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Changing Times | Seafront site has entertained generations

THE ORIGINAL Bognor building named the Kursaal was constructed in 1911 and was the work of William Tate, a local builder, who was responsible for The Arcade and many other constructions at the turn of the last century.


The Kursaal, once described as a large complex with copper domes and white woodwork, was opened to the public on Sunday, June 4, 1911, with a concert by the Royal Garrison Artillery Band. This was followed by the first production of a musical by Heidelberg.


We can only surmise how the building was perceived when it was built, on a somewhat open seafront. It must have appeared as a very ambitious construction, with its distinctive architectural design, especially considering the population of the town of just over 8,000.


The original Kursaal building contained a rooftop roller-skating rink, club and small concert hall with the main theatre able to seat an audience of 1,200 people for their popular shows. At the end of the First World War, some eight years after the opening, there was a name change because of anti-German feeling and it became the Theatre Royal in 1919.


Within a month of its original opening, films were being shown such as the Coronation of King George V, who was later to visit the town. Films were only shown on a Sunday during the summer months, but nightly during the winter months. It was to be one of the first theatres to boast electric light with their 30 ‘frosted globes’ hanging from the centre of the high carved ceiling and it was alleged at the time it was superior to many of the London theatres.


The advertising of this facility was quite extensive and just one of the brochures for the 1923 season lists all the live concerts to be held during July, August and September with prices ranging from 1s (5p) in the upper circle to 25s (£1.25) for a reserved box.


Additionally, there was the Palais De Danse, Pierrotland Concert Hall, Theatre Royal, Mimosa Café and Tea Gardens which were soon being supported by the public. On the first floor was the Esplanade Club, which residents could join, and holidaymakers could pay 10p per week for admittance to the club. It was  popular as the club had a balcony running along the whole of the front of the building where members could sit and view the sea.


In 1935, one of the productions in the Theatre Royal was entitled Bognor on Parade, which was staged by local groups to raise the ever necessary money for Bognor Regis War Memorial Hospital.


The theatre was closed for a few years during the Second World War because the seafront was shut to prevent an invasion. The last live show was at Christmas 1941 and it reopened in 1947 as the Rex Entertainment Centre. After extensive refurbishment, and the welcome addition of a ballroom with a ‘smooth maple floor and luxurious appointment’, according to a press report in August 1947 it was also ‘destined to become Bognor’s most popular rendezvous for young people’. The first dance held was in support of the local community and was attended by 600 people, with the proceeds being presented to the British Red Cross. The Theatre Royal, entered from Belmont Street, retained that name when the seaward end of the complex became the Rex. However, stage shows ceased and it ended its life as a cinema.


Shops were also a feature of the Rex Building, being under the roof along York Road, shielded by a covered walkway. One of the main landmarks was a unique clock advertising Wade the Jewellers and Opticians prominently situated on the corner. The clock was operated by a unit inside the shop and was lit by a gas jet.  In the 1930s there was a gas explosion, which resulted in glass and jewellery being scattered into York Road. Later this premise was occupied by Jas. Walker until its closure in 1975.


After the major refurbishment of the Rex, this area became more fashionable for the local shop owners, mainly housing ice cream parlours, tobacconists and other summer seaside-related shops, including toys, fancy goods, rock shops, booksellers and cafés.


On the other side of York Road, on the corner of The Esplanade, the ever-popular Goodacres toyshop delighted children until it was demolished to make way for the Place St Maur des Fosses. From 1956, Cleeves camera shop was situated next to Goodacres. Nearby was the Bijou Café where today stands the visitor information centre. Previously known as The Tourist Information Bureau, it occupied premises within the Rex building from 1972 to 1975.


The Theatre Royal, which was approached down a short arcade leading from Belmont Street, also housed a number of shops, including in The Arcade: Marshals – ladies outfitter, WK Rolfe and Co, a music warehouse, and Dyson and Son (Bognor) Ltd.


Finally, in October, 1979, this grand Edwardian construction was demolished. This area was eventually to be redeveloped with the Regis Centre.


The Regis Centre was advertised as a £950,000 entertainment centre and as part of a central feature of a redevelopment area for the seafront. The shows destined for it were those that had been enjoyed in the Esplanade Theatre.


The new building was opened by the Duke of Norfolk on March 11, 1980. The theatre had seating for 382 people, there were meeting rooms, with an area capable of holding 500 people, and a café.


It is quite interesting to look through paperwork and reports of a building that has been so much in the public eye and has had so much written about it over its history.  Memory tends to enhance poor publicity while the excellent shows will most probably have been forgotten.


Since the Regis Centre opened, it has gone through many phases, not least being the transformation of the hall and several meeting rooms into The Regis pub, facing the prom. We now have a charitable trust of volunteers who have the major task of looking after the shows and both the centre’s interior and exterior.

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