The Walsall Imperial 2

1908 – 1939: Early Cinema Days

Newspaper evidence suggests that on 31st August 1908 the Imperial started to screen ‘Bioscope’ films on a regular basis and with this its nature shifted to one of a cinema. These short early films had started life in mobile venues as fairground attractions, under proprietors such as Pat Collins, before moving to more permanent venues.

The earliest performance so far traced in Walsall, in a permanent venue, was hosted by the Literary Institute and held on 9th November 1896 at the Brine Baths. The film was un-named and what was shown on the ‘Cinematescope’ formed just part of the programme that night.

The Institute held a further evening in October 1897, where ‘Paul’s Animatographe Pictures’ presented a fuller evening – and where Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee took centre stage. A further evening was held in December 1901, when Cecil Hepworth demonstrated his ‘free from flicker’ apparatus that had been “passed by the chemist of London City Council”.

The first regular screenings of Bioscope pictures at a Walsall venue took place at Her Majesty’s Theatre from November 1905 – and surely no coincidence that this was the time of its merger with Moss Enterprises. In fact, a Bioscope is listed in the Walsall Observer advert for this theatre back in April 1905, and looking at the ‘style’ of the advert, which mirrors those that appear after the merger, this may in fact have been a ‘trial’ prior to merging.

The first named film presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre was the “funniest of funny comedies” entitled ‘Our New Errand Boy’, which was directed by James Williamson of the Williamson Kinematograph Company. The film was made that year and lasted just 5 minutes and 46 seconds. Incredibly, the film still survives today.

Both film techniques and subject material had improved since the pioneering days of the 1890s.The popularity of the medium is perhaps shown by the fact that a local film on the Hamstead Colliery disaster was made and screened at Her Majesty’s in March 1908.

Prior to the Imperial screening films, in May 1908 the Town Hall had shown films from the ‘London Animated Picture Company’, advertised in the newspapers as “the largest picture company in the world”. Further, the Temperance Hall had screened films from ‘Ediscope & Barnum’s Electric Pictures’ for a few weeks in the early August.

So, whilst the Imperial didn’t screen the first films in Walsall, even on a regular basis, it did screen what seemed to be the largest collection of films on show in Walsall. These were shown each night at 7.15pm, with a Saturday Matinee at 2.30pm: orchestra stall seats cost 6d, the balcony, 4d and the pit, 2d. There were no early door charges.

The first named ‘headliner’ film appears to be ‘The Brigands of Calabria’.

The Walsall Imperial advertises its first named film, August 1908.

Walsall Free Press. The Walsall Imperial advertises its first named film, August 1908.

The following week, the newspaper adverts placed by the Imperial grew in size, listing more of the films (the screened ‘Haunted House’ also still survives) and claimed that “Everybody says the finest picture entertainment yet seen in Walsall” – which later became “Imperial pictures are the world’s best”. Originally musical accompaniment was by Vera Feare, but later there would be the Imperial Orchestra.

On the 8th February 1909 a fire broke out at the Imperial during a performance. The fire caused a panic, but nobody was hurt. It seems that at 9.27pm a report was received at the Police Station that a fire had broken out and the fire brigade were dispatched to the scene. On arrival they found that the fire had already been extinguished by one Henry Harold, an operative at the Imperial, using a ‘kill-fire’ extinguisher.

The fire, it was believed, was caused by a “careless smoker… igniting some rubbish” and was located at the top of the gallery steps. Items unclaimed included a “baby’s shoe and pacifier” and a “bowler hat so damaged its top is nearly off”.

FIRE! - Walsall Free Press, February 1909.

FIRE! – Walsall Free Press, February 1909.

The 1909 Cinematograph Act began to professionalise the industry; it brought the first real ideas of censorship and strict building controls – so premises now had to be licensed. The Council (via its General Purposes Committee) and the Chief Constable were empowered to oversee the Act.

The Imperial was the first licensed permanent cinema in Walsall – officially from the 1st January, 1910; however, three other licences were issued at the same time for temporary venues: Mr Tonks (Town Hall), Mr Marshall (Temperance Hall) and Mr Donaldson (Co-operative Hall).

The Imperial’s monopoly didn’t last long, as on 12th April 1910 the Picture Palace opened in the Square. After this, in July 1910, a licence was finally granted, after delays over safety reasons, to the Skating Rink in Darwall St – although it isn’t clear if films were screened. These would be followed within a few years by several more, including the Grand, which started screening, although not exclusively, from 1912.

Film classification began in 1912, after which two ratings were given by the British Board of Film Classification – ‘U’ (suitable for all) and ‘A’ (children should be accompanied by an adult – if the local council so decreed). In fact, the first film censorship in Walsall so far identified was the banning in July 1910 of the American film of the Jack Johnson and James Jeffries prize fight.

The banning of the  Johnson v Jeffries Prize Fight, July 1910. Walsall Council Watch Committee Minutes.

The banning of the Johnson v Jeffries Prize Fight, July 1910. Walsall Council Watch Committee Minutes. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The terms of the annual cinema licence stipulated that no picture or film should be exhibited “of which the Council, acting by the Chief Constable, may disapprove”; so by and large, due to the absence in the Council records of discussion on censorship, it may be that the Imperial and the industry locally initially self-regulated.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 1912 Walsall Red Book lists the Imperial as in the joint ownership of both the Walsall Theatre Company and Moss Enterprises Ltd. Indeed, the Imperial found its programme so long on occasion it transferred films to the Grand – including Chaplin films. In September 1912, the Imperial also hosted a commemoration for the Salvation Army’s William Booth.

The biggest change for the cinematic Imperial was in 1914. In the May they submitted plans to the Council for major internal and external alterations (see plan 7857) and on 6th June the cinema closed, after screening ‘The House of Fear’, ‘The Murdock Trial’ and the Epsom Derby!

The cinema re-opened on the 12th October with a charity screening of ‘Trilby’, which was held in aid of the Belgian Refugee Fund. The new manager was a Mr NF Cowan, who had been poached from the neighbouring Cinema De-Luxe. The correspondent for the Walsall Advertiser greeted the new cinema enthusiastically.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The old Imperial… has disappeared, and in its place there now stands a completely modernised building… with the exception of its name everything else has changed. In fact the transformation is such that in the new hall it is impossible to recognise any traces of the old one… The front in Darwell St has been brought forward… and designed in classic style. The lighting effects… have been treated carefully so as to avoid a jarring-note being given by its close proximity to the church… there is a large waiting hall, from which access is gained to the theatre by two doors and to the balcony by two granolithic staircases.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The greatest transformation has been effected in the inside of the building… it is spacious and airy, and has been most tastefully decorated. The new auditorium floor has dropped no less than 11 feet – in order to ensure that patrons have a clear view from every part… tip-up chairs have been provided throughout… no less than 1600. The side galleries, with their obstructing pillars, have disappeared, but there is a fine cantilever balcony, at the end easy access and providing the most expensive seats in the hall.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial. (Walsall Local History Centre)

There is one feature… it is properly fitted for dramatic performance, so if the management should at any time consider it advisable to substitute some other form of entertainment for the picture show – the popularity of which shows no signs of declining – it can be done. Everything is currently up-to-date… heating and ventilation are on the latest systems… Precautions have also been taken against fire and panic… Another important feature of the building is the provision of proper lavatory accommodation. A tea room has also been provided.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial.

May 1914, plans submittied to Walsall Council for the rebuilding of the Imperial. (Walsall Local History Centre)

WH Westwood and the Theatres Company are deserving of congratulations… The whole of the work has, so far as practicable, been given to local firms. The architects are Messrs Hickton and Farmer, the builder is Mr W Wistance, the constructional engineers, Messrs Walker Bros, the heating carried out by Mr C Manton, the electrical work by Mr C Ross, the furnishings by Ennals & Co, the plastering decoration by R Wright and the carving by Mr Chidley”.

The First World War saw no let-up in the popularity of the Imperial. The Imperial, in-line with all buildings of such nature in Walsall, had first to curtail its lighting by order of the Chief Constable in February 1915, then, after the Zeppelin raid on Walsall the following year, switched off its lighting for the duration of the conflict.

1916 also saw a significant event for the cinema. It screened, and appears to have been the only cinema in Walsall to have done so, the landmark film, ‘The Battle of the Somme’. The film, intended to be a morale-booster, was released in London before going nation-wide from the end of August. The Imperial screened it from September 18th, for one week. It ran four times a day and was, according to the Walsall Observer, playing to “crowded houses”. It even ran a special screening for the local Volunteer Reserve and Walsall Women’s Reserve – as well as an 11am special for children!

September 1916. The Imperial shows the landmark film: The Battle of the Somme.

Walsall Advertiser, September 1916. The Imperial shows the landmark film: The Battle of the Somme.

This five-reel film depicted the realities of war, and while in general it was popular (playing to half the population, it is believed), it is said to have reduced wounded servicemen to tears and caused women to faint. The film both opened the cinema to a new middle-class audience and proved the power of cinema for propaganda purposes.

September 1916. The Imperial shows the landmark film: The Battle of the Somme.

Walsall Advertiser, September 1916. The Imperial shows the landmark film: The Battle of the Somme.

How the film was received in Walsall is an interesting question. It clearly was popular and likely did attract the ‘middle-class’ audience, but whether they saw it as morale-boosting is a moot point. As with other areas, many Walsall men were at the front and their families were being shown men being killed (although some faked footage was used) and being buried – all of which must have been shocking. Saying that, Walsall had been bombed a few months before, with one bomb landing just around the corner from the cinema and having resulted in the deaths of several people – maybe the angry feeling that the ‘Hun’ were getting their just rewards overrode the sentiment of fallen British troops.

In the November of 1916, the Imperial also screened ‘The Belle of New York’, a film version of the play that opened the Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1900. In October 1917, it also screened French war films in aid of French war charities.

Fench war films screened at the Imperial. October 1917. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Fench war films screened at the Imperial. October 1917.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

In January 1918, the Imperial hosted a public meeting and conference – attended by government ministers – on war pensions for disabled soldiers. It discussed the very real issue of provision for the disabled soldiers. In the September, the cinema went to a “bi-weekly programme… in compliance with your desires” – this meant that two different programmes operated for three days of each week. On Armistice Day, the cinema was screening ‘Du Barry’ and ‘The Blindness of Fortune’.

The Imperial, by the mid-1920s, was advertising itself as a Paramount Picture House, so it is assumed it screened Paramount films, or those distributed by them. It also advertised itself in the newspapers as the “Pick o’ the Pictures”. The Paramount arrangement seems to have been dropped after a year or so.

As the silent era drew to a close the Imperial, like all cinemas, carried out experiments in sound. Initially, silent films had simple musical accompaniment on the piano, which later could become more orchestral. Strange contraptions were also invented to provide sound effects. In January 1928, the Imperial screened an opera, ‘Faust’. It had been well received in London and the novelty was that along with an orchestra, singers were engaged to add that “operatic atmosphere” to the experience.

Another form of sound was provided through the ‘sound-on-disc’ systems, such as Vitaphone, which was introduced by Warner Bros in 1926. This, in effect, was sound on an accompanying phonographic record that was synchronised with the film. In March 1929, Al Jolson’s ‘The Jazz Singer’ was screened at the Imperial, with the advertisement of “see and hear it”.

Walsall Advertiser, 1929. The Jazz Singer appears at the Imperial.

Walsall Advertiser, 1929. The Jazz Singer appears at the Imperial.

Sound – by which we mean “Talkies” – came to Walsall in 1929; but not to the Imperial. The Picture House on Bridge St had advertised for months in advance that sound was coming to its theatre on the 26th August. Al Jolson was the first to appear in the ‘Singing Fool’ – which the correspondent of the Observer believed would be a massive success, expecting the “house full” sign to be displayed.

The Imperial hung onto silent film until 1930. Silence bowed-out with Lon Chaney in ‘Thunder’ and the classic ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ ushered in a new era on the 20th October, after the installation of a Western Electric Sound System.

Walsall Advertiser, October 1930. The first talkie at the Imperial - All Quiet on the Western Front.

Walsall Advertiser, October 1930. The first talkie at the Imperial – All Quiet on the Western Front.

Agreed in 1932, a new category of film classification was added, which required the Imperial and other cinemas to regulate entry more strictly. Due to the popularity of the genre an ‘H’ category, which symbolised ‘horror’, meant that no under 16s were admitted to a theatre, again, only if the local council so stipulated. In May 1932, Walsall Council had indeed restricted access to ‘Frankenstein’, which was screened at the Palace in late August that year. The classification changes of 1932 may have brought a new level of censorship, or simply, a new level of recording it better in Council records.

Walsall Council ban children from admittance to see 'Frankenstein' (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Council ban children from admittance to see ‘Frankenstein’
(Walsall Local History Centre)

By 1933 a Midland Local Authority Committee had been established to look at censorship of films. Walsall sent delegates. This area committee had an effect on the Imperial and the other cinemas, as in November 1933, Walsall raised the subject of children attending ‘A’ category films in general. Walsall was in favour of a general ban, but they couldn’t get MLA agreement, and so children were continued to be allowed to attend ‘A’ films with a parent or guardian.

It is noticeable that adverts for the Imperial and other cinemas started to carry their film classifications from around October 1932. In July 1933, the Council stipulated that they had to advertise this in a prominent position in the cinema, along with a definition of the category. This extended to supporting and advertising literature too. By January 1934, several films; ‘Lilly Turner’,’ The Invisible Man’ ‘Damaged Lives’ and ‘Thunder Over Mexico’ had been decreed as over 16’s only, had scenes removed, or art work on the posters altered.

Saying that, it was only from February 1938 that the ‘H’ category was added to the cinema licence in Walsall. The first film to be classified as such by Walsall was ‘The Mystery of the Wax Museum’, but by the time it reached the screen of the Rosum in Leamore, in July 1938, it had been edited to an ‘A’. The first film to make it to the screen as an ‘H’ appears to have been ‘King Kong’ which played at the Empire in January 1939.

In 1936, the Imperial, along with the three other Walsall Theatre Company Cinemas were taken over by ABC. Their flagship was to be the Savoy, which was opened on the site of the old Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1938. The status of the Imperial was beginning to be eclipsed – it no longer boasted that it didn’t “show second-hand films” and the emerging latest format of ‘Technicolor’ films, such as Errol Flynn in ‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ and Frederick March in ‘A Star is Born” (both 1938) were heading to other theatres. The Imperial was certainly screening colour films by July 1939, as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald appeared in ‘Sweethearts’.

In the mid and later 1930s, several minor alterations had taken place to the Imperial, including an extra exit and work to the operating box and to the heating. The Imperial also had to take on more staff in 1939, under requirements laid down by the Chief Constable of Walsall.

TO BE CONTINUED….
My thanks to:
the Walsall Local History Centre
Walsall Free Press
Walsall Advertiser
The National Archives
various posters through You Tube

Comments
  1. Mike Blakemore says:

    Hmm. Error. My Family was one of the Shareholders and we had a directors seat on the Board of “The Walsall Theatre Co., Moss Empire did not in anyway have any financial interest in the Theatres themselves… They booked acts at her Majesties for a period of time.. Nothing more.. An Ironic Point of interest I ran the Imperial for the last four weeks as a Cinema…

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