Harry’s Ramblings; Eastbourne’s cinema of dreams
The cinema came to Eastbourne in the 1890s, it’s not recorded where, but it must have been close to the town centre. Eastbourne is one of those strangely traditional places, very class-conscious, built in mid-Victorian times by gentlemen for gentlemen, so the early cinema would have been regarded as crass, only for the masses. Against traditional theatre it would have stood no chance.
However, by 1912 there were already three picture palaces, where patrons would sit in varying degrees of comfort. The grander places had proper seating, the cheaper had benches. The films didn’t last for long in those days, one reelers lasting about ten minutes, the technician having to change over for the next black and white film. These usually showed people moving jerkily in a city, or transport such as a steam train travelling in the distance, suddenly arriving on the screen to shock the audience as if it was landing right in their faces.
The Eastern Cinema at 143 Seaside was opened in March 1912. The owner was a local businessman named Harvey Baker, who opened the Eastern Cinema Palace with the film Vanity Fair. Initially in publicity it was referred to as a hall, seating 500 people. The front faced onto Seaside, with a corner road on one side and a Martins Bank the other. Patrons walked through the large main doors into the vestibule, with the auditorium behind. The screen was to the left, all seating on one level, emergency doors to the rear and other side.
In 1915 it was described as ‘practically fire proof, as there is a wide passage at the eastern side it can be cleared in one minute. The charges for seats are 1/- (especially raised seats) 6d, 4d, and 3d. Tip-up chairs are provided, the first second and third seats being upholstered in plush and the 3d seats in leather. In winter a system of steam-heating is available, while in summer electric fans are used to cool the atmosphere. Performances daily at 3 7 and 9.
The electric light is specially made in order to ensure the steadiness of the films. In the auditorium the torch-shaped electric lamps are artistic and effective. The Venetian Orchestra is under the conductorship of Mr. Tyrrell. The music at the Eastern Cinema is always a welcome and pleasing feature of the performances, which are exceedingly popular.
There is an entire change of programme twice a week. Films are selected with the greatest care and include stirring and pathetic dramas, humorous scenes, and representations of some of the most exquisite scenery in various parts of the world. Pathe Gazette and the Vivaphone Singing Pictures are also shown.’
After a while in the early days it had a separate star and a crescent moon on its façade, which would have lit up at night to attract passing patrons. The late 1920s saw the advent of the talking pictures, so the New Eastern was converted to the Western Electric Sound System. The first talking movie was the Alfred Hitchcock directed Blackmail.
It was one of those cinemas that was never fashionable, the New Eastern is a mile out of the main thorofare in the poorer part of town mainly inhabited by the artisans, so if there was no work, then the cinema did badly. Somehow during the 1930s it managed to survive despite competition with a diet of second rate films that didn’t make the main distribution circuit. Because of south coast bombing, it was conveniently closed in September 1940.
Bank Holiday Monday, 6th August 1945 (it was the first Monday of the month then) saw the grand re-opening, now as the Regal Cinema. It now had plush seating for 384. Still no contemporary films on show, the double-header was the 1937 Deanna Durbin 100 Men and a Girl, followed by the 1938 Crazy Gang Alf’s Button Afloat. Okay, the first one could have been a crowd pleaser, but it had already been on the screens many times. The Crazy Gang were always popular. The next few years were to prove difficult, variety at the theatre competing with the new television medium, so economic reality was heard, with the old cinema closing its doors for the final time on October 3rd, 1953. The first movie was Bomba and the Lion Hunters, starring Johnny Sheffield – no, I’ve never heard of him either – and the last ever film played was Law of the Panhandle. This starred Johnny Mack Brown and Jane Adams, two ‘stars’ revelling in their obscurity.
Two years later the building was cleared of all seating, converted into a small branch of Woolworths. That didn’t last for too long, all emptied again so it could become a car showroom. 1993 a different occupier, this time Top Marks, the bedroom and kitchen specialists. The current use is as a funeral office. Payne and Sons realised that the area had no such offices, and have enjoyed growth while maintaining professional standards. Some of the old cinema area at the back is now used as a private chapel, where services can be held before the final completion elsewhere.
So the old cinema building is still active in its original role. Providing a service for its community.