The opening of the Vue cinema in Feethams - Darlington's first new cinema in 75 years - has inspired us to look at town's record-breaking cinema history. Part three tells of the opening of the theatre-de-luxe

ON Boxing Day 1932, the Majestic, Darlington’s sixth purpose-built cinema, opened on Bondgate.

Boxing Day, as you probably know, is the day after Christmas Day when most people are warmly ensconced in the bosom of their family.

But not in cinema-crazy Darlington in 1932. The deputy mayor, Cllr Richard Luck, and the town’s MP, Charles Peat, were enticed away from their leftover turkey to make the speeches and perform the ceremony in front of several hundred invited guests.

Then the doors that Boxing Day afternoon were thrown open to the paying public to come and see The Maid of the Mountains, the hot new release billed as “the greatest musical romance of all time”.

“In the three public performances which followed,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times, “about 4,500 people paid for admission and high praise has been heard on all sides at the luxuriousness and comfort of the building, its excellent acoustics and especially at the massive organ which created a wonderful impression.”

It was not as if these 4,500 punters had nowhere else to go. Darlington was already awash with cinemas. As recent Memories have told, there was the Empire in Quebec Street which opened in 1911, the Arcade and the Court, which both opened on Skinnergate in 1912, the Scala in Eldon Street, which also opened in 1912, plus the Alhambra on Northgate, which had opened in 1913.

There were probably also films being shown that day at the Central Palace in Central Hall, the Hippodrome in Parkgate, and the Astoria in Northgate.

The First World War had halted the first wave of cinema building, but in peacetime the craze continued unabated. On Whit Monday 1927, it was given new impetus by an astounding innovation. “Cinema-goers will be able to hear as well as see their film favourites on the screen,” said the D&S Times, bringing news that the first “talking pictures” were to be shown at Central Hall.

“This phenomenon is produced by means of the phonofilm, which will revolutionise cinema entertainments. The invention records sound as well as action, so that an orchestral symphony, a comic song or a political speech may literally be photographed.

“The opening programme on Whit Monday will include John Henry and Blossom, famous wireless artistes.”

Such an extraordinary advance caused all of Darlington’s cinemas to be quickly, and expensively, refitted so that they were up with the times – but really only a new state-of-the-art cinema-de-luxe would do.

"The spectacle of long queues outside the chief picture halls is an almost nightly occurrence indicating that there's still scope for further development of this form of entertainment," noted the D&S Times when, in the depths of the Great Depression, it was announced that a terrace of once grand Queen Anne houses in Bondgate was to be demolished on £30,000 spent on yet another cinema.

It was designed by architect Joshua Clayton, who had built his family a bakery in Parkgate, which still stands opposite the theatre, and who had designed the ED Walker Homes on Coniscliffe Road. The money was put up by local businessmen – the Mounsey and Hustler families were involved – and the builder was George Dougill of Elms Road.

Its lighting, which included “flame-effect flounce” was remarkable, but its London-made Compton organ - "exactly similar" to one being installed in the BBC's Broadcasting House, said the D&S – was astounding.

"It is built to provide a wealth of orchestral tone-colour, so that it can adequately represent music written for a symphony orchestra or a dance band. At the same time, there is much that is sheer organ, giving as thrilling cathedralesque roll.

"In special chambers on the side of the stage are hundreds of pipes of various size and shape, together with a large assortment of special orchestral percussion instruments, such as glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, etc. Every kind of drum, cymbal, triangle, woodblock, tambourine and, in fact, the whole of the percussion family of instruments is there.

"The control of this huge mass of sound-producing material is through the console (or keyboard), which is in the orchestra pit. In addition to being very handsome, with its gold, orange and black finish, this console is a perfectly precise engineering instrument."

The organist on opening night was Frank Matthews, from the Sunderland Palladium, but after a year, Scotsman Harry Millen became resident organist. He stayed for a decade, and organ recitals were nearly as popular as the films he accompanied – he did at least 60 broadcasts on the national BBC wireless live from the Majestic in Bondgate.

The Majestic, which seated 1,600 people, was probably Darlington’s premier cinema. In 1943, it was sold to the Rank chain for £92,500 by the Darlington consortium which had built it just ten years earlier for £30,000, and it was renamed the Odeon.

But by that then, two more cinemas had been built in Darlington town centre with yet another out in a village. We will look at them next week.

MANY thanks for all your cinema memories – please keep sending them in. We intend to use them in a future week, when we might also address the scratchy issue of fleas.

Peter King has written to tell us about his father, Eddie King, who worked for 53 years for T Akinson & Son, managing the gentlemen’s outfitters beneath the Covered Market. When a boy, Eddie gained entry to the Central Palace cinema which was in the Central Hall off Bull Wynd by handing over an empty jam jar.

Eddie also had a connection with the Electric Picturedrome, which was the cinema that opened in the Temperance Hall in Gladstone Street. As we told last week, it closed in 1913, when the posh Alhambra opened where Northgate Tower is today.

“The Picturedrome then became a snooker hall - perhaps for those who were sympathetic to the cause of temperance,” says Peter. “My father signed the temperance pledge at the Park Street Mission Hall in the early 1920s, and he played snooker in the institute in Gladstone Street.

“One day, it succumbed to a huge fire. Next day, before going to open up his men's outfitters, he went along to the 'Temp' to rescue his snooker cue. He found it undamaged and still inside his steel cue cover!”