134 North Street,
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The story of the Imperial/Essoldo Brighton is a sad one of wanton vandalism by the lessee (Rank) and inaction or complicity by the freeholder (Brighton Council) when in 1997 the fine interior was wrecked by removal of one of the two balconies and the gutting of the ground floor to make a very short-lived (18 months) bowling alley. Demolition, just three years later for a speculative retail / residential accommodation scheme was unpreventable as the building was by then, to all intents and purposes, beyond restoration.
It was designed by the eminent architect Samuel Beverley (of Verity and Beverley). It was planned as a live theatre for Jack Buchanan with a foundation stone laid by Ralph Lynn in July 1939. It opened on 9th April 1940 and presented its first film season in 1943, the projection suite was at balcony (top) level and was most likely part of the original brief. After 1945 it became mainly a cinema but still with regular, if occasional, stage use. After Jack Buchanan, the theatre was owned by Gaywood Cinemas and from 1949 the Essoldo Cinemas circuit who renamed the building in 1950. It closed on 15 May 1964 and was converted into a bingo hall, latterly owned by Top Rank.
It was a late-Art Deco style building with an elegant foyer entered from North Street. The exterior in red brick had a narrow corner frontage containing a glass and metal tall window at second and third floor levels with five square windows in a 1-3-1 spacing below, the middle three being in line with the tall windows above. The facade was neon lit at night, which extended down the side of the building for a few feet, to give impact from the busy crossroads at the Quadrant. The Imperial Theatre was next to the minor entrance hall of the great Regent Cinema, just across the side road. The side elevation in Windsor Street was massed blocks of red brick with the stage at the far end of the building. Numerous emergency exits were located on this elevation. Dressing rooms were stacked up at the sides of the stage, which had a fly tower.
The auditorium seated 1,877 divided between stalls, circle and balcony. It was decorated with a marine motif, appropriate for this seaside town. Dolphins and cockleshells (many concealing lights) could be found in the fibrous plaster all over the theatre. There were five boxes on either side of the stage, the first one of double height and then two at circle level with two at balcony level immediately above, all having bulbous fronts set between Ionic columns topped by shells. There were six further boxes at the rear of the circle in pairs between the four sets of entrance doors. The proscenium was a quadruple stepped rectangle, richly decorated between steps 1 and 2 with an open strapwork design with panels of shells and seahorses at regular intervals.
On conversion to bingo a few minor (reversible) alterations were made including the insertion through the left hand tall box of a staircase linking stalls and circle, the building of a balcony level on the stage, and a false ceiling cutting off the upper stage levels. More seriously, the foyer was opened up at ground floor level. However, the lounges looking through the tall curved windows at upper levels remained untouched.
This was a solidly built theatre that remained in excellent condition until Rank’s inexcusable destruction of the interior in 1997.
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