The cinema experience in Sheffield is reaching new heights with the opening of The Light and the recent makeover of the Odeon on Arundel Gate. Now rebranded as Odeon Luxe – “cinema like you’ve never experienced before” – it’s hard to believe this building was constructed in the sixties.
The history will be lost to a younger generation, familiar with the cinema and Tank nightclub alongside, but its beginnings go back to the Epic Development of 1968-1969, a massive £1million project to provide an entertainment complex for the city.
The scheme exploited the steeply sloping ground above Pond Street, rising to the newly-constructed inner ring road (Arundel Gate). With shops and car-parking below, it linked Pond Street bus station to the city centre by means of walkways, escalators and subways. The key features were two large windowless blocks, clad entirely in panels of white tiles, designed by Jefferson Sheard & Partners, responsible for the brutalist Moore Street Substation.
One of the buildings was taken by the Rank Organisation as a 2,500 capacity nightclub and conference centre, known to generations as Top Rank (later the Roxy, now the O2 Academy), while the other unit was proposed as another nightclub with twin cinemas underneath.
The Cinecenta cinemas opened in January 1969, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1970 that a cabaret club opened above. This was the Fiesta Club, operated by two brothers, Keith and Jim Lipthorpe, who had managed the Club Fiesta at Stockton-on-Tees since 1965. The cost of fitting out the building was said to be £500,000, a huge undertaking, and provided 1,300 seats in the auditorium.
It was reputed to be the largest cabaret club in Europe, building a reputation in attracting big names to the city. The Jackson Five, The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald and The Four Tops all played here.
And there were many famous homegrown names too – Cilla Black, Bruce Forsyth, Les Dawson, Tommy Cooper and Sheffield’s own Tony Christie – to name but a few. Legend suggests that Elvis Presley nearly appeared here, but alas it never happened.
For a time, the Fiesta Club was legendary, but the ever-increasing demands of artists and agents had taken its toll. In 1976, following a 17-day strike by staff wanting to join a union, the Fiesta Club closed with debts of £300,000.
After a spell in darkness, it reopened under the management of a Scarborough-based company, but when this also failed it passed into the hands of the Rank Organisation. Uncomfortable with such a large venue, it leased the Fiesta Club to a businessman who later disappeared.
The Epic Development never reached the heights it intended. Far from providing a link to the city centre, Arundel Gate was the problem, wider then, and only crossed by pedestrians via a series of subways. By the end of the seventies the area was already down-at-heel, the underpasses were dangerous places at night, the escalators had stopped working, and the shops were only attracting low-end retailers.
The lights finally went out at the Fiesta Club in 1980, standing empty until the Rank Organisation converted it into the Odeon multiplex cinema in 1992. Five of the seven screens were fitted into the shell of the Fiesta, two screens were taken in the former Cinecenta auditoriums, and extra screens added later.