If you don't play bingo, chances are you may never have stepped inside the Portswood landmark that is The Broadway - better known as Mecca Bingo. And with bingo halls closing across the country, Portswood cannot rely on this distinctive building being around forever. Take a step inside with our photo story and backstage report - while you have the chance....
It is easy to walk past ‘The Mecca’ with your head down and not take in its full magnificence, but stand across the road and look up and you will get a better view of the largest building in Portswood which was once a theatre, then a 1500-seater cinema and is now The Mecca Bingo. A clue to its past is in the name ‘The Broadway’ in large letters at the top of the façade.
Many original features remain in the building both from the theatre, and the cinema eras. Entering the main auditorium, you are struck by the sheer size of the interior that leads down to where the stage and cinema screen would have been.
The proscenium arch still remains. Looking back you can see the balcony with all its cast-iron seats still in place, and behind them the VIP that are now boarded up. On the back wall, behind the balcony seats, you can still see where the cinema projectors operated.
As you explore the building further, decorations and mouldings constantly remind you of its history. On one of the staircase landings leading up to the balcony, you can see an open fireplace placed there to keep the passing patrons warm!
Under the ground floor of the main auditorium is a large basement that is used for storage. In that area, there are corridors containing what would have been the dressing rooms for the theatre. Also in that area is a room that contains a huge diesel generator that provided emergency power in case of power cuts during the screening of films. In another room is the original safe for the cinema takings – too heavy to move!
Of course, any building as old as this has its stories. The legendary doorman ‘Mack’ still makes the odd haunting appearance and the occasional sound of a woman screaming is said to be heard from the basement. Legend has it that she was trapped in a fire in the building.
In a TV programme about his life, film director Ken Russell, was taken back to The Broadway, the cinema his visited as a boy. He was amazed to see the balcony still in place and enjoyed sitting in the seats he could never afford all those years ago!
In 1964, ‘The Broadway’ was bought by the Mecca organisation, and became a bingo hall. Over many years it has flourished and has been well maintained. Its height and commanding position has made it an ideal vantage point for mobile phone communications and it sprouts an Orange masts on its roof.
The bingo industry has been facing serious challenges in recent times due to the smoking ban, internet gaming and the credit crunch, and the Portswood building was on Mecca’s Closure list last year. It has only won a reprieve since a new management team was brought just a few weeks ago.
New games, bigger prize money and a focus on fun have brought back the players, although in nowhere near the number of the old days.
Bingo halls are closing across the whole country: Woolston’s New Century bingo hall – also housed in a 30s cinema – was recently sold and is to be demolished and replaced with shops and flats. Bingo is still popular in many places around the country but Portswood’s large student demographic does not make it a promising place for the game to flourish locally in the longer term.
For now, The Mecca still generates a good trade, and as long as this continues, we will hold on to one of Portswood’s few distinctive buildings.
Portswood.info is grateful to Richard Matthews (General Manager) and Angela Humphries (management team) for kindly showing us around the building and supplying us with much of the information in this feature.
detail from inside & outside the building
What are your memories of The Broadway? Are you a bingo player today or in the past? Maybe you have memories of the ABC Minors Saturday morning cinema club? Did you dance to the bands that sometimes played at the weekend? We would love to hear your stories.