Welwyn Garden City's Premier Entertainment Venue. Cinema, Roller Skating, Soft Play, Lounge, Cafe, Bar and Theatre in Welwyn Garden City, AL8 6BX
To become the Centre of Entertainment in Hertfordshire.
Campus West provides affordable varied entertainment for the residents of Welwyn & Hatfield Borough through a 3 Screen Independent Cinema, a purpose-built Roller-Skating Rink, Soft Play Centre, Theatre and Coffee Shop & Bar that is supported by a subsidy provided by Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.
Opened on 8 December 1973, this huge red-brick structure with white mullion butresses on the west side of The Campus was partly funded by the sale of the Second Garden City Limited water works in Sherrards Wood. Construction was hampered by national strikes during 1973 and it seemed unlikely it would be finished on time. However, it was duly opened by Dame Flora Robson, a highly distinguished actress, who lived locally. The opening plaque is located on the first landing of the original staircase. The foundation stone, laid by the builders, Richard Shepherd and Sons, is near to the old library entrance, which now forms part of a soft play area. Although this was the official opening date, Campus West was open from noon to 10pm on both 5 and 6 December.
On 8 December the Band of Scotts Guards left on a march to the new building from Parkway Close at 11am, arriving 11.30am and performed These are my Mountains on stage in the new Campus West Theatre to a capacity audience of 364 paying guests. The first general manager was Mr Frank Hogg, a ‘business-like’ man, whos female staff were known as ‘Campettes,’ – mindful of the era!
The building originally consisted of a theatre-cinema, a volumous exhibition hall, - known as ‘the glasshouse,’ and a banqueting hall, which held dinner dances where the local girls and boys were reputed to be sat on opposite sides of the hall until the lads plucked up courage to go and ask a girl for a dance! They would have drunk Whitbread beer, paid £3 to go to the Christmas Ball and just £2 to attend a dinner dance. It was ‘strict tempo’ on Mondays, ‘free and easy’ Tuesday afternoons and by Wednesday it was ‘swinging!’ Fridays were wrestling nights, but not restricted to the ring! Campus West promised a lot, but it’s true to say it was not an instant hit with the public and there were claims of vandalism within the building, an unsafe stage and people stayed away. It was taken over to be run by several companies, who all found it difficult to run and make money from, one of them – Allied Bakeries closed some parts of the building, finding little use for the multitude of purposeless rooms additional to the main areas, which were supposed to have been snooker and pool rooms. They were dark times for the building.
By the 1980’s dinner dances were long a thing of the past and nightclubs were big, a venture was entered into to open a stylish club within the former banqueting hall. The area was stripped out completely and an 800 person capacity nightclub was opened called West One. It had Welwyn Garden’s longest bar and was a huge hit amongst local clubbers. It was sumptuous with fake palms, a stunning lighting rig and a house DJ and often live acts. Not quite the Chippendales, but the Dreamboys excited the ladies with their act on stage on several occasions.
West One remained very popular for ten years and was a very good nightclub, but things were happening club-wise, in neighbouring towns and youngsters ‘with wheels’ eventually went elsewhere, the club closed in 1998 and the area remained mothballed for three years. Conferencing was eventually to take over the space where the club had been until December 2013.
The Glasshouse had been another difficult area to keep filled, dog shows and model railway exhibitions became more and more scarce. A Leyland ‘motor show’ exhibition has been recalled by locals. In 1987, two keep fit ladies ‘dreamt up’ the idea of roller skating within the space. A purpose built skating rink was laid and the beginning of what has been known as RollerCity ever since was started. RollerCity has always been popular and has never once waned and attracts skaters from miles around. It has been comprehensively updated all through the years.
The theatre made attractive to incoming companies by intimate stadium-style seating has been popular from the start, pantomimes, such as Mother Goose, with Charlie Drake have been staged, Kenneth Williams has appeared, Steve Davies has played a charity snooker match here, Paul Daniels has pulled £5 from a walnut and Nicholas Parsons spoke for more than ‘just a minute!’
Cinema was not initially envisaged at the Campus West Theatre, - it was a late amendment and things had to be altered. Not least a massive 31 feet white screen within a much bigger screen frame, which is flown out when not needed. Theatre people didn’t like it because it took up valuable flying lines, - but even then there remained thirteen hemps, later to be upgraded to counterweight flying. Two 35mm Cinemecanica Victoria 4 projectors and a 16mm gauge Fumeo machine were installed by the British Film Institute (BFI) chief engineer Mr Charles Beddow MBE in time for the opening. They remained in good condition and were lovingly maintained by an excellent engineer, Mr William (Billy) Bell until February 2002, when plans were made to upgrade to Victoria 5 projectors and a long play tower system which could handle 13,000 of film on each side – two complete programmes. Films remained very popular and the cinema was considered to be family friendly and had a house-style people liked a loyal core of customers came week after week, it was a fun place, but something big was quietly looming that would change things…digital.
It was happening elsewhere and would eventually reach Campus West. To carry on showing pictures it was imperative to change to digital projection and by summer 2012, the Garden City Cinema as it is now known was perhaps one of the last to run films on 35mm projectors. Stock was becoming hard to source, and it HAD to happen.
The Hawthorne Theatre, became known as Screen 3, a Barco 19B 2K digital projector was installed and newer films became available to us. Digital was an instant hit; the image so sharp and the sound quality trumped anything that had been heard here before. We had made the painful leap and it was well worth it. There still remains a working film projector in the projection room.
To maximize the use and build on the success of digital projection, including live satellite broadcast of live theatre, two new contemporary cinema auditoria were opened in September 2014 seating 115 and 41 as well as a large soft play area, with three distinctive zones, known as Soft Play City. This new venture has been very successful and more recently a brand new kitchen with qualified chefs has been commissioned serving hot food to our two café areas generically known as Humphrey’s. Upstairs the outdoor balcony, which can seat 16 has been opened up to the public to enjoy drinks and meals al fresco in the warmer weather.
Campus West is the brand name covering RollerCity, Soft Play City, Hawthorne Theatre, Welwyn Garden City Cinema and Humphrey’s Café and Bar. They are all used by people from far and wide and loved by locals; family orientated, they mean different things to different people and our staff always aim to offer a great experience in a safe, clean environment.