The recent change of leaseholder at the Wellesley Cinema is both a return to the past and the start of a new chapter in its history. Stuart Cusack and Keith Nash, joint owners of S & K Entertainments Ltd, have taken over the management of the cinema once again, having relinquished the lease to Kailish Suri’s Reel Cinemas in 2007.
This is the latest phase in the history of movie entertainment in the town which began nearly 100 years ago. In Wellington Museum, records show that the first cinema – the Rex Cinema – opened in 1909 in the Town Hall building, currently Corn Hill – at first showing only silent movies. The Wellington Picture Palace, later renamed The Tivoli, opened in1913 at the rear of what was the Castle Inn in Fore Street in the building that is now the Scouts’ Hall. Converted to sound in 1930, it boasted a raked floor, 450 seats and a small balcony. None of these features remain but its projection ports can still be seen.
Originally called The Devonia, The Wellesley was one of a number of similar cinema buildings designed in the 1930s by Wessex architect, Edward de Wilde Holding. The Wellesley apart, only two have survived as movie theatres. The Moderne in Bournemouth opened in 1935, became a bingo hall in 1985, closed in 2008, has since been renovated and reopened in February this year as a venue for community and arts events. The Tivoli in Wimborne Minster closed in 1980 but was reopened in 1993 after restoration. The Cerdric in Chard is now a Wetherspoons pub and the Amesbury Plaza was demolished in 1993. Having survived the many unsettled phases of the 20th century, The Wellesley is the most enduring of these buildings and, as such, a genuine reminder of the whole history of cinema as website Cinema Treasures confirms: “It remains a rare example of a 1930s single screen cinema that is virtually untouched.”
In a tangible testament of loving attachment to the building, former manager Michael Rea constructed an intricate scale model of the theatre to mark its 50th anniversary in 1987. The model, complete with working lights, screen, seats, projectors and fully stocked neighbouring Gramophone Man and Pets’ Place shops is now on display in Wellington Museum.
Alterations made in the 1950’s allowed the cinema to stage live shows and in 1962 the freehold was acquired by Wellington Arts Association whose various groups have staged dozens of performances there since then. The latest will be the production of ‘Oliver’ by Wellington Operatic Society in May this year.
General Manager Keith Nash is returning to The Wellesley after retiring eight years ago for what he referred to as “a labour of love. Any money that the cinema makes will be ploughed back into maintaining and improving the fabric of the place. We already have plans for new windows and lighting. Whilst our projection contact means that we are obliged to show a certain number of major and first-run films each year, we also have plans to screen live performances from, for example, the Royal Opera House – the first of which will be ‘Swan Lake’ in June. We’d also like to show more foreign films and start a 4pm Sunday Club. It’s all about both finding a niche and giving local audiences a big-screen experience in a beautiful building with a special theatre atmosphere that multiplexes cannot match.”
It is hoped that the town will support the new management and help to keep a grand and unique building alive when so many others have disappeared.