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1930s Stourbridge usherettes up on the roof

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 14, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Staff of the Central Cinema, Stourbridge, pose for a picture on the roof in June 1935

  • Elsie Parfitt and Phyllis Hendy on the cinema's roof

  • Cousins Phyllis Hendy and Marie Welch at the Central Cinema, Stourbridge in 1932

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WHEN we published a 1933 photograph taken on the roof of the Castle Cinema in Dudley in Bugle 1112 it caught the eye of Patricia Walters, née Hendy, of Stourbridge because she has a set of very similar pictures in her family album.

Patricia's mother Phyllis was an usherette at the Central Cinema, later renamed the Odeon, in Stourbridge. In June 1935 Phyllis and her colleagues climbed onto the roof of the cinema in the High Street and had their photographs taken wearing their bright red uniforms.

In our main picture the usherettes are, from left, Floss Beech, Vida Hand (née Hill), Phyllis Hendy (née Thatcher), Elsie Parfitt (née Pratt), and Nellie Sutton. The page at the front was called Bill, while the bespectacled gentleman, not in uniform, sitting on the wall was the projectionist Mervyn O'Leary.

A second picture shows Elsie Parfitt and Phyllis Hendy posing on the roof, while our third picture is a little older and was taken on 16th May, 1932. It shows Phyllis with her cousin Marie Welch, who also worked at the cinema, wearing the earlier usherette uniform.

The Central Cinema was built by a group of Black Country businessmen headed by Clifford Bray and Alderman Francis James Ballard, who served two terms as mayor of Dudley, 1927-28. They bought land on Stourbridge High Street which had been part of the old fair ground and part of the former Conservative Club.

With only a narrow frontage on to the High Street, the new cinema was designed by the architects Webb and Gray and built by A.J. Crump, both Dudley firms. The auditorium could seat 1,500, with 900 in the stalls and 600 in the horseshoe-shaped balcony, the ends of which almost reached to the screen.

The grand opening was on 16th May, 1929, when local philanthropist and "hollowware king" Ernest Stevens cut the ribbon. The first film shown was Love's Crucifixion, a German picture directed by Wiktor Bieganski, and Carmine Gallone and starring Harry Frank, Henri Baudin, Oreste Bilancia, Hans Stüwe, and Olga Tschechowa. Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution it tells the story of a mother's search for her missing son.

Of course, Love's Crucifixion was a silent movie but just a year after opening the Central Cinema was converted to sound in April 1930.

Clifford Bray died in April 1937 and shortly afterwards the Central was bought by the Birmingham-born picture house magnate Oscar Deutsch and renamed the Odeon.

As cinema attendance declined in the 1950s and '60s the Odeon closed its stalls and only used the balcony seats. Its three manual Compton organ, which had cost £4,000 in 1929, was broken up and removed in 1958, with parts of it being installed in St Andrew's Church, Netherton.

The last show at the cinema was on 16th June, 1973, a screening of Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, supported by Blind Terror, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Mia Farrow.

The building was taken over by J.H. Stringer Ltd, the furniture store with premises next door. The auditorium was sealed off and left largely untouched while the rest of the building was converted to retail use. Later in the 1970s Owen Owen took over the premises.

The Owen Owen department store closed in June 1990 and the building remained empty and unused until it was demolished in April 1995. It was only at this point that many locals realised they had a near-intact cinema on the high street; as the bulldozers moved in and the walls were demolished, the tiered seating of the auditorium were revealed to passers-by on the ring road.

Some of the interior decoration was saved and decorative tiles from the floor of the foyer depicting the Stourbridge coat of arms were installed in the Crown Centre and a glass screen was taken to Himley Hall.

Have you any interesting family photos to share with Bugle readers? Contact dshaw @blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to our editorial address on page 2.

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