Gem (Windmill) Theatre

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Until 1908 “moving pictures” were predominately to be seen as part of travelling fairs or in amusement arcades, but that year saw the building of what was originally called Marine Hall, now the Windmill Theatre. One of its proprietors, Frank Bostock, was part-owner of a travelling menagerie, but local opposition to such a show caused him and his partner, C. B. Cochran, to apply for Great Yarmouth Corporation’s permission to use the building to show films. The building, under its new name, The Gem, was granted a licence on condition that the audience would be segregated, by sex, either side of the central aisle, as darkness would prevail during the films.


July 1908 saw the opening of the Gem, which was designed by local architect Arthur S. Hewitt. Its Marine Parade frontage was ornate, with towers, swags, pilasters and faience tiles. Soon after its opening, it was illuminated by numerous electric light bulbs, said to number 5,000, thus gaining the nickname, The Palace of Light. Entrance cost 2d., 4d., or 6d. and the initial film programme ran continuously from 11am to 11pm. Each show lasted about an hour, to piano, vocal or gramophone record accompaniment, but once inside, patrons could stay as long as they wished. Total capacity was about 700, but during the first four days, over 17,000 paid for admission. Initially, day to day running was carried out by C. B. Cochran, who was prosecuted for obstruction after standing outside, with a megaphone, loudly enticing customers to enter. After a year he moved to London, where he became a well-know theatrical impresario.


In 1909, under the management of Mr. E. V. Barr, internal improvements included a panelled ceiling, a stage, a balcony and tip-up seats to replace the original chairs. A mixture of films and variety acts were presented in the re-named Gem Palace. The year 1930, saw a sound system installed, so that “talkies” could be presented, and by the late 1930’s, Jay’s Entertainment ran the business. During the Second World War, it was requisitioned for military use, but re-opened in 1946 as the Windmill, with the appropriate addition to its frontage, said to be a tribute to the Moulin Rouge in Paris.


Jack Jay’s 1946 summer variety programme, one of the first to re-open in the Borough after the war, ran from mid June for 29 weeks, twice nightly and with two matinees a week. Among the cast were Norman Wisdom and Marie Lloyd Junior.


From 1948 to the 1980’s, a resident summer show, featuring radio stars, ran in the evenings, with, first films and later, bingo during the day and, then, in the autumn. Among the many stars who featured in the variety shows were Tommy Trinder, Benny Hill, Eddie Calvert, Derek Roy, Marti Wilde, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury and local talent, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers and Alan Smethurst, the Singing Postman. The last ten years of live summer shows featured comedy plays, often based on television programmes, such as: On the Buses and Love Thy Neighbour. Pantomimes and shows by local amateur groups, such as: the Masquers and Great Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, were presented either side of the summer productions.


From 1985 to 1992, the Windmill became a children’s indoor playground, known as Wally’s Windmill and since then it has housed Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a Wax Museum and Indoor Crazy Golf.


On Marine Parade, the Windmill’s distinct frontage is still much admired and the history of the uses made of the building reflect the changing entertainment expectations of residents and visitors over the 100 plus years of its existence