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The Coliseum

The Final Curtain crack

While one Cheltenham theatre is currently a building site made necessary by the extensive restoration work going on there, the scaffolding and skips outside another former theatre are leading to a sadder outcome.

The bulldozers moved into the former Coliseum (more recently the Springbok night-club) in Albion Street at the beginning of June to demolish a building that once competed with The Opera House (now the Everyman) to be the town’s most popular venue for live entertainment. Most people will only remember the Coliseum as a cinema but the building had a history almost as illustrious as its competitor.

On August Bank Holiday 1913 a brand new theatre, The Hippodrome, was opened in Albion Street by Cecil Gill Smith. The theatrical newspaper The Stage reported, ‘The new building is being erected on a corner site for Messrs. Gillsmith Ltd.. The architect is Mr. Herbert T. Rainger of Cheltenham. Seating accommodation will be provided for close upon a thousand people, and in addition to this, there will be a spacious lounge, with full view of the stage, at the back of the circle, where afternoon teas will be served. The entrance foyer will be decorated in Tudor style in dark oak, and special attention is being given to the decoration of the auditorium. A novel colour scheme of copper flame rouge and French grey should give a delightfully restful, yet smart and effective result. Indirect lighting is being adopted throughout the auditorium.’

The theatre was bought from Gillsmith in 1920 by Mr. H. G. Beard of Gloucester along with a cinema in North Street, approximately where the Job Centre now stands. The Hippodrome was renamed The Coliseum and continued to present music hall and variety.

Beard had ambitions to put on dramas and musical comedies but the conditions of his licence prevented him from doing so. In April 1921 he applied for a new license which would enable him to compete with the Opera House by mounting touring plays and musicals and the license was granted. It still presented live theatre until, in 1931 with the advent of the talkies, the Coliseum became a cinema.

I used to be an avid cinema goer when I was child growing up in Cheltenham. Each of the five cinemas in town had their unique character not only in their size or style of decoration but also in the films they showed. I always think of The Coliseum as the place where you could see some good American black and white horror films. They were usually “X” films, for which you had to be 16-years-old to get in. When I was 14 or 15 I used a rather clever ruse to overcome the censor’s restrictions – I lied about my age. I would also adopt a deep voice and stick a cigarette in my mouth.

Two films I particularly remember were both directed by William Castle and both starred Vincent Price. One was called House on Haunted Hill and the other The Tingler. They were both decent enough films but both felt the need to add a further dimension to the thrills. The former employed a rather tatty cardboard skeleton which floated out over the audience, supposedly controlled by an on screen Mr. Price with a series of ropes and pulleys. Hmmm. Audiences attending The Tingler were encouraged to scream with fear during the film by the placement of carefully concealed electric-shock machines under their seats. But I suppose The Coliseum was used to this sort of thing, having started life as a music-hall.

It showed its last film in 1973 when it succumbed to the then ubiquitous bingo. It later became the Springbok night club but when that closed it was left unoccupied and unloved.

For its time as a bingo hall much of the original seating and the stage remained in place but when the bingo closed and the Springbok moved in virtually all remnants of the old theatre were removed. All the seats went, the stage was dismantled and all the equipment used for the building to function as a theatre or cinema removed.

I went in for a look around a week or two after demolition had started. I donned my hard hat and stepped gingerly through the rubble but the only traces I could find of its previous incarnations were the remnants of the circle and the ceiling of the original foyer which had been hidden behind a false ceiling. The upper part of the stage, the fly tower where the scenery was lowered in and out was also concealed by a false ceiling, but I’m pretty sure there was nothing behind it.

The old Odeon cinema just around the corner doesn’t look as though it will survive much longer which only leaves the shell of the old Daffodil to remind us of the glory days of popular entertainment in Cheltenham. I know things change and public tastes alter but it’s sad to see the buildings that were once so important to the social life of this town disappear. They are literally irreplaceable.