Pre Campus West
Opening night for the Welwyn Theatre was on the 27th of January 1928. The night was branded a complete success with a showing of the film Ben Hur to start off, followed by a reception hosted by Sir Theodore Chambers who was the Chairman of the Board of Welwyn Garden City at the time. He described the opening as a great event in the history of Welwyn Garden City and went on to say “It is something that is emblematic of all that Welwyn Garden City stands for – progress, initiative, courage and conviction”. Ending the evening with a dinner at the cherry tree restaurant, it was clear this would be the start of great success and that a hub for entertainment was a favourable move for the local community. However, with the population of the area being around 6,000 and the theatre sitting at 1,200, it was a brave project to commit to. Although the theatre was fully equipped for plays and live performances, its main use was as a cinema. They presented one of the first films that incorporated synchronised audible dialogue rather than readable text plates, known informally as a ‘talkie’ which filled the theatre for 3 weeks straight. It was entitled “All Quiet On The Western Front” and went on to win Best Picture Oscar of the talkie era. Unfortunately, the theatre closed its doors and was demolished in 1984.
The beginning of Campus West
On the 8th of December 1973, distinguished local actress Dame Flora Robson was given the responsibility of opening Campus West’s doors. Originally, the building consisted of a banquet hall in which regular dinner dances were held for just £2 a ticket (£3 for a special ball at Christmas) which was comprised of various themes such as ‘strict tempo’ on Mondays, ‘free and easy’ Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday was branded ‘swinging!’. The building was also home to a theatre-cinema, and a large exhibition hall, known as ‘the Glasshouse,’. 1973 was a busy time for Campus West. Not only did they open their entertainment doors, Poet Laureate, but Sir John Betjeman also hosted a grand opening ceremony for the then-new Welwyn Garden City Public Library. The library was situated within the building, as a wing of Campus West with a shared entrance foyer as an attempt to bring together cultural activities within the town. This wing is now the soft play area enjoyed by babies and children up to the age of 8.
Tough times overcome
Due to claims of vandalism within the building as well as claims of an unsafe stage, times were tough in the 70s for Campus West and people tended to stay away. Following this struggle came to the decline in interest for dinner dances during the ‘80s which was the main purpose of the banquet hall and so a change was needed in order to keep local interest. A stylish nightclub was proposed for the space and so ‘West One’ was born. In order to transform the space, the hall was completely stripped and made for an 800-person capacity. It was incredibly popular amongst the local clubbers and was host to Welwyn Garden’s longest bar. ‘West One’ was a great success for 10 years until 1998 when it closed. Despite this, ‘West One’ was a great venture for keeping Campus West relevant in the local community for over a decade and is still remembered fondly to this day.
The ‘glasshouse’ (the large exhibition hall) also faced difficulties, specifically keeping the space active with exhibitions. In 1987 the space was reimagined by two innovative and creative women which resulted in the idea of roller skating within the space. Subsequently, a purpose-built skating rink was laid and Roller City became a reality. It’s the only one of its kind in Hertfordshire to this day and the venue is also used for dance and fitness classes.
Campus West today
Today, Campus West still has so much to offer and has really cemented itself as an indispensable part of the community due to its immense catalogue of leisure and entertainment options for all ages. The soft play area, installed and opened as ‘Soft Play City’, is made up of three distinctive age zones from 0-8. Roller City offers roller-skating parties, classes and good wholesome fun. Humphrey’s stylish lounge/bar offers inviting sofas and an attractive outdoor balcony with an all-day food and drink menu plus artwork on the walls from the New Maynard Gallery making it the perfect place to meet and relax between, before or after activities. The cinema boasts three screens with up-to-date new releases as well as smaller, independent films you won’t find at the larger cinema venues. But that’s not all the cinema has to offer with an incredible choice of live events broadcast by satellite, you can enjoy world-class ballet, theatre, live music, opera, comedy and sport plus you can experience stage performances from the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Met Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and hit shows from the heart of London's West End. Finally, there’s the timeless pantomime performances that have graced the stage for years. The shows appeal to all ages with a show, especially for the kids (Treasure Island) and a, now, famous Blue Panto - strictly for adults (Pleasure Island).
The incredible journey, with its ups and downs, of Campus West and the way they adapted during tough times is a true testament to them and everyone involved. The evolution of this highly respected establishment is something truly to be admired and has left us all wondering, what’s next?