CINEMA aficionado NORMAN ROBINS of Brierley Hill has contributed several items to the Bugle relating to this region’s picture houses of the past. Recently he acquired a copy of the programme for the opening ceremony of the Central Theatre, later Odeon Cinema, in Stourbridge. Norman has kindly shared details from the programme to tell a little of this lost cinema’s story.
The Central Theatre on Stourbridge High Street opened eighty years ago on 16th May, 1929. This was at the end of the silent era when films were shown with musical accompaniment from an organ or orchestra. The cinema was built by a group of local businessmen whose chairman was Alderman Francis James Ballard, who was Mayor of Dudley 1927-1929. A photograph of F.J. Ballard’s daughter’s wedding recently appeared in Bugle 870.
The opening ceremony began at 2.45pm with a few remarks by Mr Ballard. The cinema was then officially declared open by prominent local businessman and philanthropist Ernest Stevens. After the National Anthem a vote of thanks to Ernest Stevens was proposed by David Griffiths, vice-chairman of the cinema directors before the afternoon’s programme of entertainment began.
The first film shown was entitled ’Love’s Springtime’, which the programme describes as “a beautifully coloured film”. This must have been one of the earliest colour films shown in the region. As early as 1895 Thomas Edison was hand-tinting his Kinetoscope movies, and many different colour systems were developed in the early 20th century, but few were successful. One of the better systems was the Path Brothers’ Path chrome where the film was machine-tinted. The first feature film in Technicolor was made in 1922 but, initially, this system was three times as expensive as black and white film. We have been unable to find details of ’Love’s Springtime’ so we do not know which system it used.
The film was followed by a musical interlude. Mr C.J.W. Howlett sat at the console of the cinema’s organ and performed Sigmund Romberg’s ’The Dessert Song’, then a very popular operetta. This was followed by the Central Cinema’s musical director Barrs Partridge performing a violin solo entitled ’Sizilietta’. The Central Orchestra then performed ’Sonny Boy’.
There were two more films shown. First was the ’Path Gazette’, the bi-weekly newsreel that ran from 1910 to 1970, followed by ’Love’s Crucifixion’. Again, we have been unable to trace details of this film.
The programme gives a detailed description of the Central Theatre and its facilities on opening:
“The site of the building is an excellent one, situated as it is in the most central position in the town, with frontage and main entrance in the High Street, and an entrance to the front seats from the newly made road from Foster Street, where, by the way, patrons may park their cars.
“There is a wide entrance from the High Street, with an imposing main Crush or Waiting Hall and Lounge, which will accommodate several hundred people. In the flooring of the Crush Hall a reproduction of the Stourbridge Borough Coat of Arms is worked in mosaic. A Kiosk for the sale of sweets, and a Telephone Box for patrons are on the right side, balancing the Pay Box on the left. Access to the Balcony is provided by a wide staircase which lands at a level half-way up the Balcony rake, thus savings patrons the usual exertion of first climbing to the highest stage, then descending to all balcony seats.
"The Theatre proper accommodates 1500 persons, 900 on the ground floor, and 600 in the Balcony. In plan it is fan-shaped, which is now the recognised ideal for the auditorium, accommodating as it does the greatest number of people at the best distance from the screen, each person having a clear unobstructed and undistorted view. The shape also gives the best results acoustically. Tip-up seats, liberally spaced, are provided throughout; there are wide carpeted gangways and ample Exits — indeed from the point of view of their safety, patrons will be interested to note that the total width of the Exit doors amounts to over 60 feet.
"Ample Lavatory accommodation is provided to all parts. There is a roomy Stage with Dressing Rooms, Band Room, etc., giving accommodation for artistes in production of stage plays, for which, incidentally, the Theatre is licensed. The electricity for the various power units and lighting of the building is generated in an Engine House at the rear, by a 66hp National Oil Engine and two direct coupled dynamos; in the case of any failure in this plant the current supplied by the Midland Electric Corporation can be used; further, a dual system of lighting from separate and independent services from the Electric Corporation mains is installed, giving lights to all Exits, Staircases, etc. A special feature has been made of the lighting, with colour changing devices in the Auditorium.
“Heating and Ventilation are on the most modern lines and the most up-to-date projectors are fitted in the Operator’s Box. Adequate fire appliances are installed at various parts of the building.
“The John Compton British Organ, installed at a cost of £4,000 is in three separate chambers towards the sides of the building. One accommodates the great ‘Diapason’ pipes 16ft long, the orchestral ‘woodwind’ and ‘brass’ sections, and percussion instruments, including a glockenspiel and xylophone, another has the orchestral strings, the beautiful ‘Tibia clausa’ with its 97 pipes, the vox humanas which simulate the human voice, cathedral chimes and carillon, drums, tom-tom, tambourine, castanets, triangle, cymbals, and various ‘effects’; the third contains some of the chief parts of the electrical equipment including the electrical motor and centrifugal blower, the dynamo and switchboard, with its 6,000 switches. All these mechanisms are controlled by the organist from a moveable console (keydesk) normally placed in the orchestra. This console is connected to the organ by a small electric cable, over one hundred feet long, and can be moved to any part of the hall. The total number of parts in the instrument is well over 3,000.
“Architecturally the general scheme is based in the Classic Greek, the decorations being in cream, grey and gold, with various colours introduced to link up with the furnishing and carpeting which is rose pink in the Balcony, and blue on the Ground Floor.
“The Proprietors — the patrons too — are fortunate in having the services of Mr Barrs Partridge, the local violinist, well-known to concert goers and wireless listeners, to lead an accomplished orchestra, and also in securing such an eminent cinema organist as Mr Howlett, formerly of the West End, Birmingham and the Astoria, London.
“The scheme owes its inception to the pioneer work of Mr Clifford Bray, formerly of the Criterion, Dudley, and Mr William Lloyd, Accountant of Dudley; who subsequently formed a company whose Directors, under the Chairmanship of Alderman F.J. Ballard, JP, have brought the scheme to fruition.
“The Architects are Messrs. Webb and Grey, LLRIBA, of Dudley and Stourbridge, and the Building Contractors, Messrs. A.J. Crump and Sons, Ltd., Dudley.”
Incidentally, the souvenir opening programme was printed by Stourbridge stationers Mark and Moody.
Norman Robins has a second programme, dating from a year after the opening. On Sunday, 26th October, 1930, the New Central Theatre, as it says on the front of the programme, was the venue for a concert in aid of the Widows and Orphans’ Fund of the National Union of Journalists. Barrs Partridge led a number of singers and musicians; Mr N. Sissons, Mr F. Alison Green, Miss Doris Pugh, Mr John Hooper, Miss Marian Jones and Mr George R. Gibbs. In a packed programme they performed a variety of pieces by the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Dvorak, Sibelius, Saint-Sa‘ns and Brahms. Interestingly, a note at the end of the programme reads, “owing to the length of the Programme encores cannot be permitted”.
In 1937 the Central was acquired by the Odeon chain of cinemas and it was renamed in 1938.
The Odeon closed as a cinema on Saturday, 16th June, 1973. Its last programme was a re-issue of the 1967 X-rated ’Bonnie and Clyde’, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and the 1971 horror film Blind Terror (aka See No Evil), starring Mia Farrow. There was no mention in the local County Express advert for the cinema’s weekly programme that these would be the cinema’s last films after 44 years of cinema entertainment in the heart of Stourbridge.
In 1976 the cinema building was converted into Stringer’s furniture store but by the late 1970s it had been acquired by Owen Owen, the Liverpool-based chain of department stores. The store used only the main frontage of the building and the crush hall as shop space while the auditorium was used for storage.
Owen Owen closed the store in June, 1990, and the old cinema was demolished in April, 1995. Crowds watched the demolition and as the walls came down they could see into the old auditorium once more, where the old flip-seats were still in place. On the site was built a Wilkinson’s store, which opened in February, 1996.
The last remaining relic of the Central Theatre is the mosaic of the old Stourbridge borough coat of arms, which was removed from the floor of the crush hall and installed in the Crown Centre.