 – obviously another aspect of Mr. Bernstein’s showmanship!
Phone Dover Six & Book Your Seat
The opening and the theatre seemed to be a success and it apparently enjoyed almost one million paying customers during its first year of operation. All would seem to be going well. However, despite the official attendance, all was perhaps not as well as Mr. Bernstein would have liked!
In October 1930, the Town Fathers of Dover refused to renew licences to allow cinemas to show films on Sundays. The Granada Theatre Dover and all other cinemas in the town counteracted this refusal by opening their doors on Sunday and turning on all of their lights and having their staff tell any patron that came that they were closed on the instructions of their own council. Evidently licences were renewed and Sunday cinema was once again available to the people of Dover.
In January 1931, admission prices to the Granada Theatre Dover were reduced. The management said that this was a birthday gift to the patrons of Dover, but evidently it was a ploy to increase business. In addition, economies were introduced at the theatre: the live stage shows were suddenly stopped and Leonardi & His Band returned to London. Only the organist remained (Ronald the Organist) and continued in his capacity of support.
Incidentally, I recently learned that Leonardi was sometimes billed as Jack Leonardi, although during the war, when he played on Music While You Work, he was listed as Leonard and his Orchestra, because the BBC did not want the public to think it was employing Italians. I have been unable to find out anything further about Leonardi or his orchestra. Unfortunately, he appears not to have made any recordings.
In the absence of any photographs or recorded musical pieces by Leonardi et al, I thought I would substitute another band of the times, Ivy Benson and Her Girls Band. Ms Benson’s band was very popular and I remember seeing them at the end of a pier as a child and was most intrigued that they were all women! I have no evidence to support the idea that Ms Benson et al performed at this theatre.
Soon it was made known to interested parties that Sidney Bernstein was willing to allow the theatre to pass out of his hands. In April 1931. Nathan N. Lee’s new company, Granada (Dover) Limited took over the running of the theatre on a long lease. The name Granada was to be retained, which later Mr. Bernstein was to regret!
Later in June 1933, Mr. Bernstein was approached by John Maxwell, the head of the Associated British Cinema Circuit (ABC), with a request to lease the Granada Theatre Dover. Mr. Bernstein replied by saying that he would only consider a sale of the property. To which Mr. Maxwell asked for terms. It is apparently unclear when the theatre property was purchased by ABC, but purchased it was sometime in 1935. The theatre was to keep its original name until April 1960 when it was renamed ABC. Incidentally, at this time the organ was sold to a private collector and taken to Warwickshire where it was to remain until the owner’s death in 2005, when it was sold once more.
As an ABC – photograph courtesy of Dover Public Library
As I have said before, Mr. Bernstein was a businessman and evidently had little difficulty moving on once he felt that a particular business, interest or building was no longer a viable concern. I can think of no other reason for him to dispense with this theatre after so short a time. However, he had dispensed with his father’s theatres earlier evidently without remorse and would make similar decisions again and again throughout his career. Perhaps this helps explain why Mr. Bernstein was a successful entrepreneur while I ………… am not! Sentimentality has no place in business.
Like many buildings in Britain, the Granada Theatre Dover is a veteran of the Second World War. This comment is not made to be facetious, but as a matter of fact.
On 23rd March, 1942, the packed the theatre was shaken by a bomb that landed some 20 yards from the away where it wrecked a number of shops. On the Saturday evening of the 6th September 1942, enemy shelling caused serious structural damage to the building. The screening was stopped and the audience filed out of the building in an orderly fashion. Once the building was deemed safe, the theatre reopened. Two years later, on the 3rd September, 1944 the Granada Theatre was once again damaged by heavy shelling and once again closed for repair. And, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, the theatre reopened once more!
The erstwhile Granada Theatre Dover and later renamed ABC has had a rather tragic history following its closure in June 1970. At this time, it was scheduled for conversion into a luxury lounge style cinema and reopened in July 1970 with 610 seats in the stalls only. I assume that the balcony area was closed off and not used. The luxury lounge concept lasted until October 1982 when it closed once more. This marked the end of film screening at this once glorious and important theatre despite efforts by the Dover Film Society and its chairman, Mr. John Ray, to have the building converted into a multiplex with either two or three screens.
In 1985, the building was reopened as Images, a nightclub, which had an art deco theme. Seemingly the seats of the stalls/luxury lounge were removed and a dance floor constructed in their place. However, this venture came to an end in 2003 and another nightclub, Snoops, opened in the building, which also eventually closed.
Bottom Right: this photograph was taken by Paul Wells
In 2003, J.D. Wetherspoon PLC purchased the building evidently with the intention of turning it into a public house. Sadly, the building still sits empty ……. and buildings that remain empty do not do well when they are left to suffer the elements …… and the old Granada’s future is looking dim.
This is a very sad and tragic state for such a one-time glorious building to find itself in. It is unfortunate if this should mark the end of Sidney Bernstein’s first purpose built theatre and where Theodore Komisarjevsky was first able to show what he could achieve.
Dover is still an important gateway to Britain thanks to its port. The image of its cliffs can still inspire union amongst peoples around the world against a common ill. Hearing Vera Lynn sing about them still cause the aged, and even those born after the end of the Second World War, to stop, listen and conjure up their image. Its castle and tunnels are prominent sites to be visited by many each year. Imagine, if the Granada could be returned to a fraction of its former glory what it would do for the town! Tragically, too many changes have occurred to the interior for English Heritage to award it a blue plaque, more’s the pity.
The Granada’s only real hope comes from the townsfolk. If they could somehow …… come together …… they might persuade the appropriate council people to issue a compulsory purchase of the building and then everyone could then put their heads together and think seriously about what can be done to make the site a valued asset to Dover once again.
One thing is certain, if something positive is not done, and done soon, the building will simply rot away!
I have a question for the reader: Which option would you choose?
- taking the usual solution to solve the problem of an erstwhile glorious building such this theatre, which is demolition and the building of an office block or luxury flats ……. or
- would you prefer to take a leaf from the book of the people of Clevedon, North Somerset where they worked together and now have the Curzon Community Cinema, which is a registered charity, complete with a fully-restored Christie Theatre Pipe Organ?
Sounds like a no-brainer to me! But the solution is not in my hands, is it? All I can do is ask ………… will the phoenix rise up once more from ashes?
Bottom Left: as Snoops, a nightclub; Bottom Right: staircase to the circle
The building now – photograph taken 26th June, 2013 by Ms Adeline Reidy
I would also like to thank Mr. Paul Wells for allowing his photograph of the exterior of the building to be reproduced here. I would also like to draw your attention to his website, Dover, Past and Present and to his books written with Jeff Howe.
I would like to thank Justin & Andy for sending me the photograph of the auditorium soon after the theatre opened.
Much of the history of the Granada Theatre Dover was found in the book, The Granada Theatres by Allen Eyles.