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Changing Times | Long-gone theatre still fondly remembered

How MANY people are aware of the history of the site opposite the Royal Norfolk Hotel, which today is a skate-boarding area?


The site originally formed part of the Royal Norfolk Hotel grounds, but the hotel sold it in 1901 for the princely sum of £60. The town surveyor, Oswald Bridges, was then called upon to design a bandstand on the site for use by the large number of military bands that travelled around the resorts to entertain the public.


By 1913, the venue was so popular that it was enlarged and deckchairs were made available for the comfort of the audience. The charge for these chairs helped to raise the £500 a year needed to hire the bands.


In 1936, Bognor Regis Town Council put forward a proposal for a Winter Garden to replace the modest wooden bandstand. These plans included: a) a hall for band and orchestral concerts, entertainments, theatrical performances or dances; b) sheltered promenades and open terraces adjoining the hall, from which band concerts may be heard, and c) a café adjoining the hall where light refreshments could be supplied and from which refreshments might be serviced to the hall and promenade.


The building was apparently designed to ‘express its function of modern entertainment’. This sounded quite interesting. The actual plans looked somewhat different from the new theatre.


An enclosure was proposed and approved and finally opened on June 19, 1937, at a cost of £3,666 and, according to the press, the opening was attended by a staggering 3,000 people. This bandstand enclosure comprised only a horseshoe-shaped wall and was turfed inside, but still open to the sky. However, when it rained, the noise was deafening, especially if you were able to rush under cover.


In 1945, further improvements were made as the turf was removed and replaced with tiles. The area was covered in the next year with a canvas roof and renamed the Esplanade Concert Hall.


However, many of the audience were not able to see the stage because of the design of this structure. So much use was made of this concert hall that, by 1951, further improvements were made, including 720 tip up seats, in one raked tier, and when it reopened in 1951 there was to be yet another name change, this time to the Esplanade Theatre. Many stars performed there.


They included Tony Hancock, Roy Castle, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Cyril Fletcher and the frequent visitor Bill Pertwee.


How many people in the town today can remember the shows that regularly graced the stage, such as the Bouquets or the Dazzle shows in the 1950s and 60s? In one of the 1968 summer programmes, there is a list of ticket prices. Adults up to 6/- (30p) and a 1/- (5p) reduction for Theatre Club members, children and OAPs. Also included is a bus timetable for people travelling around the area with late buses at 10.30pm.


The Esplanade Theatre was always well used and a licensed bar was added in the mid-1960s. In October, 1978, and by popular demand again in March, 1979, evenings of Old Films of Bognor were shown to packed audiences. This was to be my introduction to the history of the town, and the start of my enjoyment with research, talks and writing on my adopted home. Sadly, trends changed. Television became more popular, theatres were in decline and the Esplanade was no exception.


It was finally closed on February 10, 1980, creating much sadness and anger in the town at its demise. The final show at the theatre was reported as ‘an extravaganza.’ The show lasted four and a half hours, and in addition to the entertainment, funds for the Anthony Nolan Trust were raised.


By April, 1980, the theatre was demolished, leaving just the popular Macari’s café remaining on the seaward side of the site. It was suggested more than £100,000 would be needed to carry out structural repairs to the theatre, and this was more than was available at the time.


When it closed, it was the fifth theatre to shut in the town, after the Theatre Royal, Pier Theatre, Roof Gardens Theatre and Pierrotland.


Charles Powell, the town’s entertainment manager at the theatre for 29 years, until his retirement in 1978, commented there was ‘no doubt the theatre was a very important factor in the life of the town’.


Sadly, Mr Powell has passed away but he was always ready to extoll the virtues of the theatre and entertainment in the town. He is sadly missed. The decrease in holidaymakers and the increase in entertainment provided on site at holiday camps and caravan parks helped with this demise of the theatres.


In 1981, students of Felpham Community College painted a mural on the wall of the café to try and brighten the area, for the benefit of the general public, who only saw it as an eyesore.


Towards the end of the year, there was also a low-key attempt to use this area, when groups tried their hand at petanque, but this was short lived. At this time also Leisure Union Ltd had shown an interest in placing a model boat concession on the site, but this plan, like the others, did not materialise.


It was not until 1996 that a more permanent and full-time use for the area was found, with the introduction of the skateboarding park for young people. It is always popular and is still a leisure area, but sadly only for a small sector of our community.


A fine model of the Esplanade Theatre can be viewed in the Bognor Regis Local History Museum, just around the corner in West Street, open until October.


It is interesting that a theatre that was closed so many ago is held in such high esteem. This was obviously due to the management, staff and entertainers who provided the much enjoyed entertainment for the town.

Posted in Lifestyle.