Proud history of a Leeds landmark

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WHEN the end came for the Majestic as a cinema, the final film screened in the grand old building was The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Some might say the classic Western’s title sums up the life and times of one of Leeds’s best-known landmarks.

The good takes in its years as a 2,400-seater picture palace as well as a ballroom that attracted young people from across the region.

The bad, meanwhile, was the steady decline of the gateway site after its doors were closed in 2006 following a decade as the Majestyk nightclub.

And the ugly, of course, was the fire that gripped the Grade II-listed building last night.

The evening’s sad events were a far cry from the excitement that greeted the opening of the Majestic cinema and its restaurant-cum-ballroom in the summer of 1922.

More than 50,000 people flocked to the venue in its first week to see the DW Griffith romantic drama Way Down East, paying between one shilling and two shillings and four pence for their seats.

Those film fans will have been wowed by the interior of the latest addition to City Square, with its £5,000 organ, fan-shaped auditorium, classical dome and Parthenon-style frieze.

And, as the years went by, the cinema continued to break new ground.

It installed earphones for the hard of hearing in 1932, after the coming of movieland’s ‘talkies’.

Two years later, pictures of the Derby were included in a newsreel shown just a few hours after the horse race – a first for Leeds.

The Second World War brought with it change of a more dramatic nature, as the Majestic was used as a dormitory for soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk and also as an air raid shelter.

Its ballroom area was given a gala re-opening in 1955, with film star Trevor Howard making a guest appearance.

Margaret Smith, who regularly attended dances as a teenager, would later recall: “It was a nice, respectable place to go.

“There was never any trouble, all the staff wore evening dress and there were immaculately dressed commissionaires on the doors to keep out the riff-raff!

“It used to cost six shillings on a Saturday night to get in, and in those days that was a lot of money.

“The dances were mainly waltzes, quick steps and tangos and when the band went off for a break they would put on a pop record for the crowd to jive to.

“Occasionally the drummer would launch into a solo and the whole place would come to a halt. Everyone would step back and watch him play. It was that kind of place.”

Above the ballroom, the Majestic’s cinema was still going strong and in the late 1950s it played host to South Pacific for a record-breaking run of 19 weeks.

The Sound of Music proved even more successful, showing from April 1965 to September 1967 – the longest movie run ever in Leeds.

By then, however, the times were a-changing for the Majestic and the city’s wider social scene.

The Yorkshire Evening Post reported in July 1967 that dancing sessions at its ballroom were being axed and, in 1969, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef starred as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly set the closing credits rolling on its cinema.

A new chapter then opened in the building’s history as it went over full-time to bingo.

By the mid-1980s, as many as 10,000 people a week were heading to the Top Rank club to play the game.

It underwent a £500,000 revamp in 1985, with improved seating, plush carpeting and refreshment areas being installed.

Fast forward another decade, though, and another fresh start was on the cards, as the building re-opened as Majestyk following a £5m makeover.

Operating five nights a week, it promised “clubbing for people who want to enjoy themselves with no pretensions or attitudes”.

Sure enough, thousands of revellers flocked there until it was closed by owner Luminar Leisure in 2006.

The firm wanted to transform the club into a £14m Las Vegas-style casino but magistrates rejected a gaming licence application for the site in 2008.

Luminar put the empty building up for sale in 2010 and it was bought that same year by Leeds-based developer Rushbond.

Plans to turn the high-profile site into an entertainment complex were given the green light by councillors in 2011.

Rushbond appointed the Ilkley-based construction company Quarmby to handle the task of refurbishing the Majestic.

Its special place in Leeds’s history was recognised in July 2012 when it received one of the Leeds Civic Trust heritage watchdog’s coveted blue plaques.

The refurbishment was completed soon afterwards, with the project subsequently being shortlisted in the conserved building category at the 2013 Leeds Architecture Awards.

A bright future seemed assured for the former cinema, ballroom, bingo hall and nightclub. Today it remains to be seen where this much-loved part of the Leeds landscape goes from here.