I just had to go and say my own emotional final farewell to Torquay’s oldest cinema which closes today (March 16th). The old building may be old and a bit smelly, but it was the place where I saw my very first movie and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
We all have known for some years that the end was in sight. The Central Cinema on Abbey Road is about to be replaced by owners Merlin Cinemas with a shiny new 13-screen multiplex which will finally open its first screens in April this year after delays caused by the Covid pandemic.
I have to admit that while I’ve always loved this place I hadn’t gone to the cinema since pre-Covid times – so when I heard this was the last week I knew I had to say goodbye. It was sadder and the damp and dusty smell has gotten worse but I still love the place and felt way more emotional than I expected.
READ MORE: First check out the new cinema in Torquay as it prepares to open next month
Manager John Maguire said he had a long line of people throughout the week telling him similar stories about how much they would miss the old cinema. “It’s weird this week knowing that this is the last movie,” he said.
“We have a lot of loyal customers and friendly faces coming in. You expect the older generation to be nostalgic, but it’s surprising how many younger people come in and say how important this place was to them too. It’s sad but also exciting because now we can move the equipment and prepare for the opening of the new building.
The cinema may be a shadow of its once glamorous self – but once the lights go down and the movies start, I’ve loved every minute of The Batman as much as I did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when I went to the cinema for the first time in 1963 At the last screenings of The Batman this week only screen two remained open downstairs and I realized I was sitting very close to where I saw my very first film.
Back then, believe it or not, the building had an Art Deco glamor — all soft carpets, polished brass, and plush red velvet sofas in a graceful mid-floor lounge area. For some reason I remember that even the toilets looked very luxurious.
Glamorous framed black and white photographs accompany your walk down the sweeping staircase to the main auditorium. At that time there was only one screen with a balcony level in the upper circle.
Torquay historian Robin Emdon summed it up well: “Unfortunately, as Merlin cinemas continue to develop, this 159-year-old venue that once hosted a night with Charles Dickens is forced to close forever. I really appreciate the extended lifespan Merlin cinemas gave these last survivors of the once numerous Torquay cinemas. I suppose we always knew the old building was living on borrowed time.
“It may not have been the finest example of a cinema building in Torquay, but it was certainly the oldest beating heart of Torquay’s year-round indoor entertainment. I personally will miss the old place a lot.”
Generations of moviegoers will remember the Central as the old Odeon, but it first opened in 1878 as The Winter Gardens and expanded into the Royal Theater and Opera House in 1880. Film projection equipment was first installed in 1915 and in 1922 it became a full-time cinema.
The last live theater show was performed in 1931. It was the Odeon from 1935 until November 1999. Merlin took over in 2000.
Believe it or not, in 1939 there were 12 listed cinemas in the Torbay area – six in Torquay alone. Torquay’s first cinema was the Picturedrome in 1909 on part of the market grounds. It was also an entertainment hall and originally used a gas projector in the center of the auditorium to show the films.
The Picturedrome did not make it into the talkie era and closed in 1935. The first purpose-built cinema in 1911 was the Electric, later the Colony, on Union Street, which was demolished in 1987 to make way for Littlewoods and Boots. It had its own posh restaurant upstairs.
Then came the Empire (1912) in Ellacombe (closed in 1964 and later converted into the popular nightclub Monroe’s) and the Tudor in St Marychurch (1929), now the Bygones Museum. The Tudor was a particular favorite with the youngsters, who were often screened for early horror films.
There was also the Burlington (1920-1953) at the end of Union Street and the Regal (1932-1978) in Castle Circus, famous for the Saturday morning children’s cinema when it was the ABC (later the Job Center opposite City Hall). The Odeon, the last remaining cinema in Torquay, was bought by the Rank Organization in 1937. Originally it had a canvas with a top circle, before Rank created two canvases on the upper and lower floors.
Rank closed it in 1999 and the building sat vacant for two years before being salvaged by Merlin Cinemas, who created a multiplex by converting Screen Two on the lower level into three smaller screens. Upstairs Screen One (the original balcony) still seated more than 190 and was the largest in the Merlin Company. Sadly, this screen was never reopened after the projector went down during the long Covid-19 lockdown.
The New Central Cinema in the old BHS store, later Buyology, on Union Street will open in phases with the first three screens opening in April. A new adjacent restaurant and bar will follow soon, as will more screens on the first floor of the building. All employees are moving from the old cinema to the new multiplex.
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