There are several historic bingo halls in the UK, such as the famous Grade II listed Granada Theatre in Tooting, London. Many of these buildings began life as cinemas and were later converted to bingo halls. One such building is The Ritz Cinema, which opened in Rushden, Northamptonshire, in 1936.
In 1982, Flutters Bingo opened in the building; however, it ceased operations on 19 December, 2022, and the building was put up for sale. Almost immediately, a community group sprung up trying to buy the art deco building, which went on the market for £625,000.
Peter Woolley, of 2 Fat Ladies Leisure and the former managing director of Flutters, explained that despite their best efforts, they were left with no choice but to close:
“We feel we did all we could to make the business sustainable. My family’s company took on the club about four years ago. We restructured and brought in a family member to run the club. Across the four years we have tried to get the club to a sustainable level. We pumped finances in. The pandemic swiped us sideways. Public transport has been an issue. There’s no buses running in and out of Rushden at night and it’s pretty land-locked with no parking. Looking ahead costs will rise – business rates, minimum wage and energy prices.”
After Flutters Bingo closed, the building was returned to its owners. Clearly, the bingo hall was much loved by many in the local community and local resident Reg Challinor set about creating a community interest group, The Rushden Ritz Theatre Preservation Group, together with Matt Bass and Matt Green, hoping to take over the running of the venue.
“With the increased footfall into the town, it could be of great benefit to the local economy. With the right acts we can attract people into the town. We could find local restaurants to produce cinema and theatre menus, and whilst children’s activities are on, the parents can walk round the shops and have a coffee.”
The plan was to form a Community Interest Company so that they could apply to North Northamptonshire Council for the building to become an Asset of Community Interest. This would then have delayed the sale and given the Group six months with which to raise funds to buy The Ritz.
However, according to updates on the Group’s Facebook page, things have not been going to plan. At the start of February, they were given notice by the selling agent that the offers were going to be presented to the owners. The Group was invited to put in an offer, but given the short timescale, they decided that the best course of action was to develop a lease agreement to keep the building as a leisure venue.
Sadly, the Group’s lease offer was rejected. Furthermore, the owners rejected the Group’s request to give priority to offers from organisations committed to keeping the building as a leisure venue.
However, Challinor and The Rushden Ritz Theatre Preservation Group have not given up hope. They are now hoping that after the building is sold, they will be able to work with the new owners to realise their vision for The Ritz.
At present, the future of The Ritz seems rather uncertain. So far, the owners have not revealed if they have received any offers for the building. As of 4 February 2023, Reg Challinor said that negotiations were still going on with the council. While there are absolutely no guarantees, given the dedication and determination of Challinor and the Group, it seems that there is still a very real chance that bingo may return to The Ritz Cinema in the not too distant future. In the meantime, residents of Rushden can turn to online bingo and who knows, perhaps they will hit a large enough jackpot to be able to make a winning bid for The Ritz.
Architect Paul J. Panton designed the Ritz Cinema and it opened on 21 November 1936 with a showing of “Trail in the Lonesome Pine”. It could seat 721 in the stalls and a further 470 in the circle. Over the years, the building has been used extensively by amateur dramatic and opera companies, as well as pop groups, thanks to its particularly large 35-foot deep stage.
This is not the first time that the building has faced uncertainty. In October 1973, plans were approved to demolish the building and build a supermarket in its place. However, the plans were ultimately dropped and it was converted into a bingo club in September 1982. For a few years, The Ritz was almost a hybrid venue with films being screened during school holiday afternoons well into the mid-1980s. It is certainly one of Rushden’s best-known landmarks and regardless of who purchases the building, it seems likely that it shall remain very much at the heart of the community.