By Ned Williams, Black Country local historian and author.
Professor Wood brought his “animated” pictures to Bloxwich and presented them in the hall that had once been the Sunday School behind the Wesleyan chapel in Park Road, in the early years of the 20th century. He re¬appears in the history of Bloxwich’s cinemas later and joins the familiar names of the other men who showed films in Bloxwich: Thomas Jackson, Pat Collins and Oscar Deutsch!
The Electric Palace
165 High Street
The Electric Theatre, right, c1913 (see Edditer’s note, below).
The Electric Palace was opened by Alhambra Picture Palaces Ltd., a company established by Thomas Jackson to open the Alhambra, Bilston, and this one in Bloxwich, following his first steps into the cinema business at the Strand in Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton. It was a small hall, holding four hundred patrons, and it is not clear whether it was a conversion of an existing building or was purpose-built. The earliest show I have found advertised for the Electric Palace was for Monday 30th December 1912, when “Romance of the Coast” was being screened.
The cinema may not have been a great success, or the facilities simply inadequate, because it closed the following Spring for some improvements to be made! It re¬opened on 12th May 1913, with “Quo Vadis”. The Walsall Observer reported:
“…..Extensive alterations have been carried out in the building, and a balcony has been provided, no expense being spared to ensure the comfort of patrons.”
From that date onwards shows were presented twice nightly, with matinees on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Seats cost 2d, 3d and 4d downstairs, or 6d and 9d in the balcony: a bewildering range of prices for a small cinema.
Thomas Jackson formed a new company in 1913 called Wolverhampton, Walsall and District Cinemas and the Bloxwich Electric Palace became part of the empire of the new company.
Just after the First World War the cinema was sold to Pat Collins, who was making Bloxwich the headquarters of his fairground organisation at about the same time. It was also a time when Pat Collins was acquiring various cinemas, including two others in the Black Country. The last film shown in the Electric Palace was “The Tatters”, screened on Saturday 3rd December 1921. It was then demolished to make way for Pat Collins’s brand new cinema; the Grosvenor.
(Edditer’s note: A close look at the original of the photograph shown here shows clearly the name of this cinema as the ‘Electric Theatre’, so presumably it changed its name at some point).
The Grosvenor, 1935, by John Maltby
Pat Collins obviously wished to build a cinema of which he could feel proud in his adopted home of Bloxwich. His new cinema was to be called The Grosvenor, and was designed by Hickton and Farmer of Walsall, and built by J. & F. Wootton, at a cost of £12,000. While it was being built, Pat Collins showed films at the Central, as described later. Messrs. Hickton & Farmer had designed about thirty cinemas since 1910 and the Grosvenor was a very pleasing example of their work. The early twenties produced some very attractive Black Country cinemas even if the trade was going through uncertain times.
The frontage of the Grosvenor was treated in a classical style, finished in Hathernware terracotta. It was built to hold a thousand patrons. Four swing doors gave access to a reasonably spacious entrance hall with staircases on each side to the balcony floor. It was opened on 11th December 1922 and Lady Arthur Grosvenor, of Chester, came along to perform the ceremony. Ironically, Pat Collins, who had become Walsall’s M.P., could not be present. Lady Grosvenor praised her absent friend and admired the hall. The Mayor of Walsall, and Rev. Father H. McDonnell also spoke, and the latter expressed the hope that Pat would make his way to the House of Lords, to become Lord Bloxwich! The film that followed was “The Three Musketeers” and the proceeds enabled £26.00 to be sent to Walsall Y.M.C.A.
Interior of The Grosvenor, 1935, by John Maltby.
The operators found themselves working in fairly cramped circumstances in a room at the back of the stalls, crammed between the staircases. Legend has it that tall patrons could cast a shadow across the screen! In 1929 Pat Collins appointed young Bill Lockett as third operator and today (1982) Mr. Lockett can remember the sound-on-disc system coming to the Grosvenor in July 1930. Western Electric equipment was used and “Innocents of Paris” brought the talkies to Bloxwich on 14th July.
Maintaining the arcs while setting up discs and dealing with reel changes every ten minutes made life difficult in the small operating box. Life became much easier in December 1931 when sound-on-film arrived and twenty minutes worth of film was put on one spool. The new equipment was inaugurated on Boxing Day with the film “To Oblige A Lady”.
Pat Collins continued to run the Grosvenor several years after selling his other two Black Country cinemas, but in 1935 he sold it to Oscar Deutsch and it became an Odeon. As an Odeon it survived the round of closures that put several old cinemas to death in 1956, but three years later it was sold to a Sunderland firm engaged in light industry. The company acquired the Picture House, Willenhall, at the same time. The last film, “Operation Amsterdam”, was shown on 2nd May 1959, just before celebrations were being organised locally to celebrate the centenary of Pat Collins’ birth.
The building has survived. For many years it became increasingly dilapidated, but about three years ago it was transformed. The original frontage has been given a face lift, but in essence has been preserved, and the premises are now operated as a discotheque-styled nightclub using the name “Flix”.
Old Wesleyan Chapel, Park Road (photo by Stuart Williams).
Note the change in brickwork indicating the cinema extension.
Not long after the opening of the Electric Palace a local company was formed called the Bloxwich Picture Company. It was registered on 2nd June 1913, with a capital of £2,000. The directors were Samuel Wilkes, Jonah Wilkes, A. J. Wilkes, J. F. W. Binns and Jesse and Frederick Wootton, the builders. Many of the remaining shares were bought by the employees in Samuel Wilkes’ lock works (Edditer’s note: associated with the owners of The Turf pub, Wolverhampton Street).
The company intended to build a cinema more or less on the site of Professor Wood’s early shows, referred to earlier. In Park Road a large Wesleyan chapel, built in 1838 (Edditer’s note: later research shows this to be 1832), had been made redundant by the erection of a more modern chapel elsewhere. By extending this chapel backwards to include the Sunday school building visited by Professor Wood (Edditer’s note: this was the original ‘flax oven’ that had served as the town’s first Methodist chapel from the late 18th century), it was possible to produce a cinema capable of holding five hundred patrons. A raked floor was put in and a small stage provided facilities for cinevariety. Naturally, the work was carried out by J. & F. Wootton.
As the Central Picture Palace it must have opened late in 1913 and one Harry Morris found himself managing the new rival to the Electric Palace. During 1915 and 1916 it was leased to Tom Wood and to some local people it is remembered as the Central, to others it is remembered as “Woods Palace”. By the end of the War the original company seemed to have resumed showing the films.
It may have then closed for a short time because on 5th December 1921 we find that it was “reopened” by Pat Collins who wished to continue showing films in Bloxwich while the Grosvenor was being built. Pat Collins’ shows continued for exactly one year and the Central closed just before the Grosvenor opened. Pat Collins then used the Central as a store and a place where his fairground rides could be repaired.
In 1937 it was sold to Bert Britain who converted it to a garage. Today (1982), the premises are used by Mid Air equipment. The frontage of the cinema, which was basically the frontage of the original chapel, has remained almost unchanged. One interesting story concerning the Central tells of the tomb of two children buried beneath the central aisle when the raked floor was installed. They were the children of a Wesleyan minister, and they had died of diphtheria. When Bert Britain removed the raked floor in 1937 he discovered their grave. He had them removed and reburied in a more suitable place (Edditer’s note: the nearby Field Road Cemetery).
This article is taken from the book ‘Cinemas of the Black Country’ by Ned Williams, published by Uralia Press in 1982 and now out of print.
The two photos of The Grosvenor, 1935, by John Maltby are reproduced from the same book, courtesy of Ned Williams and the Cinema Theatre Association.
Our thanks both to Mr. Williams and the Association for their assistance in publishing this article.
SUPPLEMENTAL: Since the book from which this article is taken was published, The Grosvenor has become a community facility for young people, ‘The Electric Palace’, and is run by Bloxwich Community Partnership. The Old Wesleyan Chapel is currently in use as a furniture shop. It is hoped that cinema may yet return to Bloxwich, as part of new uses following the refurbishment of the Bloxwich Library and Theatre which will take place from late 2008-9.
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