Cardiff is not well endowed with cinemas: there are three multiplex chains (Cineworld, Odeon and Vue) showing an unrelenting rotation of whatever manipulative pubescent tripe the mainstream US film industry doles out, plus the two screens at Chapter in Canton, without which the city would have no independent or serious cinema whatsoever. The once universal habit, across class, gender and age, of regularly “going to the pictures” has been more or less wiped out in next to no time by multi-channel TV, DVDs and downloads; yet another collective experience banished by the ever-accelerating obsolescence capitalism requires to keep profits growing.
The 3rd Soundtrack Festival, an excellent exploration of the relationship between film and music, takes place around the city this week (see www.soundtrackfilmfestival.com) – making it a good time to record the cinemas that, within living memory, were all over Cardiff. So here, in chronological order of opening, is their story*. They were big, it was the pictures that got small. Lights, camera, action!
THE ELECTRIC The very first cinema in Cardiff was opened by London & Provincial Electric Theatres in 1909 on Queen Street, a precedent that established Queen Street as Cardiff’s cinema artery for the next 90 years, with six cinemas operating cheek-by-jowl at its peak. The Electric had an ungainly entrance leading to a 600-seat auditorium where an orchestra accompanied the silent films and “dainty teas” were served. Following its inaugural presentation, The Call of the Wild directed, appropriately, by Welsh-American movie pioneer DW Griffith (1875-1948), the Electric only lasted six years, the shortest life of any Cardiff cinema, closing in 1915 having been badly damaged by, of all things, an electrical fire. Dominions House was built on the site in 1921 and today a travel agent occupies the Electric’s position.
THE QUEENS Called the Cardiff Cinematographic Theatre when built in 1911, Cardiff’s 2nd purpose-built cinema was a 2000 seater – at the time considered enormous. In 1925 the Savoy Circuit took over, renamed it the Queens and carried out a plush refurbishment that reduced capacity to 1200. Then in 1928 a state-of-the-art Western Electric sound system was installed, allowing the Queens to show the first talkie in Cardiff, The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson (1886-1950) – Jolson’s better known sound groundbreaker of 1927 The Jazz Singer was shown later in the year. Excited queues stretched the length of Queen Street, but this turned out to be the Queens’ high point. In 1930 Savoy became part of the ABC chain and the company began to treat the Queens’ as their third-string behind the bigger Olympia and Pavilion (see below). By the 1950s the white-tiled landmark was looking a bit moth-eaten and reduced to showing re-runs. It closed in 1955 and was demolished in 1958 to be replaced by Wyman’s bookshop, now a branch of Game, the computer games chain. Play it (again), Sam.
THE IMPERIAL/THE ODEON The Imperial also opened in 1911, a single-storey 700-seater on Queen Street. Sound was introduced in 1931 before it was sold in 1936 to the Odeon group, the brilliant modernist enterprise of Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941) that defined the inter-war filmgoing experience. Cardiff’s main cinema architect William Wort (1885-1975) was hired to design a complete rebuild on the awkward narrow site and it re-opened as the 1600-seat Odeon, a sleek, Art Deco double-decker in white concrete. After Deutsch died Odeon amalgamated with first Gaumont and then Rank, but the popularity of the Tardis-like cinema wedged between shops remained undiminished, even after it was split into twin screens in 1980. Attendances finally waned with the advent of home video, a facelift in 1994 only postponing the inevitable until it shut for good in 2000. Demolition followed in 2003 and HMV, itself in mortal peril from music downloads, now occupies the site.
THE CENTRAL Businessman Solomon Andrews (1835-1908) was always on the look out for a new speculative venture. He was some kind of a man. In his last Cardiff project before he died, he tried to cash in on the roller-skating craze by constructing a rink on the banks of the Glamorganshire Canal with an entrance on The Hayes. The skating fad didn’t last so the Central was fully converted into a cinema in 1911 with 1500 seats, an orchestra pit and a small balcony under a big timber-framed pitched roof. This was nothing like any other cinema in Cardiff; there was no gilded pomposity or classical pretensions, just a plain entrance leading via a long passage to open out suddenly into an echoing, barn-like chamber. It was Cardiff’s cheapest cinema, keeping prices down by showing double features from back catalogues and wasting nothing on fancy extras, and was packed out with Docks’ kids at weekends. But disaster struck in 1958 when a big fire on The Hayes spread to the Central, grievously harming all that timber infrastructure. An attempt at repairs failed and it closed in 1959 (during demolition in 1961 the original wooden skating rink was discovered extant under the floor). The Oxford Buildings and Arcade were built on the site and these in turn made way for the St Davids 2 development in 2006.
THE GAIETY It began as the Gaiety Grand in 1912, an 800-seat independent with a pair of exotic domes either side of the entrance on Roath’s then thriving City Road. The Splott Circuit (see below) took over in 1930, dropped the ‘Grand’ and increased capacity to 1500 by plonking extra floors above the decorated balustrades. In the days before you had to go into town for everything, Roathites enjoyed second-run Westerns and Thrillers on their doorstep during cinema’s Golden Age until what would be a familiar slow descent through empty seats, takeovers, shabbiness and Bingo culminated in closure in 1994. The building had a brief renaissance in 2001 as bowling bar Spin, but that amphetamine-fuelled snakepit only lasted until 2006. Cardiff’s oldest surviving purpose-built cinema currently stands empty and crumbling, buddleia methodically dismantling those flippant Edwardian domes.
THE CASTLE A short-lived effort, opened in 1913 in Castle Street and closed by 1921. Only silent films were ever shown here but, paradoxically, the empty building was where the first ever radio broadcast from Wales took place from an upstairs room in 1923. Over the years the building has been altered frequently – it is currently an outdoor equipment shop – but the shape of the old cinema can still be seen along Womanby Street.
THE SPLOTT As cinema’s popularity skyrocketed just before WW1, companies sprang up in towns and cities everywhere to create new venues. In Cardiff the Splott Cinema Company would become the most important, eventually constructing and acquiring 10 Cardiff cinemas for its Splott Circuit. This was achieved simply by being first out of the blocks in 1913 with their founding cinema and HQ building on Agate Street. It underwent a complete rebuild in 1930 for the sound era with 2000 seats, all on one floor, and its dark nooks became a second home for generations of Cardiff courting couples. When the Bingo era arrived, triggered by the 1960 Gaming Act, the Splott converted promptly. Local competitor the Jackson Withers Circuit, a Julian Hodge (1904-2004) enterprise, took over the Splott Circuit in 1967 and, with typical gluttony, Hodge in turn sold out to Rank in 1976 when they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Years followed as Cardiff’s ultimate Bingo Hall, variously called Top Rank, Mecca and then Riva, a night out and a bit of fun in the hard lives of south Cardiff’s working-class women. But Labour’s mendacious smoking ban delivered a mortal blow, “eyes down” was called for the last time in 2009 and now there’s nowhere for older people to socialise in Splott. For a while the gargantuan white structure by Splott Bridge was the home of creepy evangelical God-botherers praying for Armageddon (that’ll be the day), before it was completely destroyed by fire in 2015. It went up like a tinderbox, which is pretty miraculous considering it happened in the middle of a wet winter and the windowless, vandalised hulk had been so saturated in damp that plants were growing out of the walls. There were assurances that the ruin would be quickly demolished – but over a year later the shocking shell remains untouched, providing casual visitors with a suitably sorry welcome to Splott.
THE CANTON The Canton on Cowbridge Road East, opened in 1913, was quickly brought into the Splott Circuit stable. It developed a reputation as Canton’s “posh” picture palace, the ideal suave and glitzy rendezvous for a first date. In 1929 it was the 2nd Cardiff cinema to introduce sound and, although still attracting healthy audiences, it was closed in 1960 and converted into a supermarket. Nowadays a branch of Iceland, the cinema’s shell is readily apparent along Market Road.
THE COLISEUM Not far from the Canton was the “collar”, as it was known to generations of Cantonians in archetypal Cardiff parlance (abbreviate, then add a syllable). A notorious ‘bug house’ concentrating on B-movies, it opened in 1913 and had a 48-year stint as a cinema before switching to Bingo in 1961. In 1968 it was bought by Castle Leisure, a surviving remnant of the Solomon Andrews empire based in City Road offices owned by the company since the 1860s when Roath’s main drag had been called Castle Road. The converted cinema was pulled down and the first purpose-built Bingo Hall in the UK erected in its place. Still going strong, from those beginnings the Castle Bingo chain has spread across south Wales: Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
THE NINIAN Erected in Penarth Road in 1913, this small independent soon joined the Splott Circuit. It had a miniature circle and utilitarian fittings, smartened up by a 1950 revamp. In the back rows of the “Nin” many a Grangetown rosebud was groped under the flickering projector beams, but all that ended with the introduction of Bingo in 1972 before conversion into a Post Office/convenience store in 1977. Today a shop selling Asian fabrics, only the generic movie-house facade divulges its previous function.
THE CORONET Cathays had its own cinema too, built in 1913 in Woodville Road on the corner of Basil Place. A big ornate frontage promised much but it was poky and plain inside with a proscenium arch only 16ft (under 5m) wide. Changing hands frequently, the “Cora” peaked in the 1930s, regularly filling its 600 seats. Unsuitable for Bingo, it closed in 1958 and was demolished in 1970. The plug-ugly Woodville Court block of flats replaced it: quite frankly, my dear, property developers don’t give a damn.
THE CLIFTON Lasting only 17 years from opening in 1914 to closure in 1931, the Clifton couldn’t compete with the nearby Splott and never showed a talkie. Remarkably, the building still stands: it was a Woolies for over 70 years right up to that company’s demise in 2008 and is now a Tesco. No signs of the distant cinematic origins are evident indoors, but outside a laurel leaf on the Clifton Street frontage and the long rear stretching down Ruby Street silently hint at its past.
THE PENYLAN/ THE GLOBE/ THE MONROE A small 500-seater in mock-classical style with statuettes at the entrance and a domed roof, this cinema opened in 1914 as the Penylan before, on conversion to sound in 1931, its name was changed to the Globe. Post WW2 it was known as a bit of a flea-pit, showing “continental” films to men in raincoats who weren’t reading the subtitles. Then in 1956 retired Welsh rugby international Rex Willis (1924-2000) took over, attempting to build his own chain of cinemas. That venture ultimately failed but the Globe was kept alive showing art-house films to appreciative, mainly student, audiences until 1985 when it was demolished to make way for the very inessential Globe shopping precinct, despite the fact it was a listed building. Brains opened the 42nd Street pub on the Globe’s corner site, later to become boisterous Bar Billabong and these days the poncey Pear Tree. A plain, neat little cinema called the Monroe opened within the precinct, a leap of faith by Romford-born, Brecon-raised local cinephile Brian Bull, but even he couldn’t make it pay. Chapter had a go utilising it as an east Cardiff outreach, then for a while it was given over to Bollywood productions until the curtain finally came down in 2001. Unusually, I can conclude this particular saga with a happy ending: in 2008 Alan Jones, once a member of seminal Cardiff 60s band Amen Corner, re-opened the Monroe as a live music venue and resurrected the Globe name. Despite the best efforts of some killjoy local residents and Cardiff Council jobsworths the Globe has survived frequent scares and established itself as a vital component of Cardiff’s music scene. Here’s looking at you, kid.
THE PARK HALL When it was built in 1884 at the then gigantic cost of £40,000, the Renaissance-style mass of the Park Hall, with its hotel, two concert halls, coffee tavern and 10 shops, was a loud statement that Cardiff had developed a middle-class. As a response to the growing status of the silent film as a distinctive art form in itself one of the halls was converted into a cinema in 1914 and equipped with a 45-stop organ to accompany the increasingly ambitious and innovative silent masterpieces of Europe and the USA. This was so popular that the hotel company hired a young tyro who would become Cardiff’s most prestigious architect, Percy Thomas (1883-1969), to design a purpose-built cinematic space in 1915, an elegant, imposing 1800-seater with deep-pile carpets and tiered balconies, the last word in luxury in Cardiff at the time. Through conversion to sound the Park Hall thrived, but remaining an independent in the post-WW2 market increasingly dominated by three chains (ABC, Gaumont and Odeon) slowly caused problems as the cinema struggled to book the new releases monopolised by the chains. Innovations like the huge, curved Cinerama screen installed in 1964 only postponed the day of reckoning and it closed in 1971, the only Cardiff cinema to stay in the same ownership for its whole life. Today it’s the Parc, a Thistle hotel; a car park obliterated the cinema in 1982 but the old entrance on Park Place is still there.
THE TIVOLI At first named the Royal when built in 1914 close to the Glamorganshire Canal in Station Road, Llandaff North, it was renamed after joining the Splott Circuit in 1935 and then completely redesigned by the company’s in-house architect William Wort. Local kids flocked to Tivoli on Saturdays in what was known as the ‘tuppenny rush’, but pocket money couldn’t sustain it and closure came in 1958. Periods as a furniture store and a car showrom eradicated the cinema in stages and now it’s a Texaco garage, called rather ridiculously the Tivoli Service Station.
THE PAVILION/THE GALA Before cinema, during Cardiff’s Victorian coal boom, music halls had provided entertainment to the masses. One such was the Philharmonic Hall, built on St Mary Street in 1876. In 1906 it expanded its remit as the Panopticon, part of the Stoll group, showing novelty acts and boasting penny-in-slot ‘Kinetoscope’ cabinets in a ‘Curio Room’. Conversion into a full-scale cinema followed in 1917 along with a new name, the Pavilion. As well as the 800-seat cinema the Pavilion featured a restaurant, a ballroom and a soda fountain among its delights. Decline set in when the ABC chain took over and relegated it to B-movie status so as not to distract from their flagship on Queen Street (see below). They offloaded to the Emery group, who had no success with re-runs and cartoons, before the Gala group took over in 1958, renaming it the Gala in the process. The balcony closed and the screen shrunk, and for a while the Gala was the best place in Cardiff to catch European and independent films. The inevitable conversion to Bingo came in 1970, but that too didn’t endure and neither did the battered building’s most recent period as the Square, its 5th different name, a lairy, sticky pub for those who love the smell of napalm in the morning. The Philharmonic Hall stands empty at last, having a breather before its next incarnation.
THE OLYMPIA/THE ABC Opened originally as a music hall called Andrews Hall in 1912, another Solomon Andrews enterprise, it became the Olympia in 1920 on conversion into a cinema. Associated British Cinemas (ABC) took over in 1935 and installed a grand circle to increase capacity above 2000. In a prime position on Queen Street, the cinema was always busy in its heyday, playing the big new releases on long runs. During declining audiences under pressure from TV, it became the ABC in 1960, was fitted with Cinemascope in 1962 and then converted into a 3-screen complex in 1976. Various name-changes as the film industry consolidated (Cannon 1986, MGM 1991, back to ABC 1996) made no difference, especially after the multiplexes arrived, and it closed in 1999. The fabulous Art Deco interior is no more, but the impressive facade of the Andrews Building that the cinema was part of remains on Queen Street.
THE HIPPODROME The Grand Theatre, built on Westgate Street in 1887, directly opposite what would become the Arms Park, was another venue to change into a cinema as film displaced live entertainment. It became the Hippodrome in 1907 and, after some success with early Bioscope shows (essentially thousands of still photographs run quickly together), theatre was completely abandoned in 1920 and it was converted into an swanky 1500-seat cinema. Disadvantaged by its position on the west edge of the town centre, this independent never made a profit and closed in 1931. Subsequently countless occupiers have come and gone but the fine building surprisingly survives, since 2001 as Wetherspoon pub the Gatekeeper. The old stage doors and emergency exits of its theatre/cinema days can be seen on Womanby Street.
THE PLAYHOUSE/THE PRINCE OF WALES Here’s a Cardiff building with a tale or two to tell, if ever there was one. It all began in 1878 when the New Theatre Royal was raised on Wood Street as a direct replacement for the original Theatre Royal in Crockherbtown, burnt down in 1877. The mock-Gothic facade with traceried windows and canopied niches underlined the High Art strivings of the Victorian stage and, with the ‘new’ soon dropped, the Theatre Royal became unassailable in Cardiff as the favoured venue of the mink-and-gloves carriage trade. In 1900 another puffed-up frontage was added on the St Mary Street flank and it was rebranded as the Playhouse. A young Ivor Novello (1893-1951) first consummated his love of theatre hanging around the stage doors of the Playhouse in Great Western Lane. Then in 1920 the ambitious independent was awarded a cinema license. Theatre remained its bread and butter but silent movies with orchestral accompaniment were regularly shown until 1927 when there were more internal improvements, a further name-change to the Prince of Wales and the cinema experiment was ended. Here between 1923 and 1925 bright-as-a-button teenager Binkie Beaumont (1908-1973) worked as a box-office assistant, soaking up knowledge of the business like a sponge before heading off to London to dominate West End theatre for 40 years. The Prince of Wales settled down as a theatre and dance hall through the years, slowly sliding into disrepair as Cardiffians looked elsewhere for amusement, until in 1961 it was switched back to cinema again to specialise in low budget sexploitation pictures. As other cinemas tumbled the Prince of Wales hung on, Cardiff’s sad centre of smut with seating encrusted in dry semen, before eventual closure in 1984. For a while it was Caesars nightclub, then an amusement arcade, before Wetherspoon converted it into a pub in 1999. The spiritual home of Cardiff’s itinerant alcoholics, who queue to be let in at 7 in the morning, the big, busy boozer retains the sweeping staircases and ornate balconies of the old theatre/cinema. Stick with this, reader, you ain’t heard nothing yet!
THE CAPITOL/THE CAPITOL ODEON Tilney’s Cinemas upped the stakes in 1921 when they opened Cardiff’s grandest cinema yet, close to the Taff Vale Railway station at the east end of Queen Street. It had a 2800-seat auditorium, making it the largest purpose-built cinema in Europe at the time, as well as three restaurants, a banqueting suite, rest rooms, a snooker room and a ballroom in the basement. Cardiffians flocked through the revolving doors of the portentous building with its balustrades, mouldings and Venetian stylings. The transition to sound only increased its popularity as the place to go to wallow in dark luxury while watching the big new Hollywood releases. There were frequent ownership changes until the Odeon group, wrestling for supremacy in the UK with ABC and Gaumont, took over in 1944, retaining the Capitol name as they already had an Odeon further up Queen Street. The cinema was the first in Cardiff to introduce Cinemascope and stereo sound in 1954: the queues went round the block into Station Terrace for the opening feature, sword’n’sandal epic The Robe starring Wales’ own Richard Burton (1925-1984). The Capitol also regularly staged live music, giving Cardiff many special moments including the Beatles last ever UK gig in 1964. No modern multiplex comes close to matching the experience of the Capitol’s big screen and resonant sound system from high up in the gods, but in 1978 the magnificent theatre was shut down by Rank, who had taken over Odeon, as cinema takings hit an all-time low. For five years it lay empty and rotting while the Council pondered options until its fate was sealed by the dumb decision to eradicate Queen Street’s diversity and dedicate it entirely to shopping. It was scandalously demolished in 1983 and replaced by the hideous Capitol Centre shopping mall. Other cities made creative use of their redundant theatres (eg the Bristol Hippodrome, the Hackney Empire, the Southampton Mayflower, etc), but not Cardiff. Here, if they couldn’t be turned into Bingo halls or pubs they came down. Subsequent events have confirmed that here’s another nice mess the Council’s gotten Cardiff into. The Capitol Centre, despite having had more face lifts than Joan Rivers, is itself now on its last legs having been left high and dry by the southward shift of shopping focus in the latest bout of deck-shuffling that is Cardiff’s stock-in-trade. In 1991 a new cinema called the Capitol Odeon opened in Station Terrace, partly covering ground where the Capitol’s dressing-rooms once stood. It was Cardiff’s first multiplex with five small screens, uncomfortable seats and bargain basement decor and lasted a mere 10 years. The jarring brick building lies empty to this day. It was for this useless eyesore that the Capitol was demolished. That’s all folks.
THE RIALTO Located in Old Church Road, Whitchurch, this small cinema opened in 1922 as Whitchurch urbanised following absorption by Cardiff. A simple one-storey hall with a gently raking sloped floor, it acquired sound in 1931 when taken over by the Willis group. The Rialto was integral to Whitchurch life for three decades until it too was undone by the rise of television in 1962. There was a brief dalliance with Bingo, a tad infra dig for the area’s social climbers, then time as a horticultural warehouse before it was pulled down in 1976. A block of flats, called Rialto Court, was built on the site in the 1980s.
THE PLAZA Built in 1928 with inept Greek Revival architectural flourishes, the Plaza was Cardiff’s first cinema to be equipped for sound from the outset. Under the Splott Circuit umbrella the 1500-seater thrived on North Road, Gabalfa, offering luxury on a par with the cinemas in town. The rot set in after the Gabalfa flyover was constructed nearby in 1968; you could actually hear the low rumble of traffic from within the auditorium. There was a painful, lingering demise with many changes of ownership until closure in 1981 and demolition in 1985. The Meridian Court apartment blocks were erected on the site.
THE REGENT In the stripped-down Art Deco style of all the Splott Circuit cinemas, the Regent opened wired for sound on Mill Road near Ely Bridge in 1928. You entered the 1500-seat brick beast up a long flight of steps, disability rights being far in the future. In 1968 it became a Bingo hall, which in turn ceased trading in 1996. Shortly afterwards the empty building suffered that abiding Cardiff hazard, mysterious “fire damage”, allowing it to be demolished for the Regency Nursing Home. Well, nobody’s perfect.
THE EMPIRE/THE GAUMONT Opened as a music hall on Queen Street called Levino’s Hall in 1887, then renamed the Empire when taken over by the Moss Empires chain of music halls in 1889, the original baroque building was the venue for very early film projections on the soon superseded technologies of ‘cinematographe’ and ‘animatograph’ in 1896 before being destroyed by fire in 1899 – a conflagration that “lit up Cardiff between Queen Street and Colum Road”. The rebuilt Empire, a fussy affair in brick with stone pediments, a giant rose window and a roof that could be raised to let in air, remained a music venue and dance hall until Gaumont took over in 1930 and did a complete rebuild to make a 2100-seat cinema with extravagant fittings and a new frontage in snazzy Art Deco style. This was one of Cardiff’s prestige cinemas, luring customers under the enticing low canopy, through the deep-carpeted, chandeliered foyer and up the regal stairs. But the fading of the film habit could not be reversed. The name was changed to Gaumont in 1954 as new parent company Rank tried to get a grip to no avail. There was time for a last hurrah in 1959 when the Gaumont hosted the world premier of Tiger Bay, the movie that remains the pinnacle of Cardiff-set cinematography to this day, but closure soon followed in 1961 and the wrecking crews arrived in 1962. Clothes store C&A replaced it, but Rank retained an interest by opening the Top Rank disco in the basement, scene of much of this writer’s misspent teens, without which I coulda been a contender. Many different clubs came and went, then C&A shut in 2001 and all was swept away again for a big branch of Primark in 2006.
THE MONICO The last independent outpost of community cinema in Cardiff could resist the rampaging multiplexes no more and, after heroic resistance from owner Brian Bull, for whom the Monico had been a labour of love since 1977, the lights finally dimmed in 2003. It had opened in 1937, a Splott Circuit push into Rhiwbina decked out in sweeping vertical lines by William Wort, and saw off challenges from radio, TV, Bingo, videos and DVDs given away free with the Sunday papers, even managing to expand into a twin-screen cinema in 1980, and was only eventually undone by the big multiplex up the Taff valley which took away its vital valleys custom: of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world the Nantgarw Showcase walked into Brian’s. Flats were built on the Pantbach Road site.
THE COUNTY Splott Circuit architect William Wort designed a characteristic Art Deco cinema for Rumney as soon as it became part of Cardiff in 1938. Opening on Boxing Day 1939, all bulging curves and geometric windows, the County was home from home for Rumney and later Llanrumney children, particularly on Saturday mornings when Mam could pack them off safely for matinees starring Roy Rogers (1911-1998), Flash Gordon or Hopalong Cassidy. It closed in 1974, was demolished in 1986 and a disagreeable block of flats went up on the Newport Road/Wentloog Road corner.
THE AVENUE Out on Cowbridge Road West the Splott Circuit built the Avenue in 1940 to serve the just-completed huge council estate at Ely. Little did anyone know, but this would be Cardiff’s last new cinema until Chapter Arts opened 31 years later. It had a brick tower, a peach-pink interior and 1150 seats. A short-lived post-WW2 boom shuddered to a halt in the 1950s: the TV masts looming on the western horizon at Wenvoe and St Hilary were portents of what was to come. By 1960 it had shut, only 20 years old. Used as car showrooms and lately as a DVD/video store, the cinema’s skeleton has survived, mostly concealed behind cladding. Never you mind honey, never you mind…
Cut! It’s a wrap!