Bingo has been a great benefactor of Britain’s historic auditoria. Without the rise of the bingo industry in the 1960s a great many exciting buildings would have disappeared when television overtook the cinema as the most popular means of entertainment.
Mecca maintains the former Garrick Theatre, Southport, in superb condition, and the building continues to earn its keep at the south-west end of Lord Street.
It was built on the site of the 1891 Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, which had been destroyed by fire in December 1929, and opened on December 19th 1932.
Matcham’s theatre seated two thousand, and the Southport architect George E Tonge designed its replacement as a live theatre, with a fifty-foot-wide proscenium, seating 1,600.
Tonge devised an interesting mix of theatrical tradition and thirties modernity.
The exterior is a lively essay in jazzy modernity, with tall windows of zigzag glazing and a sweeping corner feature punctuated with stepped verticals. On the Lord Street façade an open colonnade carries a concrete moulding depicting a violin and a saxophone, flanked by the classical masks of comedy and tragedy.
The auditorium is pure Art Deco, with four practically useless boxes beside the proscenium and a frieze of sunbursts with musical notes and dancing figures.
When the Essoldo cinema circuit bought the Garrick in 1957, they used the follow-spot operator’s perch in the ceiling as a projection box, despite the severe angle which necessitated tilting the 37-foot screen on the stage below.
Southport was already well-provided with cinemas: apart from the first-run Odeon and ABC there were already four others, and Essoldo quickly returned to a mixed programme of film and live shows, which in turn gave place to bingo in 1963.
Conversion to a bingo club entailed levelling the stalls floor to meet the stage, removing the stalls seating and installing a staircase from the stalls to the balcony. Otherwise, this fine auditorium is largely unaltered. The stage-tower is concealed from halfway up the proscenium, and the wings-space is brought into the club.
As such, the building is virtually intact. It’s in excellent condition, warm and welcoming, and well-loved by its patrons. All thanks to bingo.
Update: The Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin Vol 55 No 3 (May/June 2021) reports that Mecca will not reopen the former Garrick/Essoldo after its lockdown closure. There is a suggestion that the Southport Theatre & Convention Centre, which went into liquidation in May 2020, could move into the bingo hall and Mecca could take over the theatre. It remains to be seen…
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