FROM ravenous rats to curtain-clad courting couples – Southampton's old Gaiety cinema has almost as many tales to tell as the movies it played there.

Standing close to the old Mayes departmental store, the Gaiety was built at 169 High Street on the site formerly occupied by the grocers Lipton Ltd.

Positioned almost opposite East Street, it was the last of five cinemas to open for business in Southampton during 1914.

The official opening took place on September 16, 1914 – just a matter of a weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. Performing the ribbon cutting was then-Sheriff of Southampton, Councillor George Etheridge.

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With its full orchestra and room for a capacity audience of 800, the Gaiety, at the time of its opening, was said to be one of the best and most comfortable cinemas in the country.

It was here that Al Jolson broke a long screen silence in the first Southampton presentation of The Singing Fool. Later it tended to become the home of film zombies and ghouls, sheriffs and lone star rangers.

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During the Second World War the cinema became popular with many of the American soldiers stationed in Southampton before the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.

For many years the cinema was managed by Alfred F Chappell, who lived in Dibden and was in the cinema and theatre trade for 40 years.

“I remember my first introduction to the Gaiety,’’ Alfred told the Daily Echo back in 1968. “As I walked in, a huge rat walked out with a kipper in its mouth.

“It had actually pinched the kipper from the hand of Miss Hinds, my café and milk bar manageress, by jumping up and snatching it from her hand.

“Rats were desperate at that period. With all the buildings around the Gaiety flattened by bombs, these vermin were absolutely starving.

“The Gaiety was my most interesting management, especially when it became the Yanks’ favourite rendezvous, where they dumped their ladies after victorious conquests.

“They came in with them, sat a short while with them and left them for conquests anew. By 6pm the circle was full of discarded ladies and at five shillings (25p) for two seats it was very profitable for the Gaiety management.’’

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The cinema’s milk bar was allegedly the place where “black market’’ goods, such as American cigars, cigarettes and nylons, could be obtained.

The venue gained a reputation for not being particularly classy.

In fact, it also seems that the Gaiety was well known for some rather unusual seats in the cinema’s back stalls.

Double seats, always popular with courting couples, could be found in other movie houses such as the Plaza at Northam and the Woolston cinema but those at the Gaiety had an added facility.

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At the Gaiety, there was also a curtain that could be pulled completely around the double seat. This of course meant the screen was totally blocked out but this didn't seem to worry the occupants.

The Gaiety closed April 28, 1956, when overheads became just too high.

The last film to be shown at the cinema was Detective Story starring Kirk Douglas.

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The building was torn down in the 1950s and the site is now occupied by Sprinkles Gelato.

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