Grooming a White Elephant: Maurice E. Bandmann and the Empire Theatre in Gibraltar

On 13 November, 1920, Bandmann wrote to J.R. Crook, Government Engineer of Gibraltar, announcing his attention to apply for a two-year lease (with an option for renewal) to the Empire Theatre in order to convert it into a ‘Cinema Theatre’ for the ‘exhibition of the very best and up to date English picture productions’. On a recent visit he had noted the lack of such films. He claimed to have a virtual monopoly on the distribution of English films in Egypt and Palestine and enclosed a garish red and yellow letterhead of his Bandman Film Control company printed in pseudo-Egyptian style with pyramids and palm trees in the background.

Bandmann Letterhead

Crook noted in a memorandum (19.11.20) to the Colonial Secretary, C.W.J. Orr, that there were plans to demolish the theatre – which was in bad state of repair and had been unoccupied for some years – in order to erect forty tenements in the chronically constricted fortress town. Orr, however, proved to be very receptive to the idea of a cinema and a correspondence with Bandmann ensued in which the latter extended his offer from two to three years and from cinema to light opera and variety. Bandmann refers specifically to the Empire (Jan 13, 1921) He also inquired generally about the location, despite being aware of the availability of the vacant Empire (Aug 12, 1921), but was presumably reluctant because of its location outside the town centre on Rosia Road .

Rosia Road, Gibraltar, ca. 1910

On 19 December 1921, an agreement signed between Colonial Office and Bandmann including a detailed ‘Schedule of proposed repairs and renovations’. The lease was for three years at a nominal rent of £2 per month in the light of the substantial investment required. Renovations included the installation of flush toilets on all floors, tiled urinals, a corrugated iron roof, concrete steps, new floorboards for the verandah, plus major rebuilding inside, and out. Two days before the scheduled opening, an advertisement in the Gibraltar Chronicle announced with typical Bandmann puff: ‘New Empire Theatre. Licencee Maurice E. Bandman. Grand Opening This Saturday 4 Feb., 1922. NOTE.– This Theatre has been remodeled, re-furnished, re-seated, re-decorated and re-lighted throughout at enormous cost.’ (GC on 2 Feb 1922). The costs had indeed been substantial as a colonial official later admitted and amounted to about £4000. (Letter from the Colonial Secretary 18.2.22).

Opening of the New Empire

The final result was deemed impressive. In a preview article, published a day later the self-advertisement was confirmed:

‘the building has received a complete renovation inside and out, most comfortable cane arm chairs have been installed, refreshment bars arranged for different parts of the house, cloakrooms and all modern conveniences … One is particularly struck by the excellent view of the stage obtainable from the whole of the seats. An orchestra has been engaged which will perform the music specially arranged for each film. The pictures screened will be sixteen by twenty feet and the fire proof operator’s box is a novelty in Gibraltar, equipped with dual projection, thus obviating waiting between the parts or in case of a breakdown. At the back or the circle is a commodious lounge with liquor and coffee bars.  (‘Opening of New Empire Theatre’, GC Feb 3 1922).

 

At the actual the opening The Gibraltar Chronicle enthused:

Wonders have been worked with the building since Mr. Bandman took it in hand, the seating arrangements could not be more comfortable, without a suspicion of crowding in spite of the fact that the big auditorium has accommodation for a thousand people.  A very well got up programme giving all essential information was not the least welcome of the many provisions made for the convenience of the public. (GC, 6.2.1922)

 

Unfortunately, the city council also had a say in the matter. In 1921 the first city council had been elected and had begun to flex its political muscles against the colonial administration.[1]

In a long report the council engineer outlined a list of additional repairs and alterations required. The building was not particularly solid, as it was constructed of wood, steel framing and corrugated iron and quite literally built on sand. One of the stanchions had even dropped about six inches but the steel frame still provided enough flexibility. He even recommended the installation of dust extraction by vacuum cleansers. The involvement of the city council, often at odds with the Colonial Secretary deepened and led to the issue of a license for ‘cinema purposes only’. For live performances the council insisted that Bandmann install a fire curtain between stage and auditorium, a major additional expense. Although the license was issued by Orr on 24 February and the cinema opened on 4 March, on 9 March, the day Bandmann died, the city council reiterated its opposition to a license for ‘plays or other performances necessitating the use of scenery’. The council admitted, however, that in a wooden building a fire curtain only provided a marginal improvement in and that asbestos lining or even fire-proof paint might be acceptable. (Letter to Orr by Chairman of the City Council, 9 March 1922.)

The first test case came in April 1922 with the impending arrival of The Scamps, a variety company that had been touring the Bandmann Circuit in the east and was now on its way back to England. The new manager of the New Empire, Charles Lewis, the younger brother of Bandmann’s secretary and main heir, Nancy Lewis, wrote to the Colonial Secretary on 19 and 20 April 1922, requesting permission in reference to a decision by the city council, pointing out that the company did not carry any scenery and that provision would be made to ensure fire safety: ‘in the way of having a fireman in continuous attendance on the stage throughout each performance as also a goodly supply of water and sand fire buckets.’ Exceptional permission was granted but no further licenses would be entertained until the necessary requirements of the council were complied with.

This restriction was a major blow for the enterprise because Bandmann had planned the New Empire as a stopping off point for his companies on the way to his main circuit. It meant that the company was now operating an expensively renovated cinema for which high ticket process could not be demanded. Charles Lewis cancelled the lease on 31 May 1924 and the building was returned to the Colonial Office or more precisely to J. R. Crook, the Government Engineer, who was once again saddled with the building. In a memorandum to the Colonial Secretary he stated that no new tenders had been forthcoming and expressed his despair over its possible use: ‘The building has since it was erected 20 years ago proved a “white elephant” and failing a satisfactory offer (…) should be pulled down.’ (GGA 25.7.1924). This is indeed what happened – at a cost of £ 1000.00 to the government of Gibraltar.

 

[1] Stephen Constantine: ‚the City Council became (…) not just a passive agent of government but an alternative interest group and actor’, Community and identity: The making of modern Gibraltar since 1704, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 332.


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