Public art plan captures history of old cinema

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There may be very little left of the old Imperial Cinema but developers plan to honour its history with a display of public art.

All but the facade of the cinema, in Brighton Road, has been demolished to make way for a housing development, leaving many people feeling the older parts of town are being lost one by one.

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PMC Construction & Development Services Ltd has now applied to Crawley Borough Council to erect a piece of art 1.8 metres high and seven metres wide, which will depict four historic scenes.

The cinema was originally known as the Imperial Picture Theatre – a name which reflected the spirit of that age.

Its doors opened in 1912 when George V was King and Emperor at the head of the vast British Empire.

In an article for the Crawley Observer, Helen Poole, curator of Crawley Museum, wrote: “The cinema slotted in on the front garden of a house next door to Gadsdon’s garage, appropriately, as both catered for Crawley folk who were keeping abreast of the new 20th century technology.

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“Silent films would be shown, revealing the talents of stars as diverse as Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, and no doubt the frequent changes in programme were eagerly awaited.

“The next landmark in the film industry came in 1927 when Crawley, like the rest of the world, was at last able to listen to the voices of the actors, as the ‘ talkies’ arrived.

“The Jazz Singer was famously the first feature-length motion picture with synchronised dialogues sequences, not least for Al Jolson’s songs.

“Cinema would never be the same again and some actors must have regretted the change, as their voices were not good enough for the new medium.

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“The Imperial continued, latterly under the film operator Charlie Withers, who became a cinema operator in 1914. He also used to play the one-string fiddle on the stage during the interval and he earned about £1.50 – or 30 bob in his days.

“His son Harry would sweep the floors during the break between showings, thus earning free tickets for himself and his friends, and when he grew up he followed in his father’s footsteps.”

On August 4 1928, the picture house was gutted by fire. Such accidents were always a hazard because of the combustible nature of film.

It was rebuilt as the Imperial Cinema and took pride of place as the place to be if you wanted to see the latest offerings from Hollywood.

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With the building of the Embassy Cinema in 1938, the Imperial’s life as a cinema drew to a close. It was used as an auction room after the Second World War before being converted into a car showroom and garage.

To view the latest planning application, log on to www.crawley.gov.uk and search under ‘planning and development’ for CR/2014/0686/NM1.

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