The Walsall Imperial 3

1939 – 2014: Collapse and Rebirth
World War II was heralded with the Government’s order to close all cinemas (and other entertainments) but within the month they were allowed to re-open all across the country, and within a couple of weeks in Walsall. The Imperial, whose adverts were now small entries at the bottom of the page of the Observer, re-opened with the same programme as before the closure – namely ‘Marriage Forbidden’ – which was actually a film about the dangers of syphilis and so the under 16s were excluded from the theatre.

Ironically, as war had just been declared, the Imperial’s next film was ‘Angel’, staring Marlene Dietrich. Even though she had taken US citizenship at this stage and was a firm anti-Nazi, we can only wonder just how she was received by the audience.

In 1941, with worries of air-raids, it was decided by the Council not to allow access to the Imperial and the other cinemas for the under-5s. The Imperial appeared to screen predominantly safe ‘U’ and ‘A’ films through the war, with the odd ‘H’ film such as ‘Vampire Bat’ in 1943. The occasional patriotic film such as ‘In Which We Serve’ also got an airing. The Imperial also screened Pathe newsreels. VE Day was met with a double-bill, which had Claudette Colbert in ‘Practically Yours’ and Michael Redgrave in ‘Kipps’.

After the war further alterations were carried out to the Imperial, namely another fire escape (near to the stage), staff accommodation and an additional generator room. These were followed up in 1949 by the replacing of the front entrance steps and an interior redecoration, which was allowed to go ahead while patrons were viewing films.

As the Imperial moved into the 1950s both the cinema and the industry would be faced by new challenges. The first would be censorship. In 1951, the ‘H’ category would be replaced by the ‘X’ certificate. This would encompass not only horror but anything that the British Board of Film Classification had not given a certificate to because it was considered too adult in nature for other reasons. Monarch Films’ ‘A Family Story’ was the first to receive such a rating in Walsall.

The second major impact on the industry, which ultimately would spell the doom of the Imperial, was television. The industry had survived radio, but television would supplant both the films and the need for news-reels. The BBC restarted its television service in 1946 but it was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II that gave the popularity of the medium a massive boost. In 1955, Independent Television was launched and in 1964, BBC2 arrived. By the time of the Imperial’s demise, picture resolution was better and colour programmes were being made.

Back in the September of 1951, the Imperial installed a new sound system and this would be followed in 1955 by the installation of the wide-screen ‘Cinemascope’. The cinema received a complete redecoration to coincide with the fitting of the new screen. Cinemascope arrived in late August with a double-bill of Anne Baxter in ‘Bedevilled’ and Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Rhapsody. It was the fourth cinema in Walsall to get Cinemascope – but the projectionist, Mr Harry Huckfield, thought it wouldn’t make much difference as ‘people would still come to see a film if it attracted them whatever medium it is in’. Huckfield had been a projectionist since the 1920s.

The Imperial seems to have taken priority over another ABC theatre, The Palace – it appeared higher in the advertisement columns in the Walsall Observer and with often larger adverts. So, it may have been less of a surprise that in September 1955 it was to be the Palace that was closed by ABC, making Huckfield’s only son redundant from his projectionist position. The Imperial had a stay of execution.

In February 1960, the Council were asked to approve the ‘Emergo’ apparatus at the Imperial. This was a gimmick – originally for use in an ‘X’ film starring Vincent Price called ‘The House on Haunted Hill’. The equipment was a steel wire that ran from the screen to the back of the auditorium and at a particular point in the show a plastic skeleton was sent hurtling down the wire as a special effect. Strangely, whether approval was given or not isn’t stated, but the theatre doesn’t seem to have played the film around that date.

The Imperial seek permission to use 'Emergo', Feb 1960.

The Imperial seek permission to use ‘Emergo’, Feb 1960.(Walsall Local History Centre)

Through May 1960, Leslie Caron appeared at the Imperial in ‘Gigi’ – and some seats were removed to allow an organ to be installed and played as a part of the introduction.

Both in 1958 and then again in March 1960, the Council were approached regarding children’s attendance at cinemas on Sunday afternoons. In 1960 they met with a deputation from the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association, with the object being the relaxation of the by-law not allowing children in the cinema before 5pm on a Sunday. Ultimately it failed, as the Council kept the existing times.

In the September of 1960 the issue reappeared. The Imperial requested permission to screen Indian films on Sundays between 10am and 1pm and then again between 2pm and 5pm. The matter dragged on until the following February, when the Imperial were informed that they could not screen them. Such applications for the extension of Sunday hours and the admittance of children to afternoon performances continued to be refused – this after the Council contacted ‘the Clergy’ to seek their views.

In July 1964, the Council granted a permit to the Pakistani Muslim Welfare Society for a month’s trial to screen films from 10am to 1.30pm, but on the understanding that children would not be allowed, as with other cinemas. This month was extended by a further month, under the same terms; then by six months from 1st October 1964. A full year was granted in 1965. Again, all requests regarding children’s admittance to any cinema during Sunday afternoons were refused. The Welfare Society claimed that they were making a loss as attendances suffered because adults would not come and leave their children behind.

While the Council remained adamant on the issue of children, in May 1967, they did allow an extension to the Sunday hours for the Imperial for the screening of films by the Welfare Society in order to help encourage attendances. Within a few months the Welfare Society requested a return to the Sunday morning hours, as the Imperial (ABC) increased the hire charge.

The annual inspection of the Imperial for 1967 took place in the July. The Council Licensing Committee minutes state that ‘The whole of the interior of these premises require painting and decorating… generally speaking the seats are in a bad state of repair, viz. torn and loose fittings, but attention is constantly given to rectify the faults’. It may have been past its hey-day, but in October 1967, the Committee used the Imperial to view Gala Films’ ‘Lady in a Cage’, which they deemed unsuitable for public exhibition.

The cinema industry was in crisis in the late 1960s. On the 12th October 1967 the Cinematogaph Exhibitors’ Association wrote to Walsall Council. A ‘Compulsory Charity Contribution’ was levied under the Sunday Entertainments Act 1932, and the Association requested that this ‘tax’ be withdrawn as it was unfair, especially as ‘during the last decade the number of cinemas in operation has fallen by almost two-thirds’. The Council duly reduced the rate.

In 1969 the Council finally relented to children’s attendance for two reasons (they still had to be accompanied by an adult); the first being a perceived split in the views of the clergy (although they were more in favour of the status quo) and the realisation that cinema attendances were in trouble and children could simply stay at home and watch television. In 1970 new film classifications came into effect; an ‘A’ was revised to mean that a film may be unsuitable for younger children; ‘AA’ was restricted to over 14 years of age and ‘X’ was restricted to over 18 years of age.

Sadly neither the relaxing of children’s attendance or that of relaxing the Sunday taxing would help the Imperial. On 23rd April 1968 the Council received notification from ABC that the cinema would close for performances on the 4th May and they now sought one of the new gaming permits (allowing slot machines etc) to re-open it as an ABC Bingo and Social Club on the 23rd May. The permit was granted on the understanding that no game could have more than 50 persons playing and no fee greater than 6d per game could by charged. The Pakistan Welfare Association simply moved to the former Savoy, now simply called the ABC at Townend Bank.

Walsall Council are notified of the closure of the Imperial and the intention to convert it to bingo, Apr 1968.

Walsall Council are notified of the closure of the Imperial and the intention to convert it to bingo, April 1968. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The new bingo hall retained the cinema seats and even the balcony. In 1969, the parent company of the ABC Cinemas were taken over by EMI, whereas the ABC bingo clubs (named Alpha Bingo clubs) became a part of the Coral Social Club group in 1970. In turn these were taken over by Bass in 1981. When Bass took over the Grenada bingo clubs in 1991 they were all renamed as ‘Gala Bingo’. Saying that, in 1975, the Imperial entry in the phonebook was for ‘Imperial EMI Bingo’ – so it looks like it retained its former name. The last entry for the club appears in the 1996/7 phonebook, simply as ‘Imperial Bingo Club’, which is what the signage on the frontage said. Seemingly, it was operated by Gala Bingo, but by this stage there was a second Gala Bingo hall in Midland Rd.

Imperial Bingo Hall (Peter Barker)

Imperial Bingo Hall, 1994
(Peter Barker)

Whilst I cannot find a closure date for the bingo hall it had definitely closed by the September of 1997 as it was undergoing refurbishment. On the 15th December 1997 the Imperial re-opened as a Wetherspoon’s pub and eatery. The company had spent over £1m, employing architects Lawrence Tring of London on ‘stripping back much of the building to its original structure’. The architect, Pelsall-born Andrew Witcomb, employed ‘a huge glass window mimicking a silver screen at the back of the building’. He said that he had worked on the project for over a year, suggesting that the bingo hall had either been closed in late 1996, or at least offered for sale before its actual closure.

Karen Leach became the first manager and had 30 staff. The place retained the balcony from the cinema days and a flight of steps took you down to the serving bar. It became quite well known for its model dinosaurs; having a 40ft Sauropod in the passage with its head facing the bar and a woolly mammoth on the old seating balcony. I believe there were also a smaller Allosaurus-looking creature and a Pterosaur on the raised area at the rear. These quirky models were said to reflect the past use of the hall for lectures by the Walsall Science and Art Institute for example.

The Imperial while under transformation to a Wetherspoon's outlet. September 1997. (Stuart Williams)

The Imperial while under transformation to a Wetherspoon’s outlet. September 1997.
(Stuart Williams)

Although the dinosaurs have now gone, Wetherspoon’s remain in the Imperial; indeed, the chain has expanded in the town and has taken on St Mathew’s Hall, the former library and court house. And so the Agricultural Hall has re-invented itself again. While the business exchange didn’t last long, its entertainment purpose has continued since the day it formally opened. I do hope, after reading this, that the next time you pop in for a pint or a meal, you take a moment to reflect on what has gone on within those walls before: from Sousa to Shakespeare, Tom Thumb and his Marvellous Midgets to Al Jolson, and from the cries of anguish at the images of the Battle of the Somme to cries of ‘house’ at the bingo. So, as we approach its 150th birthday, raise a glass to the old Hall and to all that have visited her.

I would like to thank:
the Walsall Local History Centre
Posters on Youtube.
Peter Barker (Imperial Bingo Hall) and Stuart Williams (Wetherspoon’s) for use of photographs.

If you wish to read more on theatre/cinema in the Black Country, I recommend you read Ned Williams’ books on the subject.

Dedicated to Keith Selby: Such enthusiam for the subject

Comments
  1. Mike Blakemore says:

    Error.. ABC – EMI past the Bingo over to the Star Group of Leeds. That had also the Rosum Leamore.. When “Star” lost its gaming License when the Brothers that Owned the Company was sent to prison.. EMI set up a company to take them over.. Later a Willenhall company “Jarglen” took over. They then sold out to Coral…

  2. Mike Blakemore says:

    On a Technical Note.. The Imperial Never got a Cinemascope Installation.. Cinemascope was a License Patent at that time. In the Walsall Boundary area at the time only “The Empire” and “The Rosum” Leamore had the correct expensive system. All the others had a cheaper version that got around the patent laws by being slightly different ratio ABC Cinema had “Delrama”(A Phillips Patent”. which stretched the image by Mirrors. Which was good when new, but in later years picture quality dropped radically. “Rank” Cinemas had their own Brand “Viramorph” which had a Light drop..

    Business Note. The Imperial did not close because of poor business.. Its average business was comparable to the Odeon in fact.. Considering the Imperial was second run. and able even to do second run Rank Release. While I did Manage Relief at the Imperial I spent time studying the Statistic sheets and was shocked how got their business was.. The Imperial became a Bingo Hall because some bright spark at the Head office.. Now under EMI’s control came up with a barmy idea Bingo… Irony was that it made less money then it did on Cinema. That is why The new Alpha Bingo Chain. was sold to the Star group of Leeds..

    • Nick Summers says:

      Hi Mike,

      Could you kindly let me know if you are the same Mike Blakemore that penned the following on Flickr –

      Mike Blakemore 4y
      The Avion Aldridge Never had anything to do with Sidney Clift or the Clifton Circuit The 2 brain brother owned the Avion along with the Dale Willenhall and “The Palace” Walsall Wood Rosum Cinema was owned by Ron Summers 90% Clift held 10% of shares. Summers benefited from Clifts booking power and extra discounts on saleable stock etc Odeon Stafford the Clift shareholders had a controling interest until around 1941-42 when Deutch died.. J.A Rank bought out The Clift group of interests in Odeon. They controled 6 Cinemas plus a minorty in around 50 others. It is not realised how close Deutch and Clift worked together in Cinema developements.. My family where involved in Theatre and Cinema Investments…

      I am Nick Summers great nephew of Edgar Summers who owned the Rosum.

      Your reference to a Ron Summers in this article is puzzling as we are unable to find an ancestor of that name.

      If you could you very kindly let us know the origin of this information we would be most grateful.

      Kindest regards,
      Nick.

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