The history of Sunderland's wonderful Art Deco Holmeside Cinema which is now a bingo hall
Unless you’ve had eyes down for a full house, or are below a certain age, you might never have given much thought to what is now the Mecca Bingo Hall on Holmeside in the centre of Sunderland.
An unprepossessing exterior belies much. There is considerably more to the building than clickety-clicks and two little ducks. Inside is a beautiful piece of social, architectural - and Sunderland history.
It is probably best remembered as a cinema, but was also a notable concert venue for some world famous stars.
A gem of a building
It opened in 1932 as Black’s Regal cinema, costing a whopping £100,000. It could seat 2,500; bear in mind that an average modern multiplex auditorium holds around 230. It also employed more than 60 staff.
Today it still has what the Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) describes as: “The finest surviving cinema auditorium in the north-east.”
It’s difficult to argue with that description although, perhaps surprisingly, the building isn’t listed and the CTA had expressed fears for its future, though it’s extremely well maintained by Mecca who own the premises outright.
Richard Gray of the CTA says: “Sunderland Regal (as was) possesses the largest and best remaining 1930s cinema auditorium in the North-East: north of York in fact.
“The interior especially is a splendid example of Art Deco by architects Frederick Evans and Edwin Gray. Mecca Bingo deserves credit for having helped preserve the Regal so successfully for many years.”
Splendid is the right word. The original Art Deco in the auditorium is unmissable and unmistakable.
The highlight is the original pair of “dancing ladies” on either side of what was the stage, where live entertainment went hand-in-hand with cinema. They really need to be seen close up to understand how impressive they are.
A great picture house
On March 28, 1932, Out of the Blue became the first film ever shown there. It was a British musical starring Jessie Matthews; a love story with an ending that could be predicted within five minutes of the roll of the opening credits. Audiences didn’t seem to mind.
The talkies had begun by then, but silent films were still being made. Therefore an organ was required and the Regal’s was a magnificent example.
The venue was equipped with a fabulous Compton theatre organ, the best that money could buy, which rose from beneath the stage floor. The first organist was Arnold Eagle, or “Eagle of the Regal” as he was inevitably referred to until he left in 1946.
Today the organ is stored in Ryhope, having been bought by the Sunderland Theatre Organ Preservation Society when the cinema closed.
In 1959 Black's was taken over by the giant Rank Organisation and became the Odeon. The front stalls entrance in Park Lane shut permanently in 1964 and capacity fell by 300.
It was divided into a three-screen cinema in 1975, with 1,200 seats in the former circle and two 150-seat screens in the rear stalls.
The last days as a cinema and the decline of Sunderland’s picture houses
The early 1980s were a barren period for cinemas generally, with video hire shops becoming all the rage. On June 26, 1982 the Odeon closed permanently and its seats were stripped out.
The last pair of films to be shown on Holmeside were The Empire Strikes Back, the second in the umpteen-movie Star Wars franchise, and Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions, which was a tawdry tribute to one of the 1970s’ sex symbols.
The venue soon re-opened as the Top Rank bingo hall and eventually the Mecca.
In the 1950s and 1960s there were small cinemas dotted all over Sunderland, with varying levels of plushness. There was the relative opulence of the Odeon, down to the notorious Millfield Cinema, for those who enjoyed a bit of squalor.
However, by the time the multiplex opened in High Street in 2003, Sunderland had been without any cinema at all for four years.
Some of the world’s biggest musical stars play Holmeside
Before stadium concerts became the norm, large theatres were about the biggest venues on offer. Black’s Regal/Odeon hosted some huge musical stars, including Bill Haley, Frank Ifield, Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones in 1965.
During their visit, the Stones’ main men, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, popped into JW Gracey’s Men’s Outfitters, directly opposite the cinema, to look at some shirts.
The owner, Jack Gracey, was distinctly unimpressed by the “scruffy pair”, who were somewhat less conservative than his usual clientele.
And there’s more...
Other attractions included wrestling. Big Daddy grappled there in 1973 and was said to be quite convincing.
In 1967 an aeroplane was displayed in the foyer to publicise the film The Blue Max. Nobody today seems sure how they got it in.
Cinema, concert venue, rock stars, bingo hall and wonderful Art Deco, an entire book could be written on the place.
And it's still there. It is recommended that you suspend any antipathy you may feel towards the beautiful game of bingo and see this marvellous building for yourself. You might even win a few grand while you’re in there.
The “dancing ladies” alone are worth the effort.
*Our thanks to Philip Curtis of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society for his help.