Cinema specialist Robert Cromie, who was a prolific architect in the 1930's, designed the building. As well as the Regal he built the Prince of Wales Theatre, the Hammersmith Apollo and the Odeon, George St (then called The Ritz). All were very much in the Art Deco mould, with solid exteriors and well-designed, highly decorated interiors, bringing cruise ship opulence to the masses.
To begin with it had a cinema organ, though this was later sold off to a cinema in Keighley. The talkies arrived in 1927 but all films were still black and white, until the advent of glorious Technicolor in the mid 50's. Around that time the ABC Minors showed films to up to 2000 minimally supervised children every Saturday morning. Fortunately the films held the young audience spellbound and this set up was not the recipe for disaster it might be today. Children paid 6d entrance, though apparently if one of your gang made a legitimate entrance they could let the rest in at the fire escape, making the venture much cheaper!
Maggie Jones' love of cinema started with Saturday mornings at the Regal. She remembers running all the way from the bus stop, eager for the fun and escapism to start. During the early 60's she watched a lot of B movies: "We would watch cliff hanger serials, mainly cowboy films and sci fi. I remember seeing Robert Vaughn pre Man from Uncle fame in a B movie about life in the future where the world has gone back to living in caves and Robert Vaughn finds a book with pictures of sky scrapers in it.
"At the beginning of every perfomance we would all sing the ABC anthem which was We are the ABC minors and it was 'sung' to the tune of Bits and Pieces by the Dave Clark Five. A film of the group playing was always shown as we sang. We would all stamp our feet in time to the music. The noise was awful. In the foyer was an easel and board stuck with enamel badges which were triangular shaped and had 'ABC minors' written on them. I think they cost about 6d each. I used to stare at them for ages because I thought they were beautiful!"
When the first edition of Daily Info came out in 1964, its cinema listings included several names you would not see there today: the Super (now Odeon Magdalen St), The Scala in North Oxford which specialised in old and foreign films, the Moulin Rouge in Headington, and of course The Regal, which was showing War Of The Trojans. By 1970 the rise of TV and changing social face of Britain was closing cinemas all over the place, and The Regal became a bingo hall that June. It remained a Gala Bingo venue until 2004, when Gala moved to the Ozone Leisure Park, where the VUE cinema joined it.
And then The Regal stood empty. In August 2005 it was designated a Grade II Listed building by English Heritage, saving it from demolition and development. Despite the passage of time and Gala Bingo's residency many of the original features remained intact, including the original cinema seating on the balcony. It was going to take a lot of money to refurbish the building, especially to the high standard stipulated for a listed building, and a lot of preservation work would be needed for the period details.
Fortunately Charlie McCreedy and Adam Marsh were up for the challenge, and over the next few years they raised money and worked on the building. They have refused to say how much the refurbishment has cost, but the grapevine suggests a figure in the region of half a million pounds. Entertainment licenses also proved problematic, but they have persevered. There is still work to be done, but The Regal is now open for business once again.
And it's not just music. McCreedy and Marsh have always said they wanted activities to suit everyone: from club nights and live music to film screenings (using those original 1930's chairs), dance classes and even a coffee morning! There are already a lot of music venues in Oxford, but a programme like this should ensure that everyone in the community benefits from The Regal, and with support from all ages that might give them the edge.
The Elite Room opened in March this year, with live music and DJs, and the Great Room followed at the end of April. Altogether there are four bar and dance areas with a combined capacity of over 1000 people. While the Great Room is the main venue particularly for live music (approximate capacity 850) the Elite Room functions like a separate bar, and can host smaller events at the same time. Corporate and private functions are encouraged to book out these rooms, and the versatile different spaces suit any size of party.
It's still early days for the latest Regal, the "Old Lady of Cowley Road", who seems to have more lives than a cat. But already there's an impressive array of events and musicians lined up. She seems to have settled back into her role as if she'd never left. For a picture record of the different stages in her life see The Regal's website. If you have pictures of your own, or fond or vivid memories, from any stage of The Regal's life, we'd be delighted to receive them! Who knows where she may head in the future, but for now we say good luck to The Regal, and all who sail in her.