Tributes paid to Michael Armstrong, the man who mingled with the stars
- Credit: EDP, Archant
He was the man the film stars loved to meet… but in the Norfolk town where he spent his entire life he was the star.
Michael Armstrong, the man who brought the cinema back to Wymondham by building his own, has died at the age of 73.
While Michael had been confined to a wheelchair for some time his courage, his spirit and his humour was an inspiration to all who knew him.
The former solicitor’s clerk had worked at the old Regal Cinema in his youth and following its closure he created his very own unique Regal at his home where he welcomed so many people over the years.
He and his dear friend Philip Yaxley founded The Regal Experience. They and their team staged classic Sunday afternoon film shows at what is now the Ex-Servicemen’s Club and raised large amounts of money to help charities and good causes.
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Many of the stars featured in the films were delighted to be invited to Wymondham to meet the people and talk about their life and times.
And the highlight for many was to visit Michael’s own Regal, fitted out with fittings from the original cinema. It was his pride and joy and he loved nothing more than putting on a show for others to enjoy.
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“Michael was a kind and courageous man who never let his condition take over his life,” said his brother, former Norfolk Coroner, William Armstrong.
The family, Michael, his twin Charles, William, with their parents moved to Wymondham from Attleborough in 1957 and his mother Catherine became landlady of the Queen’s Head public house.
Not far from the pub was the Regal Cinema which became young Michael’s second home. He loved to watch the projectionists at work and on Saturday nights would go and fetch their fish and chips.
“He went on to deliver advertising leaflets and help with projection. A cinema legend was born. For years he was a great support to the legendary Regal manager Les King,” said Philip.
The Regal closed in 1993 but Michael was determined to keep its memory alive. He had the garage at his home converted into a replica mini Regal and film lovers from far and wide enjoyed his shows and hospitality.
In 2000 a seat was installed in Market Street to commemorate the Regal, paid for by donations from Michael’s guests, and 40s film star Jean Kent unveiled it.
During the same year Cinema City suggested a one-off screening of The Titfield Thunderbolt at the Ex-Servicemen’s Club. It was such a hit The Regal Experience was formed.
Two years later, after putting on an exhibition about The Regal in the Wymondham museum he was presented with a richly deserved Civic Award for services to local cinema.
The Regal Experience classic Sunday afternoon film shows were sell-outs and attracted many stars to the town including June Whitfield, Sylvia Sims, Dora Bryan, Virginia McKenna, Sus Hampshire, Muriel Pavlow, Peggy Cummins and so many more.
“Even Fred Astaire’s daughter Ava made personal appearances. The stars also visited Michael’s mini regal which they found truly magical,” said Philip.
Then came the wonderful trips to Hollywood where The Regal Experience team were welcomed with open arms. Although Michael found it difficult to get about his courage and determination was applauded by the stars and when he met Tony Curtis, also in a wheelchair at the time, he challenged him to a race!
The likes of Debbie Reynolds, Angi Dickinson and even Richard “Jaws” Kiel loved meeting Michael and the team.
“One of the highlights was spending an afternoon with Jean Simmons at her Santa Monica home,” said Philip.
Back in the UK their fame was growing. Stars welcomed them into their homes such as Richard Todd, Michael Craig and Julie Christie.
Sir Donald Sinden loved being in Michael’s company.
Any profits from Regal Experience shows went to charity and Michael as chairman and treasurer loved handing over the cheques to help others. When Born Free was screened with the star Virginia McKenna present he handed over a cheque to help the Born Free Foundation in front of the TV cameras.
The 11 year old who once fetched fish and chips for the projectionists had come a long way.
“In spite of his serious disability, which he faced with much fortitude, I never heard him complain of his lot. He was much admired and loved in Wymondham and the wider community. He will be sorely missed,” said Philip.
He certainly will. We will miss you Michael Armstrong.