Apart from the national rail interchange, the last time I visit Darlington must have been more than 40 years ago when I went to the outdoor market with my mum. I bought a seven inch vinyl single of the Monkees singing A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. I still have it. I went to Darlington again this week, this time to visit the former Majestic Cinema, which after decades of mixed fortunes is being restored to its former glory. Designed in the art deco style by Darlington born architect Joshua Clayton, it was completed in 1932. Amazingly it is unlisted.
Built for an independent operator, it opened on 26th December 1932 with Nancy Brown starring in Maid of the Mountains. British cinemas in the 1930's were built to accommodate huge numbers and the Majestic could seat 1,039 in the stalls and 541on the balcony. As well as the screen there was a cafe, five dressing rooms and a Compton 3M organ which rose up from beneath the stage. We will return to the organ.
The cinema changed hands several times over the years, going to the Union chain of cinemas in late 1935 before returning to the original owners two years later. Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain took it over in 1943 and changed the name to the Odeon in 1945 before eventually passing to the Rank chain who owned the cinema when it finally closed on October 24th 1981. The final screening was of Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds. There is evidence that the cafe continued until the 1950's, whilst the organ was retained until 1968 when it was sold and removed from the building. Further changes were made in the later 1960's when metal strips were added to the front of the building in an attempt at modernisation. Yuck. After closure the building lay unused until 1986 when it was converted into a snooker club.
Those nasty metal additions have now been removed, revealing the beautiful cream facade with its art deco motifs and double height stained glass windows on the stairwells.The removal of the nasty metal strips was part of a programme of ongoing restoration which is being funded through private means. On my visit earlier this week I was able to see the beautifully restored lobby with its decorative doors, chandelier, original ticket office and the balustrade on the stairs leading to the first floor cafe. Whilst admiring the lobby I was lucky enough to meet Paul, one of the key people driving the restoration of the building. He very kindly showed me around the upstairs cafe, allowed me a look into the auditorium which is still being worked on and shared with me some of the ideas for the Majestic's future.
The cafe has two fabulous art deco bars, furniture in the style of the 1930's and gorgeous stained glass windows looking over the main road - Bondgate. Who would have thought that such a room exists in Darlington? It could easily be in Prague, Budapest, New York or one of the other cosmopolitan centres from the art deco period. I can only imagine what the response of the locals must have been when the cinema first opened. The cafe is already popular with local people for afternoon tea and Paul told me that it has already received visitors dressed in 1930's clothes! It has an alcohol license which always helps.
The auditorium was a hive of industry with several workmen busy toiling to bring it back into use perhaps as early as April this year. Many original features appear to have survived although some are in better condition than others. There are already plans in place for a programme of events and activities once these works are finished including "Battle of the bands", stand up comedy, concerts and perhaps theatre. Much needed rehearsal space may also be offered. Some events have already taken place in the cafe. You can keep up to date with developments by following the Majestic's own Facebook group here.
I was also able to have a quick look at the former projection rooms and see the enormous original bulb that was left behind when all of the other cinema equipment was disposed of when the cinema closed. Paul told me that there are some exciting ideas for using these spaces including opening up onto a roof terrace and using the bulb as part of the lighting for another cafe space at this level. These ideas are at present unfunded and the priority is the auditorium, but how wonderful it would be to be able to realise them.
The restoration and bringing back into use of the Majestic will be a much needed boost to Darlington's cultural scene, especially at a time when other facilities in this small unitary authority are under threat with the potential closure of its two libraries and removal of the mobile service and the closed market also being under threat . I said we'd return to the organ. After much searching, it turned up in Manchester. Not playable but it can be rescued…once the money has been found.
You might also like The Odeon, York's Art Deco Cinema and Carlton Cinema, Essex Road - Ancient Egypt in North London.