Odeon London Covent Garden
135 Shaftesbury Avenue,
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Odeon Theatres UK (Official)
Operated by: Odeon Theatres Ltd.
Architects: Bertie Crewe
Styles: Art Deco
Previous Names: Saville Theatre, ABC 1 & 2 Shaftesbury Avenue, Cannon, Odeon Shaftesbury Avenue, Odeon Covent Garden
Opened as the Saville Theatre on 8th October 1931. The opening production was “For the Love of Mike” - a play with tunes which ran until June 1932. The theatre was designed in an Art Deco style by the architectural firm T.P. Bennett & Son, with Bertie Crewe as consulting architect. Seating was provided for 1,185; 597 in the orchestra stalls (which were below street level) and a single balcony (the front of which was at street level). The front of the balcony known as the dress circle seated 261 and the rear section known as the upper circle seated 319. There was a box on each side of the proscenium, each one seating four persons. The proscenium was 31 feet wide, the stage 30 feet deep and there were 16 single dressing rooms and one chorus room which accommodated 50 artistes, plus an orchestra room which could hold 30 people. The Saville Theatre was the last of the ‘live’ theatres to be built on Shaftesbury Avenue (London’s ‘West End’ theatre street).
The exterior of the building is in textured brick and has as its main point of interest, a bas-relief frieze by sculptor Gilbert Bayes. Measuring 129 feet in length, it depicts ‘Drama Through the Ages’ with representations of ‘St. Joan’, ‘Imperial Roman Triumphal Procession’, ‘Harlequinade’ and ‘War Plays’ etc. Sections of this frieze were displayed at the Royal Academy in 1930-1931, prior to their installation on the building. Along the top of the façade are a series of plaques, again sculptured by Gilbert Bayes, which represent ‘Art Through the Ages’.
Inside the theatre there were lavishly appointed bar areas; the stalls bar had a 18 feet by 54 feet painted mural by artist R.A. Thompson, and in the circle bar a similar painted mural by the same artist measuring 42 feet by 40 feet.
The Saville Theatre was well suited to staging small musicals, revues and dramatic plays. It had some successes with artistes such as Cecily Courtneidge, Fred Emney, Richard Hearne, Bobby Howes, Evelyn Laye and Laurence Olivier starring in various productions. The Saville Theatre received some damage by German bombs in 1941, but repairs were quickly carried out. In July 1955 a complete new scheme of decoration was carried out to the plans of Laurence Irving. A new mural by John Collins was added to the stalls bar.
In 1965 the theatre was leased by Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, and productions of plays continued weekdays. Sunday concerts were introduced which featured concerts by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jr. Walker All Stars, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Move, Procol Harem, Nirvana, Fairport Convention, Cream, The Incredible String Band, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones & Yoko Ono. One of the last major shows in the theatre was drag artiste Danny La Rue in “Queen Pasionella” and the last production to be staged at the Saville Theatre was Dennis Waterman, Tony Selby & Neil Stacy in the war/gay relationship drama “Enemy”, which played a short run at the Saville Theatre from December 1969 into 1970.
Associated British Cinemas(ABC) were seeking a West End showcase house for their films being produced by parent company EMI. They purchased the Saville Theatre and the architectural firm responsible for the new twin-screen cinemas built within the shell of the building were William Ryder & Associates. They created two auditoriums which were curtained wall-to-wall and had luxurious seating for 616 and 581. Opened as the ABC 1 & 2 Shaftesbury Avenue on 22nd December 1970 with Peter Sellers in “There’s A Girl in My Soup” and Dinah Sheridan in “The Railway Children”. On 21st November 1974, the ABC 1 & 2 held the Royal World Charity Premiere of “Murder on the Orient Express” starring Albert Finney, attended by Her Majesty The Queen, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Princess Anne.
Despite its luxury and 70mm equipped auditoriums, the ABC 1 & 2 was never a great success, being ‘just off the beaten track’ of the major cinema area in Leicester Square. It was later taken over by the Cannon Group and re-named Cannon, later becoming an MGM cinema, before the ABC management buy-out which brought back the ABC name again around May 1996. Although by then looking a little down at heels, the ABC got appreciative audiences in its two auditoriums to experience mainly art house and independent films on its huge screens.
Taken over by Odeon Theatres in 2000, it was re-named Odeon Shaftesbury Avenue and after a short time it became the Odeon Covent Garden (although it is only ‘near’ to Covent Garden and not located ‘in’ it). In 2001 it was sub-divided into a four-screen cinema and now plays off-beat independent films rather than the big blockbusters. Current seating capacities in the screens are; 148, 269, 167 and 156.
Plans were announced in early-2019 that the building would be gutted and converted into a hotel. These plans were not approved and dismiss on appeal. A second attempt by the owners to convert it into a 94 bedroom hotel were not approved and turned down in a second appeal in March 2021. There is hope that it may return to live theatre use. An inspection of the building has found the original stage house and fly tower is still intact, also there are many decorative features in the auditorium which may survive behind panelling. The former stalls bar (the longest in any London theatre) survives unused.
The original historic façade of the building remains intact and is designated a Grade II listed building by English Heritage.
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