IT was once the envy of Europe.

Thousands of families from across Scotland flocked to Irvine for its state-of-the art facilities, some of the world’s most iconic bands treaded its hallowed floorboards.

But after 40 years as Irvine’s entertainment epicentre, the final bell will soon toll for the Magnum Leisure Centre.

The thought of its impending closure is still a touchy subject for Irvinites.
The Magnum has been part of Irvine’s fabric for a generation providing memories – whether simple or spectacular – to last a lifetime.

Gliding among a sea of bodies at Frosty’s ice disco, managing that first dog paddle in the pool, being deafened at your first gig – the Magnum was there to provide it.

Irvine Times:

(The opening day of the Magnum pool in 1976)

Irvine Development Corporation’s grand vision for the New Town throughout the late 60s and 70s was hard for many residents to stomach.

The loss of elements of the town’s history to make way for ‘enhanced’ new infrastructure proved highly controversial.

But the Magnum was one of IDC’s seldom success stories.

Built in 1975 at a cost of £3.2million, the centre was constructed as the crown jewel of the New Town’s Beach Park development.

The official opening for the Magnum - at that time the largest leisure centre in Europe - took place on September 18, 1976.

Irvine Times:

(Ronnie Singleton and Karen McGowan, centre, were the first kids through the door at the Magnum)

Punters were charged 25p just to look at the facilities the New Town could now boast.

Swimming pools, an ice rink, cinema and theatre, indoor bowls halls, squash courts and a licensed bar were all hosted within the Magnum.

The centre wasn’t entirely welcomed with open arms ahead of its unveiling, however.

Back in 1974, the Irvine Times reported how residents from other sections of Irvine and Dreghorn believed the centre was too far away and should have been built closer to Irvine town centre.

How things change!

The Magnum was an immediate success for Irvine with an annual average attendance of over one million people (leaving other town council’s green with envy. At one point, only Edinburgh Castle surpassed the Magnum for visitors.

But that success didn’t come cheap as the Magnum’s high running costs meant the centre relied heavily on subsidies from the Cunninghame District taxpayers.

The facilities were exceptional but the Magnum quickly became synonymous with simply unmissable nights of entertainment.

Irvine Times:

(Thin Lizzy live on stage at the Magnum in 1981)

Willie Freckleton, Irvine’s “Mr Entertainment”, was the visionary behind the Magnum’s live music boom in the 80s and 90s.

As Entertainments Officer he managed to attract major artists of the past and present – as well as providing a platform for future superstars.

Craig Smart worked in the Magnum's events department between 1988 and 1998.

He worked closely with Willie as he continued to sign up major acts for the Magnum.

Craig said: "I joined just after that kind of peak period in the 80s but it was still unbelievable to see the type of bands that were coming through.

Irvine Times:

(A rare still from The Smiths' Magnum performance in 1985)

"For this building to open in Irvine was incredible looking back, not just the music but the pool and the ice rink were fantastic facilities.

"Willie is the reason that people know Irvine. 

"He was constantly speaking to the big players and he was such a great guy.

"One of the best stories which I heard from the horses mouth that Chuck Berry got paid in American dollars when he performed but when he came off stage Willie said 'Chuck that was amazing will you go back out for an encore?' but he replied 'That'll cost you $500'"

He added: "People took the great bands Irvine was getting for granted, it was all down to Willie's character and ability to connect with people.

"It's forgotten that there used to be a queue to get into the Magnum all the way down to the Ship Inn, it's crazy to think about it.

"It's going to be heartbreaking for some people seeing it close but what an achievement it was keeping that level of bands coming for so long, we didn't know any different.

"The Magnum really did shape me, I learnt to swim there, it was my first job and I'm sure a lot of people met their future partners there at the skating!

Irvine Times:

(Willie Freckleton played a huge part in the success of the Magnum)

"It's such a shame it's going but things move on and hopefully there will be more facilities and we can one day bring it back."

The first major concert at the Magnum took place on May 5, 1980 when, at the height of their popularity, Madness rolled into Irvine.

That show ignited Irvine’s reputation as Ayrshire’s home of live music which saw icons like Thin Lizzy, The Jam (both 1981), The Clash (1982), The Smiths (1985) and Chuck Berry descend on the New Town.

Scottish stars including Fairground Attraction ( fronted by Irvine’s own Eddi Reader), Deacon Blue, Big Country and Runrig would make the Magnum a key part of their UK tours.

Theatre was also a big part of the Magnum’s box office appeal alongside the Borderline Theatre Company where Billy Connolly, Karen Dunbar and Alan Cumming all performed.

Joe and Sandra Wayne’s ‘Whatsitsname’ show became a legendary fixture while the Magnum became a home from home for kids favourites The Singing Kettle.

Irvine Times:

(Paul Weir was crowned world champion at the Magnum in 1994)

Despite a severe cut in funding from North Ayrshire Council, Willie – who famously brought Oasis and the Radio 1’s Roadshows to Irvine in the 90s – still managed to attract the likes of The Waterboys, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Proclaimers and Midge Ure to the Magnum before his retirement in 2008.

Willie died in 2011 but his memory has been kept alive by Freckfest.

Initially set-up as a three-day festival in 2013, the group – all connected to Willie in some form – have made it their mission to bring stellar live music to Irvine and the Magnum. 

The main hall also hosted perhaps Irvine’s greatest sporting night as boxer Paul Weir was roared to victory over Paul Oulden to win the WBO minimumweight title in November 1994.

More recently, fellow Irvine boxer Ryan Brawley would fight in the venue twice during his professional career.

The Magnum was more than just a leisure centre to people in Irvine.

Take a walk round the town centre and ask someone about the Magnum.
“It’s a disgrace they’re shutting it,” is an almost guaranteed response.

So now we look ahead to the future, to the Portal, to supposedly better facilities.

But how did it come to this? Read the second part of the Magnum story next week.