Odeon Covent Garden
135 Shaftesbury Avenue,
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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 freize by sculptor Gilbert Bayes. Measuring 129 feet in length, it depicts ‘Drama Through the Ages’ with representations of ‘St. Joan’, ‘Imperial Roman Triumphal Proscession’, ‘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 facade are a series of plaques, again sculptored 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. 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 in the drama “Enemy”, which played at the Saville in 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 totally gutted the interior, the architects 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 Shaftesbury Avenue on 22nd December 1970 with Peter Sellers in “There’s A Girl in My Soup” and Dinah Sheridan in “The Railway Children”.
Despite its luxury and 70mm equipped auditoriums, the ABC 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. 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 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.
The original historic facade of the building remains intact and is designated a Grade II listed building by English Heritage.
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