I suppose it is true to say that I come from a cinema family: My grandmother’s youngest sister Auntie Rachel was an addict and my mother landed one of the most glamorous jobs available in the village when she became one of the four usherettes at the Memorial Hall in 1947. Thus it was that my first visit to the Pictures was in 1949 or thereabouts.
It was Auntie Rachel who introduced me to the Pictures, as the cinema was then called. At least twice a week, we would go to the Grand, Empire or Memo and when my mother was working matinee shows, I would be taken along to sit quietly, watching the films while my mother was on duty on the door. On the days when the Memo was full, and she was working the Balcony, I sat on the balcony steps.
Auntie could recall being thrown out of the Abercarn Picture House in silent film days with her friend Beattie Lewis for making too much noise. Their passion for the Pictures is evidenced by their two mile walk to the cinema down the canal bank and the two mile walk home afterwards. She recalled sitting on wooden benches, screaming at Lon Chaney (hence the ejection) and thrilling to Lillian Gish escaping death on a frozen river. While she was also a frequent patron of ‘Dicks’ (The Empire) in Crumlin, the Newbridge Grand was her favourite. The Memorial Hall did not figure high on her list of cinemas. Maybe its high socialist principles did not accord with her views – or maybe it was just because they did not get the best films.
So it was that for everyone in the area, there was cinema to enjoy all the way through most of the twentieth century right up to 1974. There was a lot of choice, it was on your doorstep and it was a whole community activity. My mother remembered being called to resolve a dispute between a regular patron and a visitor whom she found sitting in ‘her seat’.
Everyone could of course get the bus over to the Maxime or Capitol in Blackwood or the train or down the valley to Newport or up to Abertillery (these were days when cars were in short supply). However Blackwood did not really figure in cinema going habits until the 60s and Newport was for high days and holidays. If we discount the communities further down the valley (Cwmcarn, Crosskeys, Risca each with its own cinema) and those above Crumlin (Llanhilleth and Abertillery, the latter with no less than five cinemas), the hard working folk of Newbridge had four choices: Abercarn cinema at the Victoria Hall (until 1947), the Crumlin Empire (until 1965), the Newbridge Grand (until 1956) and the Newbridge Memorial Hall until 1974, almost the last survivor in the valley.
In Newbridge itself, the choice was good old capitalist entertainment at the Grand and worthy socialist improvement at Memorial Hall. Before the half century, people had gone to Abercarn (like Auntie Rachel) and in 1955 to Crumlin for the first Cinemascope films. Abercarn’s cinema only just survived the Second World War and was a forgotten ruin all through my childhood and adolescence. The Empire Crumlin had the impertinence to place posters at selected places in Newbridge and a big colour poster behind the monumental masons next to Beulah chapel. So a lot of people caught the Red and White or the Western Welsh up to Crumlin or walked the one mile along North Road, much to the annoyance of Harold Jones, about whom much later.
For those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s, these cinemas were such everyday things that we took no particular notice of them. There was always a sense of anticipation on a Monday when the week’s posters for the Empire and the Memo appeared on the wall of the Garage opposite the Grammar School. But we paid little attention to the buildings and did not mourn their passing any more than we did the closure of the railways. Of course we attended them especially on Saturday nights with school chums and girlfriends. They were part of community life like the Chapels, shops like Wallace Jones Furnishers and Bolwell’s Confectioners, the Co-op and Jack Gallorani’s café.
It is therefore a bit of a shock to realise that no-one under the age of 45 will never have seen a film at the Memo (or of course all the other cinemas) – and even more of a surprise to encounter disbelief within the planning department of the local Council that there was ever a cinema in Crumlin.
The purpose of my research is to put on record my own memories of these cinemas in the hope that they might inspire others to share theirs before it is too late. It is also to acknowledge the contribution the Pictures made to all our lives. In the days before Television, it was the cinema where we saw strange places, heard different accents and got a vision of the world that was so different from the harsh and shut in lives that our parents and neighbours had.
The building opened next to the Ebbw bridge in the late 19th century as a Public Hall and Reading Room). There is a very good photograph from 1900 showing a ‘tin tabernacle’ structure, almost gothic in inspiration and looking for all the world like a Chapel.
The 1923 Kine Yearbook lists the Public Hall as licenced for films, with the proprietor as H.V.Davies. By 1931 it has become The Grand and is owned by the Attwood Brothers who also appear as owners of the Blaenavon Coliseum and in 1942 Abercarn’s Victoria Hall. It is still under the ownership of the Attwoods in the 1942 listings and offering the same service as 1932 of ‘once nightly’ with almost certainly a ‘second house’ on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. The 1942 seating capacity is given as 600, with British Acoustic Sound System. In the 1954 Yearbook the ownership has switched to M. Goldblatt, Risca Cinemas Ltd., 97, Frederick Street, Cardiff. This may well have been an associated company of the Jackson Withers cinema empire.
The Public Hall was renamed “The Grand” in the mid 1920s perhaps as a response to the building of the much more splendid Memorial Hall Cinema and Ballroom in the centre of the village. Certainly Auntie never called it by any other name. At the start of the 1950s, the Grand was given a new ‘front and back’ with a stage area and a front in orange brick in the flat, utilitarian style of post-war buildings. Its new facade was a low rectangular with range Of opening windows along the roof edge allowing ventilation into the projection suite and offices.
There were two advertising panels high up on the left (for Mon Tues Weds) and right (for Thurs Fri Sat). Along the centre of the façade was a blue neon sign spelling out ‘GRAND’. The main entrance, set back a little from the main road, was reached up a set of steps. On each side were two small shops/offices, through these were only ever used by the cinema itself, the right hand one as the ice cream store. On the outer edge were exit doors with steps down from the back of the auditorium. A central pay box was just inside the double glazed doors from which curved steps rose again to the level of the stalls.
The wall decoration in the entrance area - metallic grey had a combed effect in the plaster, a novelty then but much beloved of the ‘artex’ of the late 50s and 60s.
At the top of the two flights of stairs, central doors led into the original Victorian auditorium. This was built from corrugated metal with a pitched roof held together by reinforcing rods. I remember this clearly since my Sunday school had the same roof reinforcers, examined closely during boring films and sermons alike. At four points on each side, at the joining points in the pre-fabricated walls, were light fixtures in a shell shaped orange/red glass which shone up and outwards. There was no central lighting.
The seating was arranged in three sections: Two side sections of about 10 seats each reaching to side aisles, and a central section of more expensive seats, about 20 wide. At the front of the auditorium, each side of the stage, were two side exits. The left hand one opened out onto a narrow walk way along the river, very scary when the River Ebbw on the other side of some railings became a raging torrent after heavy rain.
Cinemascope came along only three years after the Grand’s post-war make-over and given the public enthusiasm for it, it was odd that it was never installed. It would have been an easy job too, given the single floor and the large new stage. However a cruel fate intervened.
On a winter’s night in 1956 the cinema suddenly caught fire in the early hours. Later that morning I walked past the still smouldering ruins with my mother who was in such a bad mood that she refused to stop despite my pleas of “Look what’s happened to the Grand”. It was only when we reached the High Street that she heard the news from a friend with shocked disbelief. My father, who had seen the ruin on the way to work, was able to tell a colleague who had arranged to meet his girl that night “on the steps of the Grand” that he would be able to do so: The steps were still there but nothing else. The news spread around the village that the heat from the fire was so intense that the fire crews could do nothing and the door of the neighbouring sweet shop burst in with the heat.
The Celynen Collieries Committee quickly bought the site putting paid to rumours about the place being rebuilt with Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound and even that the Rank Organisation were going to buy the site for an Odeon. Their sign proclaimed their ownership until they sold the site to Rediffusion for a workshop in the 1963, highly ironic since it was this company and its rented cable television which was the final blow to mass cinema going in the valley. Meanwhile the ‘Memo’ displayed an onscreen message for several years asking patrons to ensure their cigarettes were out when they left, the official reason for the fire being a smouldering cigarette end. Auntie Rachel, ever the expert at Conspiracies smelled an insurance scam. No doubt The Memo and its formidable manager Harold Jones delighted in having the monopoly of cinema in the village for a few more years.
The Grand was by far the pre-eminent cinema in Newbridge and the best in the whole valley below Abertillery. It had enormous audience loyalty. People liked going there and, even without Cinemascope, it got the best films. I can recall seeing ‘High Noon’ and ‘Quo Vadis’ there in 1951 (at the age of six!) and queuing with parents for ‘Mandy’ in 1952. By contrast, big pictures at the Memo (such as ‘High Society’, ‘The King and I’, ‘The Dam Busters’) only came after the end of The Grand.
The remains of the Grand stayed as they were for several years: The front even kept the poster of the Monday to Wednesday show tattered and fading on the left hand panel (‘Secret of the Incas”, a prototype Indiana Jones). Between the front and the remains of the stage were the brick supports of the old hall’s wooden floor, like some ancient Roman hypocaust. For mischievous schoolboys from the neighbouring Grammar School, there was one more delight to be had from the ruins: Alan Herbert, expert smoke bomb maker, would lead his renegade gang, in school uniform with caps and satchels, up into the old projection box on the way home from school. Off would go Alan’s smoke bomb and we would scatter along Bridge Street with smoke billowing out of the broken windows of the projection suite much as it must have done on that night in 1956.
The Memorial Hall
Newbridge exists because of coal. The village occupies a commanding geographical site at the point where the Ebbw Valley is separated from the Sirhowy Valley and Pontllanfraith and Blackwood only by a low defile. Hence ‘Trecelyn’ was always a meeting place of routes. However it was the sinking of the Celynen South pits by the Newport and Abercarn Blackvein Coal Company in 1876 which started the expansion of the village. The Celynen North Colliery’s three shafts were sunk between 1913 and 1924 and the population rose exponentially both within the village and in new Council estates like Old and New Treowen on the hill to the north-west in the 1920s and Pant Estate on the hill to the east from 1953.
In 1898 a group of local miners formed an association to better the social conditions of their workmates, holding their inaugural meeting in the Long Room at the Beaufort Arms in Bridge Street, not far from the Public Hall and Reading Rooms that became The Grand Cinema. They opened their Institute Building in August 1908 in the High Street at the other end of the village. By 1909 the Institute had a membership of 1,580 people – a substantial proportion of the total population of Newbridge.
In the early 1920s, the Committee commenced on the second and larger stage of their work: A hall, costing £10,000, in memory of those Institute members who died in the 1914-1918 World War. A photograph taken at the laying of the foundation stone shows E.D.T Jenkins Architect and W. Ewart Evans Builder and Contractor. The building, known officially as The Memorial Hall (but ever after familiarly as ‘the Memo’) was opened in 1924. Cinema does not appear to have started immediately since the opening film was Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Thief of Baghdad” which did not reach London until January 1925. It has the distinction of having survived (sometimes by the skin of its teeth) longer than almost every other cinema building in the valley.
The Memorial Hall is the biggest building in the village, dominating the view from all directions. From the outside it is functional rather than attractive with a red brick frontage with yellow stone facings and a ‘valleys grey stone’ back under a tiled roof surmounted with a large ventilator ‘dome’. Originally the Hall was completely separate from the Institute, a connecting corridor only being added at ground floor level to the ballroom in the 1960s. The building is placed into the hillside behind so that at the stage end, scenery access to the stage and the two exits from the stalls go directly onto the street.
The building is big – three stories - with a ballroom at ground level, then cinema stalls (always somewhat inaccurately called “Ground Floor”) and balcony above. Access is by a sloping ramp off High Street, with a canopy and new lavatories added in 1955. The downstairs foyer is reached through double doors. This is small with a sweets and ice-cream counter straight ahead and stairs to the next level to the left and right. The area also housed the Ladies and Gents toilets for the whole building, ballroom and cinema. To the right and left of the sweets counter are two domestic-size doors to the ballroom. The sweets counter was double facing so that on dance nights, when the last house was in the cinema, a curtain could be drawn across and the box opened to face the ballroom. For many years there was no alcohol licence in the ballroom (indeed Workmen’s Halls were forbidden by law to sell alcohol until the end of the 1950s) so there was always a busy trade in ‘pop’ (no Coca Cola until much later) and Lyons Ice Cream.
Above the sweets counter is a commemorative plaque to those who died in World War War which for many years was obscured by the ‘Timetable of Films for Today’ board. There was also a decorative copper plaque marking the installation of RCA Photophone Sound Equipment, ‘the magic voice of the screen’. Finally in this tiny area were display cases left and right of the sweets counter, between it and the ballroom doors.
It is odd that the architect provided such a congested and unassuming entrance for such a grand building: Even the relatively flea-pit Crumlin Empire had better people handling facilities. It was also a very awkward building to use. Right to the end of cinema days, if you wanted an ice cream or a drink you had to come down three flights of stairs from the stalls, five from the balcony. No-one ever took ices up on trays to the patrons in the cinema. The one set of toilets, at last enlarged in about 1958, had to serve the whole building; again quite a trek from the balcony.
On a visit in 2012, it was possible to trace remains of earlier installation of a small pay box in the wall of the the Ladies Lavatory and some brass fittings in the terrazzo of the floor which might suggest a turnstile or separating gate. These might have been originally for the ballroom, since the cinema paybox is on the level above. In the 40s and 50s the queue for second house went down the left hand stairs and out through the main door down the ramp all the way up Meredith Terrace) while the balcony patrons only exited the right hand stairs and ramp. All ground floor customers exited first house out through the stage end doors and then doubled back down past the Con Club and the Zion Chapel onto High Street.
The ballroom originally had an excellent sprung dance floor and two small stages so that bands could interchange. A central stairway between the stages led to dressing rooms and further stairs led up to the stage of the cinema. In this way, for the drama festivals and annual pantomime, which were popular features until the permanent Cinemascope installation took up most of the stage space in 1955, the ballroom could become overflow space for performers and back stage staff.
Originally the girder construction supporting the stalls floor could be seen in the ceiling of the ballroom, sloping down from back to front towards the stage. This was boxed in during the many ugly alterations done to the ballroom in the 60s, 70s and 80s when the place became little more than a drinking den. Some original plaster work is still visible but the little peephole by which the formidable Managers of the Memo (there were only ever two) could look down on the dancers from the rear of the cinema pay box is no longer visible.
The ballroom is reasonably small, licenced for about 600 people. However on New Year’s Eve 1949, my mother checked 1100 people in, perhaps because there was plenty to celebrate at the end of such a difficult decade
The Memo was not a cinema for the unfit. From the main entrance, a set of about ten steps takes the audience up to a half landing where there are some heavy fireproof doors. Then a second set of about 20 steps leads on up to a curious enclosed landing with a pay box where Joan Williams (‘Joan in the Box’) presided over cinema ticket sales for nearly 20 years. Then a third set of about ten steps at last reach the stalls level (in Memospeak “Ground Floor”). Patrons for the Ground Floor now enter left/right through heavy oak doors with small opaque glazed panels while balcony patrons turn round on themselves and enter the main foyer. Here there was a semi-circular window looking out high over the High Street and opposite a set of double doors into the central aisle of the stalls. These were never used for going in – they never had usherettes on them- only for exiting and use by the Manager. To get to the balcony means yet another set of ten steps to a half landing and then a turn onto another set of ten steps which brings you to double oak doors into the balcony. So to get from the street to the balcony meant climbing five sets of stairs with over 60 steps! The building offered no help to the elderly or disabled though I can recall a few occasions when the exit to the right of the stage was opened to let in a wheelchair.
Both ‘ground floor’ and balcony have side aisles along walls panelled with wood to just above head height. The stalls also have a centre aisle dividing the seating area while the balcony is a single block of seats. Next to each of the four entrances was an usherettes’ station where they stood and tore tickets into tin boxes which were latched onto the wall. They also showed people to seats so that if the usherette were down the hall, you waited until she returned to tear you ticket before you went in. By the mid 1960s, audiences were
so small that tickets were torn by a single usherette at the top of the right hand stairs near the pay box.
The Cinema seated about 800, 600 in the stalls and 200 in the balcony. Its has been described as ‘art deco’ but towards the classical rather than modern/streamlined end of that style. There are four tall glass windows on each side, with scalloped decorative features. Above these is a cornice (originally with concealed lighting) and a wide barrel roof with decorated ribs. The proscenium is richly decorated with deep recesses above the stage. Between the windows and each side of the stage were panels with painted roundels and square panels depicting aspects of industrial work. Even by the early 50s nicotine had darkened these so that it was hard to see what was painted and by the 70s they had faded almost completely and begun to flake. The lighting was by means of small ‘secondary circuit’ walls lights and eight splendid hanging lights, replaced in an act of sheer vandalism in 1966 by utterly horrible pink plastic shades.
The photograph here is the copyright of Deryck Lewis. Apart from the appalling 60s pendant lights referred to in the text, the interior is as it was for 50 years: The painted roundels can be seen with the clock underneath the right hand one. The side exits went out onto the mountainside and were always used to get the first house crowd out of the auditorium. The screen was very large – filling the proscenium side to side for Cinemascope and two-thirds of the height of the stage opening. There is a small orchestra pit, always with a piano which must have been there since the 1930s. The loudspeaker on the right of the stage is a left-over from Bingo days.
The general colour scheme was light brown/sand with blue seats throughout and brown plush stage curtains with blue and gold trimmings. However years of cigarette smoke have added to the ‘patina’ so that the original colour scheme is hard to detect. I can recall no redecorating of the building after 1950 and even when Cinemascope was installed, this was done over a weekend with no fanfare at all.
The one thing that can be said for the Memorial Hall and Institute Committee was that in the building’s heyday at least they did not stint on quality. In its concept, it is an astonishingly elaborate and appointed building, quite unique in the valley. The Committee was one of the first to install sound apparatus in 1930 and David Berry (‘Wales and the Cinema’) contrasts their speedy decision to plump for the RCA system with the dithering of many other halls. The projectors (still derelict in the box in 2012) were high quality American Simplex machines. The Cinemascope installation was an expensive job, with electric side masking and a screen which entirely filled the proscenium. Throughout the 50s the auditorium was maintained in excellent condition with perfect lighting and projection. The decline and decrepitude set in rapidly in the 1960s.
The cinema only ever had two managers: Frank Thomas until 1946 and then his onetime second-in-charge Harold Jones, who ruled with an iron hand almost to the end. Similarly, for many years technical matters were in the hands of Les Baker, who spent all his working life in the building first as an assistant projectionist and then as Chief until his retirement in the early 60s. My mother Nancy Senior joined the usheretting staff in 1947 and worked through to 1954. It was in the Memo that I discovered a passion for cinema (or maybe had it breathed into me). From the time that I could sit still and be quiet, I would be taken by my mother to the first house on a Saturday and sit on the steps of the balcony if all the seats were full. I was able to share tea with the usherettes in their little cubby hole on the Left hand set of balcony stairs in the half hour they were allowed off once the ‘big picture’ had started. Aged 4, I was held up to the projection portholes by Les Baker and can remember looking down over seemingly acres of seats to the distant screen. I can also remember Les opening the carbon arc box behind the projector and the feel of the intense heat on my face. On New Year’s Day 1952 I went with several hundred other children to the ‘new year’s treat’ and on the way out was given an orange and a three penny bit by a member of the Committee. For Christmas 1950, the usherettes gave me a copy of the ‘Film Show Annual’.
Harold Jones was not an easy man, demanding a very day’s work for what seems to us remarkably little pay. I believe my mother earned 25’- a week. The ‘girls’ were on usherette duty in the evening from 6pm and took turns also to work late on Tuesday and Saturday dance nights. They had to stand at the doors when on duty and woe betides them if HJ found them sitting. Once the audience was in and the big picture on, they had to count all the half tickets in their box and account for them to HJ. Of course every seat had to be tipped up at the end of the show, cigarette ends extinguished and lost property found. The normal Memo service was once nightly 6.45pm Monday to Friday and two houses 4.45 and 8.00pm Saturday and Bank holidays. The usherettes work was not just in the evening, however. They were also the cleaners and had to be there from 8.30am to noon to clean up last night’s rubbish and wash and Blanco the edges of every one of the 120 odd steps from entrance to balcony. When she went to the cinema later in life, my mother would bewail the condition on ‘her steps’. Once a week the usherettes even had to scrub the stage. I can recall being on the stage when this was being done and asking my mother why the white screen seemed to have black dots all over it. I did not know that these were the perforations through which the sound came.
Mr Jones had a formidable reputation among his colleagues in the film trade, often in conflict with film distributors, complaining at CEA (Cinema Exhibitors Association) meetings and picking fights with Albert Withers (head of the Jackson Withers circuit) and of course his fellow managers at The Grand and The Empire, Drumlin. His most celebrated and ill-judged dispute was with United Artists in 1963 when they allowed the Empire to have the second Bond film ‘From Russia with Love’ ahead of the Memo. Harold Jones’ subsequent boycott of UA product deprived Newbridge of James Bond, ‘Tom Jones’, ‘West Side Story’ – in short the output of the most prolific and profitable distributor of the 1960s. Instead, the Memo offered an interminable series of dubbed ‘sword and sandal’ Italian epics, weekend after weekend. When it did manage to get a decent film, like ‘El Cid’, it chopped out the interval expecting the audience to sit for three and a half hours without a break. There seemed to be no strategy for getting the audience back from television and the cinema entered a spiral of decline and depression. In the winter of 1963, the Memo ran a three day presentation of ‘South Pacific’. Against the odds the cinema was packed, indeed it may have been one of the last occasions it was full. Significantly, overheard on the bus to the Thursday show was A comment from a woman to her friend: “Well, I like the film so much but it will not be the same at the Memo”. True to her fears, the film broke down during the opening credits.
HJ also had a memorable dispute with me. For the annual Grammar School Magazine in 1964 I wrote an article about the decline of the Memorial Hall cinema. Reading it now it is a highly embarrassing polemic from an opinionated teenager. However Mr Jones was not amused. Unknown to me, he took legal advice and threatened to sue the School. On my 18th birthday, 12th November 1964, he forcibly ejected me from the cinema and banned me for life. So much for freedom of speech! The incident illustrates how out of touch the manager was with those very young people he should have been trying to attract to the cinema. Poor old HJ soldiered on, his weekly torment being the Friday night show, avoided at all costs by normal human beings, at which several hundred kids simply ran riot. In the projection box used to be a vivid illustration of what happened on those nights of anarchy. A handwritten sign: “One buzz, sound off. Two buzzes, picture off. Three buzzes, all off. “ - signals from HJ’s buzzer at the back of the auditorium where in better days he would signal the start of the show to Les Baker up in the box. On one memorable Friday night in 1964, the entire audience of “Jumbo” was thrown out half way through because they could not be controlled. Whether the paying customers got their money back is not recorded.
It was a little like that in the ballroom where fights on a Saturday night were commonplace. It was not unusual to come out of the cinema to encounter a group of policemen, young men in handcuffs and blood on the concrete ramp down to the High Street. Another problem of Saturday night cinema going was noise from the ballroom. The soundproofing had been installed in the 20s for dance bands not rock bands. So from 10pm the soundtrack of the film was supplemented by the thump of bass guitar and drums. By the mid 60s the only nights at the Memo where you could enjoy a film in peace were Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, accompanied however by only half a dozen other enthusiasts. On Boxing Day 1963, my girlfriend Sandra and I were literally the only customers. Nevertheless the show went on as usual: Pearl & Dean, supporting film, trailers and big picture. Even the national anthem was played at the end. I can’t recall if we stood for that.
A visit in 1974, soon after closure, found everything in place and sleeping. Someone had wrenched the heavy stage curtains half open but otherwise all was intact. By 2000, much damage had been done despite the fact that the ballroom below remained in use. Vandals had got in even perhaps with the connivance of those who leased the building since someone was allowed to strip out every fitting that was possible – even switchgear in the projection box. In 2004 the building was featured in the BBC’s Restoration series and would have won the million pound prize but for a mix up in the voting. At last in 2012, the building is being restored with the architects attempting to reproduce accurately the light fittings and other artefacts which have been lost. It remains to be seen if films will ever be shown again but it will be a community hall again.
Kine Yearbook listings: 1931 and 1942 are identical: One nightly, twice Saturday. Prices 6d to 1s. 808 seats. 1954’s book lists a very large screen size of 26ft by 16ft in a 27ft proscenium. Prices 10d and 1/8.
The White Palace
Currently, little information can be found about this building. Certainly it was built in the very early 20th century, possibly as a variety/public hall and /or roller skating rink. It was out of use for entertainment by the beginning of the Second World War and does not appear in any Kinematograph Yearbook listings.
It was sandwiched between the canal and the River Ebbw, by old Crumlin Bridge on the road down to the Kay Field. Auntie Rachel mysteriously referred to it as a ‘white elephant’ and it may never have shown films. At the road side, which was a storey higher than the main ‘shed’, it had two shops and a white tiled entrance, boarded up even by 1950. The shed stayed in use as a garage right into the 60s until destroyed by a fire in 1964.
A photograph taken from the viaduct in 1965 clearly shows the building’s theatrical shape – and also over to the right, in the Square, the village’s main cinema The Empire.
The 1931 Kine Yearbook simply lists “Crumlin - Empire”. In 1942 it has Albert Whittaker as owner with 600 seats. Continuous on Mondays and Saturdays from 5.30- other nights (not Sunday of course) from 7. Projectors are Kalee. 6d downstairs, 1’- upstairs. In 1954 little has changed, except matinees are now Monday, Thursday and Saturday from 5. Prices have gone up to 1’- downstairs and 1’9 up
The Empire was one of those valleys cinemas whose name was much grander than the reality. No local ever called it the ‘Empire’. It was ‘Dick’s’ – a mystery for me until this research discovered that the owner in 1936 was one E. Ruddick.
Crumlin Square, once a busy meeting point for bus routes up and down the valley and across to Pontypool, Oakdale and Blackwood, was dominated by two large buildings: The Navigation Collieries Institute, an imposing 1920s red brick building with stone facings; and across the bottom of Crumlin Hill, Empire Buildings built around the same time and with the same tall, thin design. The Institute’s had a café, shops and bank on the ground floor with the Institute rooms above. “Empire Buildings” was similar. A range of shops on the street level : Fish and chips and Ivor Jones butcher to the right of the cinema entrance; a sweet shop, greengrocer and Griff Jones gentlemen’s outfitter to the left. On the first floor there was a flat (occupied by the owner of the cinema Mr Whittaker) and on the third floor a billiard hall – though that was disused by the 1950s.
It is likely that the original cinema pre-dated and gave its name to the 1920s with the original front of the Empire subsumed into the big building. For many years there was an old photograph of a cinema in the Empire’s pay box and this might have been the original one. The entrance in use from at least the 20s through to the 60s was off Crumlin Hill, through the south face of Empire Buildings. On each side of the entrance were stills boxes, five to each side, which were dutifully filled right up to closure: Left hand side current show, right hand side next show. (A contrast here to the Memo which never bothered with stills or even colour posters, even after the 1955 improvements to the front which included two large poster spaces.) Two sets of small-panelled glazed doors led in, with the left hand pair for entrance. The right hand pair opened outwards. The foyer area sloped up to the level of the rear stalls. Walls were green and crème tiles, with black and white terrazzo floor. The area was bisected by a brass handrail separating the entry from the exit areas and along the exit areas were coloured posters advertising forthcoming films.
For most of the 50s, the Empire bought precisely one quad poster for each show. After display on the foyer wall, it was taken to a hoarding at the back of the monumental masons next to Bethel in Newbridge. In the 60s, quads at last began to be pasted on the boards outside the cinema next to the greengrocers. The main advertising was the red and blue primitive half quad posters printed in Abertillery. These were pasted by on walls across the area by Mr Durrant, the long-time projectionist. . The Empire had no outside signage or lights, certainly no Neon. If my theory about absorption into Empire Buildings is correct, such signage might have been lost at that point. This is surprising given the good position it had on Crumlin Square with so much passing bus traffic.
Towards the top of the left hand side of the entrance foyer was a glass fronted pay box, the sort with a hole cut out to pass money and receive tickets. Above this was the original 1930s Timetable board with the old categories of ‘U’, ‘A’ and ‘H’ described. However adding the individual plastic letters to make up the programme details fell into disuse in the 50s and the relevant bit of the Red and Blue poster was trimmed and pinned up instead. By 1960 the automatic machine was out of use and tickets were torn from ‘upstairs and downstairs’ rolls perched atop the machine. They were also torn in half immediately after sale. There were no usherettes by then, just two people in pay box and ice cream sales.
To the left, immediately after the pay box was an office/sales area with a fridge containing Walls Ice Cream (unusual since most of the valley cinemas nearby were Lyons!). The cinema sold nothing else, leaving that to the sweetshop outside on the right. Well into the 60s, Heather Hatherall (the owner’s daughter) or another woman would load ices onto a tray and tour upstairs and then downstairs. This was one of the few services on offer at ‘Dicks’.
After the pay box another set of double doors opened into a flat inner foyer. Straight ahead was a door into the stalls, and inside that an access-way leading across the back of the stalls to the right hand side aisle and emergency exits. To the right, at ninety degrees, a flight of stairs rose to a top landing with right hand side entrance to the balcony up more steps and a cross walkway to join the left hand stairs rising from the inner foyer. This whole area was the part where the old cinema joined Empire Buildings, so there were various mysterious doors off at this point to projection box, flat.
Back down in the inner foyer, a half set of stairs on the left rose to the Ladies Lavatory and, left and down again to the smelliest Gents in the business. Right again, the stairs rose to the left hand entrance to the balcony.
The main ‘shed’ of the cinema stretched out behind Empire Buildings and at a lower level. The projection box was housed in the new building, with the projection portholes just above head height at the back of the balcony, right up against the barrel vaulted ceiling. This was a source of amusement in “Dicks” when a courting couple in the back row got up and their silhouettes appeared on the screen below. On the main Newport road side, was a large bricked up entrance at the stage end of the building and with steps down inside the cinema. Perhaps this was an earlier entrance. On the hill side, steps led down to a narrow walkway accessing two emergency exits and stage door. Originally the stage area measured 21ft by 18ft, with two dressing rooms behind.
The opening date for the Empire is currently unknown but it was certainly before 1914. . One source says that it opened as a variety theatre, becoming a full time cinema later. This would fit with other instances down the valley at the Crosskeys Coliseum and up the valley at the Llanhilleth Playhouse. Auntie Rachel who lived in William Street liked to tell the story of an actor being injured with a sword during a play. She was born in 1905 so that sort of story would have run through the village and thrilled an eight or ten year old just before World War 1.
The style of the auditorium was similar to many in the early years of cinema building before 1914: A raked stalls area and a small balcony, with a curved front and plain central embellishment. Balcony seating was in one block with entrances on either side half way back and with narrow stepping, which led to very poor legroom. The ‘downstairs’ (as it was called) had a central entrance and two blocks of seats divided by a centre aisle. On the left hand side of the stalls, seating continuing right up to the wall. There was a right hand aisle which had two emergency exits, one at stage end and the other back down a passageway exiting onto Crumlin Hill between the shops. There were no exits on the Newport Road side and no emergency exits from the balcony.
Secondary/emergency lighting was by gas until the very end which with Mr. Whittaker’s cigars gave the Empire a distinctive aroma.
Before 1954, the proscenium was a traditional ‘square’ shape with a central ‘lozenge ‘shield above it. There was little embellishment around the rest of the walls. The stage curtains Were maroon plush with two green horizontal stripes along the bottom (recalled because Auntie Rachel had a dress in exactly the same colour scheme!).
The sign for the start of the show in those pre-Cinemascope days was Billy Durrant, the Projectionist, appearing in the centre gangway with a long pole. He would walk down the centre aisle and disappear through a small trapdoor in the front of the stage. A few minutes later, the curtains would open and Durrant’s assistant would run the projector. Presumably the long pole was to hook on to one of the curtains and pull them open.
Ken Crump recalls the Saturday morning Kids’ Show: “B” westerns, an antique serial, a great deal of noise! Around Easter 1955 I can recall Mr Whittaker, clearly at a loss for something to show, climbing on the stage to promise that he would show “White Feather” in full the next Saturday. This was one of the first Cinemascope Westerns running in evening shows that week and in the event he showed four of the six reels! One wonders if he told the film distributor about this extra show, which introduced a lot of the poorer kids to the joys of the wide screen.
In 1954 the Empire proudly announced closure for the installation of Cinemascope – the first cinema in the valley after Abertillery to do so. The entrance foyer was plastered with hand-drawn, sign-writers’ displays singing the praises of the new medium. The proscenium was chiselled out each side into a wide rectangle (old stage flies disappearing), two big new ‘spaceship’ lights were fitted into the corners of the stage and side walls. The curtains disappeared but were rehung purely for decoration on each extremity of the new screen frame. The auditorium was repainted (for the last time in its long life) in a sort of dusty pink and the balcony seats were recovered. In the rear stalls, there seems to have been some rearrangement of seats and some repair but to the end, the front rows of seats were of a vintage dating back to the dawn of cinema: Upholstered tip ups but with a simple back support and a big gap between seat and seat back.
I suspect the Empire’s Cinemascope conversion was partly a home-made job. The screen frame and masking never quite fitted. In an attempt to simulate a curve (“the new wide curved screen”) the bottom left hand side angled upwards and the ‘scope’ picture never stayed within the masking. Most peculiar of all was the method for changing the screen from standard ratio (1.166) to wide (1.235). Where in decent cinemas, the side masking majestically moved sideways giving an ‘ooh’ effect of increasing size, at the Empire there were flaps, like doors, which were opened by a pulley arrangement in the centre front of the stage. Mr or Mrs Whittaker or their daughter Heather (known to the juvenile boy horrors as ‘Torchy the Battery Boy’) would sail down the centre aisle at the appropriate moment and ‘open the flaps’. Professional it was not! There was of course no stereophonic sound, though this was standard issue in the first ‘scope installations –which again leads me to suspect some home-grown activity. The stills displayed for the early Cinemascope films at the Empire had the printing ‘full stereophonic sound’ neatly crossed out. Nevertheless, the Empire made the most of its early ‘scope days. At a time when split weeks (Mon-Weds, Thurs –Sat) was the norm, the Empire had week long runs of ‘The Robe’, ‘Carousel’ and ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’.
In the projection box, the original Kalee 10 Projectors from the 30s had new lenses and aperture plates (never cut quite right to fit the screen so there was always overspill), variomorph cinemascope lenses and new President Arc Boxes.
By the end of the 50s, this projection kit was showing serious signs of disrepair. The Empire was notorious for breakdowns and for missing reel changes. There was a loud clunk on the sound when a change-over occurred and the sound on the incoming reel would be off for five or ten seconds. Screen illumination was also a problem with the motors driving the carbon arcs broken so that the picture could become dimmer and dimmer. In a performance of ‘The Great Caruso’ in 1962, the light faded altogether. Someone from from the tiny audience in the balcony went downstairs to locate the manager while another climbed onto the back seats and tapped on the projection ports. Mr Durrant, the projectionist, could often be seen in the box reading his Argus and smoking his pipe while Rome burned, metaphorically at least.
By the mid 60s the Empire was a very basic cinema but with a small loyal following. While the local wisdom was that if you wanted to signal that you were about to dump your girl, you took her to the Empire, my school friend Ken Crump would chastise me for slagging off the poor old Empire where he saw some excellent films, much better than the Memo’s. There were no stage lights, no curtains (with the bare screen unconsciously predating by many decades the current multiplex practice), no dimming lights (it was strictly on/off!), no music before the show (even the Memo managed that, even if it was memorably the Black and White Minstrels in the 60s!). For many years the Empire did not show screen advertising nor did it ever say ‘The Empire Presents’ on screen. The best you would get would be the BBFC roundel (U, A, X) followed by the trailer. So the presentation was 6.30 start, B picture to 7.45, trailer, then straight on with main film at 7.55 – out 9.30 around depending on length of film. One film followed another with no break. Despite all that, it charged more than the Memo which of course, being a Miners’ Welfare organisation did not have to pay entertainment tax and received a small subsidy from the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation.
However going to the Empire was fun. As young teenagers, eager to get into ‘X’ films at 15, the Empire was the place. It had very good runs of sci-fi and horror on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and some very good attractive films at weekends.
The Empire was ill fitted to survive the more sophisticated times of the 60s. However it outlasted some of its more illustrious neighbours such as the Pavilion Abertillery. Its secret was that Albert Whittaker knew his films. As he grew older and after the death of his wife in the late 50s, he had less will to compete. He had good films remarkably quickly. As we have seen, he famously gazumped The Newbridge Memorial Hall in 1963 with ‘From Russia With Love’. He appears to have had a special deal with the Jackson Withers Cinemas since he took films ‘next week’ after that organisation’s Blackwood cinemas with all the big films like ‘West Side Story’.
The Empire had never opened on a Sunday so it was a good fit to house Bingo (licensed by Crumlin Rugby Club) from 1960. This was soon extended to Mondays and by 1963 also to Fridays. The last visit by anyone from my family was when my mother and father went to see the 4.30 Saturday show of ‘From Russia with Love’ in 1963. Mum’s only comment was to complain about the overpowering smell of disinfectant left over from that day’s cleaning and the breakdowns which had become part of the ‘house style’.
In the summer of 1965, Hollywood unexpectedly arrived in Crumlin with Stanley Donen directing Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren on the doomed Viaduct for the climax of ‘Arabesque’. The Empire had just closed –Spring 1965- and how nice it would have been to have reopened it to show the film to the residents – or even the ‘rushes’ of their beloved viaduct which is all they wanted to see. In another age that might have happened.
Bingo ceased in the 80s and the building decayed. At some point in the 80s, the awning over the front entrance (reduced in size in 1955) was removed altogether for safety reasons and on a last visit in the early 90s, the stills boxes were broken and a piece of timber crudely nailed over the entrance doors.
The Navigation Institute building is still there but Empire Buildings was razed for an appalling road scheme in the late 90s. In a sure sign of the times, the most significant public building on Crumlin Square in 2013 is not the railway station or Maria Rabaiotti’s café or the Empire but the ‘Crumlin Balti House’, occupying the place where William Castree’s Grocers once flourished.
Victoria Hall/The Cinema
Located in nearby Abercarn, the opening date, from its name alone, is likely to be in the late 1890s and it closed for use in between 1945 and 1947, oddly at the very height of cinema going in the UK.
The Bioscope Annual of 1912 lists a “Victoria Public Hall” with a seating capacity of 800 and powered by Gas. It is similarly listed in the 1915 edition.
The Kine Yearbook 1923 has it as the Victoria Hall owned by J.J. Jones and with A.W.Prince as Manager. It offered one show nightly and two on Saturday with a programme change midweek. Prices were 5d to 9d.
In 1931 the owner is given as J. H. Jones, " Cartref," Newbridge, Mon. Booked by J. H. Jones. (This could well be the same Jones as in 1923). Prices have fallen to 4d to 6d, either a sign of competition from better cinemas or the local employment situation. In 1942, the Kine Yearbook lists it as the “Cinema” with the owner S. Attwood.
Attwood was the owner also of the Grand Newbridge. In 1947, ownership had passed to Mrs E.A.Jones, ‘The Firs’, Abercarn and it is still called the ‘Cinema’. In 1954 it is not listed.
The building was on a site sandwiched between the main road and the canal, on the left as you entered Abercarn from Newport direction. It was a ‘valleys grey stone’ and slate roof building, more of a chapel or public hall design than an obvious cinema. It was almost certainly built as a Victorian public multi-use Hall with conversion to a cinema later.
On the ground floor were a small parade of shops with the hall was on the first floor. The entrance was in the centre of the north face of the building. Photographs show a double wooden stairway, leading to some form of veranda outside the doors. By the 1950s, this access had disappeared except for a staircase down from a side door.
A photograph taken in 1971 just before demolition for a road scheme clearly shows the concrete projection suite built on to the older building – probably following the 1909 Cinematograph Act.
Oddly in my childhood, I have no recollection of it being identified to me as a cinema and for the whole of the 50s and 60s, the cinema hall appears to have stayed untouched, with only the shops below (and a garage nearest the canal side) being used.
As mentioned above Auntie Rachel Phillips of William Street, Crumlin could recall going to the cinema there as a schoolgirl and young woman with her friend Beattie Lewis. This would have been between 1916 and 1930. She recalls sitting on wooden benches and on occasion making so much noise with her friend that they were both ejected. Auntie was quite prepared to switch her allegiance to the Newbridge Public Hall when it became the beloved Grand Cinema.
The sweets counter in 1974, soon after cinema closure.
Empty ‘Future Attractions’ to right and left. There were none left to come.
My mother, Nancy Senior, on duty in the sweets counter 1949.
Lyons Ice Cream has a prominent promotion. Note also the bottles of ‘pop’
Mother on duty on the Ballroom side of the sweets counter 1949, with dividing curtain drawn across behind her.
The Memo from Newbridge Park 1974, with the Institute building to the left.
The 1955 entrance ramp and canopy leads from the High Street to the main door.
In the roof, the ventilation pipes for the Projector arcs are still in place.
The original 1930 copper RCA Photophone plaque from the entrance foyer, (Given into the safe keeping of the author 1965)
The bottom of Crumlin Hill in the early 1990s.
The Navigation Institute on the left. Empire Buildings on the right.
The Grand’s final film – and the poster which faded away on the front during the second half of the 1950s.
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Welcome to an affectionate appraisal and tribute to the cinemas that entertained us in the South Eastern industrial valleys of Wales.
GOING TO THE PICTURES IN NEWBRIDGE
A personal recollection by Phill Walkley.