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Regent Theatre captures the elegance and glitz of the changing face of showbiz

PUBLISHED: 18:34 01 November 2019 | UPDATED: 18:34 01 November 2019

The outside of the Ipswich Regent, opening week, 1929. Photo: Contributed

The outside of the Ipswich Regent, opening week, 1929. Photo: Contributed

Archant

The Regent Theatre has long been at the heart of East Anglia's entertainment scene. We take a look at its changing role and its various identities over the past 90 years

Ipswich Regent crush hall in 1929. The area now occupied by the bar Photo: ArchantIpswich Regent crush hall in 1929. The area now occupied by the bar Photo: Archant

It's the largest seated theatre in East Anglia, it's also one of the most adaptable and now after two restorations in 2007 and 2014 it's not only one of the most elegant, it has a reputation for being one the most comfortable theatres in the region.

As it celebrates its 90th anniversary, the theatre is now regarded as one of the leading touring venues in the East of England. The staff at the Regent work hard to make both audiences and performers feel at home, which means that top West End tours, leading music acts or comedians never need to be persuaded to include Ipswich on their itinerary.

Like any long-lived venue The Ipswich Regent has gone through many changes of face and name over the years. It first opened its doors in November 1929 as a cine-variety hall.

A stage was included in the design because even with the advent of talkies, no-one was sure that cinema would be anything more than a passing phase.

The Regent theatre auditorium when it opened on Monday 4th November 1929 Photo: ArchantThe Regent theatre auditorium when it opened on Monday 4th November 1929 Photo: Archant

The first public performance was a screening of the film The Last of Mrs Cheyney - an 'all-talking' picture - starring Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone - with front circle seats costing 2s/4d.

When The Regent opened it resembled an opulent palace. It was regarded as the latest thing in entertainment. It's spacious foyer could handle nearly 2,000 people.

Even the fact the theatre had electric lighting was a selling point, as was the fact that the staff were equipped with battery torches.

The opening night was commemorated with an illustrated programme which was filled with expensive photographs of the luxurious interiors, ornate plasterwork and expensive decoration.

New Regent Opening Night September 1991

 Photo: ArchantNew Regent Opening Night September 1991 Photo: Archant

Outside the theatre a large queue had formed, filing past Botwoods Garage as a Ransomes steam lorry tooted its whistle. On the stage, the Mayor of Ipswich, Dr Hossack, performed the opening ceremony; musical numbers were played on the brand new Wurlitzer organ by the resident organist Frank Newman.

The luxurious Regent restaurant enhanced a visit to the theatre and, if desired, tea could be served in any of the fourteen boxes at the rear of the stalls. The boxes, combined with the fact that the venue had a manager's cottage at the rear of the theatre, made the Regent unique.

During the 1930s, the stage was not used to any great extent, although there was always room for music. Up until the mid-1930s, the 18-piece Regent Orchestra, under the direction of Louis Baxter, frequently entertained audiences. Most theatre orchestras were disbanded in the late 1930s and the organ then became the principal musical attraction.

During the war, the Regent played its part in providing much-needed escapism and helped to sustain public morale. After the war, The Regent flourished and enjoyed an attendance boom.

The Beatles meeting fans backstage at what was then called the Ipswich Gaumont Photo: ArchantThe Beatles meeting fans backstage at what was then called the Ipswich Gaumont Photo: Archant

Also during this period, the stage was employed in the presentation of Ipswich Civic Concerts - previously held at the Public Hall and moved after the venue was gutted by fire.

The Regent stage was also used for the presentation of Sadler's Wells Ballet, Carl Rosa Opera and one-night band shows.

The popularity of cinema in the halcyon days of the 1930s and 40s was so great that another cinema in Ipswich, The Ritz, was opened in 1937.

But the advent of television in the 1950s proved a testing time for cinemas up and down the country and even the highly successful Regent did not survive intact. To allow the cinema to become more profitable, the restaurant was closed down and replaced by the Victor Sylvester Dance Studio.

Dolly Parton and David Lowe with his Manager of the year Award  November 1978 Photo: ArchantDolly Parton and David Lowe with his Manager of the year Award November 1978 Photo: Archant

The post-war fortunes of the town's theatre are inextricably linked with long-term manager David Lowe who arrived in 1958 when the Regent, renamed The Gaumont, was absorbed into the Rank empire.

David, who transferred from the Colchester Hippodrome, was a showman down to his fingertips and saw the potential for the cinema to go back to its roots and also function as a concert venue.

This coincided with the rock'n'roll explosion and the growth of pop music and youth culture. Buddy Holly and the Crickets started off the craze at the Gaumont and since then thousands of international artists have graced the theatre's stage including the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard Tina Turner, Tom Jones, Chris Rea, Status Quo - many, many teen bands and during the 1970s country and western stars.

The theatre also became home to amateur theatre and music societies including the Ipswich Operatic Society, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and later the Co-op Juniors.

The front page of the Daily Mirror commemorating the opening of the Regent on November 4 1929The front page of the Daily Mirror commemorating the opening of the Regent on November 4 1929

Rank immediately began an investment programme which resulted in a fresh coat of paint and new lighting when they took over in the late 1950s followed by more extensive refurbishments eight years later.

In 1965 £80,000 was spent by Rank modernising the Gaumont, which in today's money comes close to a quarter of a million pounds. The work included the laying of a specially woven carpet which replaced the 1929 original.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Gaumont balanced the requirements of cinema and live shows but with the dawn of the 1970s, the Gaumont's reputation as a live venue skyrocketed with the arrival of the big rock tours and it also became magnet for the growing country and western scene, fuelled by the presence of the US airbases at Woodbridge, Bentwaters, Mildenhall and Lakenheath.

For more than ten years the Gaumont had a strange schizophrenic existence being a mecca for heavy rock acts like Rainbow, Motorhead, Whitesnake and Status Quo as well as American country acts like Don Williams, Dolly Parton and Boxcar Willie.

However, by the 1980s, changes in pop music and the lack of touring bands meant that the viability of The Gaumont was being called into question.

The venue's dance studio was converted to a luxury 200-seat cinema and Rank also proposed to convert the main auditorium into a multi-screen complex. However, after a great deal of persuasion, Rank's plans were abandoned because the auditorium was established as the only local venue of sufficient capacity to stage live shows.

The theatre was re-launched in September 1991 after a deal was struck between Ipswich Borough Council and Rank allowing the council to gain control of the re-named Regent in return for a new purpose-built Odeon cinema next door.

The small-scale Odeon may have closed, a victim of the boom in cinema attendances, but The Regent has flourished becoming a regional centre for live concerts and high profile touring theatre.

In the autumn of 2007, it benefitted from another extensive refurbishments programme which restored much of its original glamour, replaced the seating along with stateof-the-art lighting. In 2014 further restoration of the plasterwork behind the boxes and around the bar area was carried out, along with modification to the foyer which allowed for easier access, which sets the scene for the next phase of the theatre's life - at the heart of regional entertainment.

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