99 going on 100 but the Scala’s centenary bash will have to wait a year

WORDS by
NICK HUDSON

IT was ‘Grand’ by name and grand by nature but today there’ll be no grand celebrations for one of Nuneaton’s most famous entertainment emporiums.

The old Scala cinema should be revelling in its centenary status.

Its impressive facade, which adorns the Abbey Street skyline, is embossed with the date ‘1914’ on its handsome neo-classical stonework.

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But mystery surrounds why the former 1,000-seat theatre – which was built before the outbreak of World War I – did not open its doors to the public until 99 years ago today.

For 12 months, from its design and construction completion by Nuneaton architect Henry Mayo, the Grand Theatre remained closed.

Finally on February 1 1915, the public got their first glimpse of the three-storey building when it opened to a stage production of Babes in the Wood.

But The Grand – with its 700 seats in the stalls and a further 300 in the circle – quickly became a flexible friend to north Warwickshire audiences trying to forget about the miseries of the Great War.

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Within months it was screening films and in September 1915 switched to a dual cine-variety use – being renamed the Scala Theatre.

For more than 60 years it offered alternative cinema viewing with a mainly adult theme for its audiences.

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While up the road the Ritz had its hugely popular Saturday morning ABC Minors club and the Palace showed a succession of John Wayne movies – the Scala was happy to put on films like Ken Russell’s highly controversial Women in Love which focused on a nude battle of the sexes and starred cinema icons Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson.

It also peddled its own canoe in terms of ownership – relying on long periods of independent owner/managers in the shape of George William White, Orr Enterprises (Coventry) and Shipleys.

Half a century ago – in 1964 – it became a bingo club to cater for a craze which today has a massive online following.

Films could still be seen on certain evenings during the week but the curtain eventually came down on its cinematic history on August 27, 1977 when the double bill of Lilly Lamarr in The Sexorcist and Al Cliver and Silvia Dionisio in Una Ondata di Piacere (Waves of Lust) played to the final ‘adult’ audiences.

Silvia Dionisio

Silvia Dionisio

The building was sold, and there were plans to convert to a supermarket, but it ended up in the hands of amusements firm Shipleys and converted into a casino and slot machine arcade.

The casino in the former auditorium has since closed and the upper section converted into offices.

Four years ago former Nuneaton MP Bill Olner made a desperate plea to council chiefs to get listed status for the Scala building.

Scala

Believing the premises could still be returned to theatre use, the town’s long-serving man in Westminster – now back in local politics as a Warwickshire county councillor – said the Scala should be protected.

“It has some amazing features and I would like to see them, and the building, preserved,” he said.

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Calling all fans of the Scala, do you know any of the one-time projectionists, usherettes or box office staff at the cinema? If so, then email hudlines@hotmail.com to tell me more about your days at the Scala.

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