Fascinating slice of Norwich history discovered in bowling alley
PUBLISHED: 11:37 10 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:58 10 July 2019
A forgotten part of Norwich's history has been unearthed in a boutique bowling centre in the city.
When businessman and former manager of Cinema City, Jack Thompson, took over the 1930s Art Deco building at the junction of Dereham Road and Grapes Hill, to open the Bowling House, he had no idea what he would find.
"After we took over the building we discovered upstairs, all boarded up, there was a near complete balcony of the former Regal Cinema complete with 200 stunning original Art Deco cast iron cinema seats," said Mr Thompson.
"There is no lighting up there and the dust across the seats is thick with years passed. It is quite ghostly and really makes you think of all the city people who would have sat in those seats to watch classic films back in the 40s and 50s. I image the back row might have started a few Norwich marriages too!"
While the old cinema is not accessible to the public due to health and safety concerns, Mr Thompson decided to bring a slice of the past into the present and now several of the original faded green velvet upholstered seats provide comfortable respite from bowling at the end of the lanes.
The touch of the original fabric and the small kidney shaped ash trays, now rusted with age, transport people straight back to times when going to the cinema would have been quite a difference experience to the multiplexes of today.
"It seems unimaginable that people would have sat though a film and been able to smoke," laughed Mr Thompson. "They would have been flicking ash almost on the shoulder of the person in front. These seats are much smaller than modern day cinema seats too. We are a growing population it seems."
Originally built in 1938, the Regal cinema was badly bombed during the Second World War.
"The day after the Blitz I walked from Earlham Fiveways to the crossroads at the bottom of Grapes Hill," recalled city resident Tony Warnes, a young child at the time.
"There was a large bomb crater in the middle of the road and a lot of damage to all the surrounding buildings, including the Regal."
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The building was soon repaired and business went back to normal until the end of the 1950s.
"I did most of my courting there in the 50s sitting in the shilling seats," remembers former customer Christine Pinfold.
"One boy would pay to get in, and when the lights went out he would go and undo the back door and his mates would sneak in.
"I can remember the lady shining a torch on you if you were getting up to too much hanky panky too!"
The Regal Cinema made headline news in 1957 when it screened Rock Around the Clock.
"I went to see Rock Around The Clock starring Bill Haley and the Comets," remembers city resident Anne Rix.
"We danced in the aisles and it was reported in the press the next day that there had been riots in the Regal!"
The building was later home to Mayfair Bingo club, a Wetherspoon pub and more recently a Chinese restaurant.
"It's incredible to think that through all these changes of use in the building, the cinema balcony and seats have been sitting there all along, untouched," said Mr Thompson.
"One story we would love to verify is about a performing sea lion which apparently came on stage before screenings as part of an act.
"It was supposedly killed in the bombings and the ghost of the seal is said to live on in the building," laughed Mr Thompson.
"We've never managed to verify the story but we'd love to know if any older Norwich residents can shed any light."