Saturday, 30 January 2016

34 The Plaza Cinema

34. The Plaza Cinema - (photos: Plaza, Paul Robeson, Dylan Thomas & Leon Atkin)- 30 Jan 2016

In 1931 the largest cinema in Wales was opened in what was then Northampton Lane, on the site where Oceana now stands, awaiting demolition in the Kingsway.  Built in ornate Italian Renaissance style, the imposing Plaza Cinema was designed by Cardiff architect Howard Williams, and could seat 3,000 people.  It was opened by Swansea’s Mayor on 13th February 1931, with the first film shown being ‘The King of Jazz’, not Al Jolson in ‘The Jazz Singer’ as is popularly believed. 

The foyer and restaurant were decorated with teak and walnut panels bearing Welsh insignia and motifs, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.  In front of the box office a large marble slab bore the name ‘Plaza’, while in the upstairs foyer the poem ‘The Women of Mumbles Head’ was inscribed on a metal plaque.  In front of the screen a cathedral-like three-manual Christie organ could rise up from the floor for concerts or to accompany silent films.  The orchestra lift was designed and installed by a Leicester firm, while the furnishing of the lounge and restaurant was supplied locally by the Ben Evans store.  Seats in the balcony cost from 2s 4d (almost an eighth of an old pound) to 1s 6d, but in the auditorium prices ranged from 1s 3d down to 6d in the front stalls.  For half the price of those cheapest seats you could enjoy coffee and biscuits in the smart cafĂ© while seated in wicker furniture.

The Plaza could be hired for a political rally, as in July 1934 when Dylan Thomas accompanied Bert Trick to hear Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists.  With his menacing black-shirted supporters in attendance, Mosley gave an impassioned speech before he overstepped his anti-Semitic sentiments in responding to a question from Rev. Leon Atkin.  The meeting descended into uproar, with Mosley making a hasty exit as Communist sympathisers chaired Leon Atkin from the building.  A happier occasion was a concert in February 1939, when Paul Robson made excellent use of the superb acoustics in a concert.

In his short story ‘Old Garbo’, Dylan Thomas drew on his brief career as a reporter, to mention his press card gaining him free admittance to a film at the Plaza.  During the 1940s the BBC used the cinema to broadcast big band music to British forces abroad.  

In 1953 the Plaza became the first independent cinema in Britain enabled to show films in CinemaScope with stereophonic sound, with the showing of ‘The Robe’ starring Richard Burton.  Part of the cinema can be glimpsed in the 1962 Peter Sellers film ‘Only Two Can Play’, based on the Kingsley Amis novel ‘That Uncertain Feeling’.  While this was being filmed in Swansea, projectionist Ted Hopkins of West Cross would show the rushes of each day’s filming to the director in the Plaza.  But the completed film was screened at the Albert Hall Cinema in Craddock Street - nonetheless Ted Hopkins crept in to see it there, as he did later with ‘The Inspector’, part of which was also filmed locally.

Having survived aerial bombardment during the Second World War with only minor damage, after 35 years the Plaza Cinema closed in April 1965, finishing with a Peter Sellers comedy ‘A Shot in the Dark’.

It was demolished to make way for a new Odeon Cinema, which opened on 17th May 1967 with the Rogers and Hammerstein musical ‘The Sound of Music’.  On the ground floor was Swansea’s first Tesco supermarket, with a Top Rank dance hall beneath.  But the spread of television made it increasingly difficult to sustain a large auditorium, so in 1982 the Odeon was converted into a three-screen cinema, before finally closing in 1997. 

Oceana night club could accommodate 3,000 people, like the Plaza.  Currently it awaits demolition before new Council offices are built for staff once the Civic Centre is vacated, leaving Cardiff with the largest cinema in Wales.         

No comments:

Post a Comment