Recalling the Gem, the Empire and the Regal – Tring’s old cinemas in the spotlight

Crowds would have flocked to see Charlie Chaplin during the early days of Tring's cinema history
Crowds would have flocked to see Charlie Chaplin during the early days of Tring's cinema history

This week we look back over the history of cinemas in Tring, which began more than 100 years ago.

The first cinema in Tring was in the Unity Hall above the Co-Operative Society’s shop in the Lower High Street.

It was a large room with a deep stage and had often been used for plays, concerts and other entertainment.

In November 1912, after some alterations to the hall, Mr J P Darvell of the Enterprise Cinema Syndicate opened the new cinema as the Gem Picture Hall.

A newspaper report of November 30 said “The pictures are very fine and are entirely free from anything approaching vulgarity”

Among the films listed were the thrilling dramas Curfew Must Not Toll Tonight and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The cinema continued in these premises until it moved to a new building in Western Road.

The new Gem Cinema with 387 seats was built on a site opposite Henry Street.

It opened on the August 1, 1916 and would have doubtless been a success had it not been for a rival cinema in Akeman Street opening a few days earlier.

Instead, it only remained in business until the early 1920s.

The site was for many years used for a bus garage, later the United Dairies and is now occupied by the Royal Mail and a fitness gym.

The picture theatre that rivalled the Gem was the Empire in Akeman Street.

The Empire was a purpose-built cinema to seat 250 people, plus a small balcony with 64 seats.

Architect Fred Taylor of Aylesbury designed the building as instructed by William Charles Taylor.

Mr. Taylor was determined to have it opened before the new Gem in Western Road. He succeeded – the Empire opened on Saturday, July 29, two days before the Gem.

One local resident, Mr A. Williams, recalls that the projector was powered by a gas engine but on the opening night the film kept fading on the screen as the belt drive was slipping off the dynamo.

If the film broke more than three times you would get free tickets to see it again the next night, although most people used them to see a new film.

The Empire survived its early problems and went on to become Tring’s only cinema until the Regal opened in 1936.

In 1932 the name was changed to the Gaiety but the new Regal in Western Road had a severe effect and the Gaiety closed soon after war broke out in 1939.

Many years later the building became the workshop of William Batey with a new extension added to the top, and more recently has been let to various small businesses.

The Regal was one of a number of cinemas of the same name, all built to a very similar design. The Tring cinema, however, was one of the smallest, seating only 514.

It opened on September 10, 1936 with Come Out of the Pantry”, starring Jack Buchanan and Fay Wray, supported by shorts and a newsreel.

It became part of the large ABC circuit about 1943, making it the first ABC cinema in Hertfordshire.

The Regal was, unfortunately, subjected to ‘barring’ by its new owners, and the best films were to be seen at Aylesbury and Hemel Hempstead three weeks before they were released in Tring.

The Regal closed at short notice on Saturday, February 15, 1958 – the high rate of entertainment tax was blamed.

It was re‑opened in April 1958 by an independent operator, but it was not a success, and it closed again in 1960.

In 1965 the Regal became the Masque Theatre and opened with a new musical production of Heidi but closed after a few months.

The building was finally demolished in 1978/79, and the ten flats built on the site were named Regal Court.

(With reference to The Cinemas of Hertfordshire by Allen Eyles and Keith Skone and the Bucks Herald. Contribution by Tring & District Local History & Museum Society)