Merthyr Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 1

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

In the decade or so following the Second World War, cinema took hold in Britain in a big way. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless that people loved the all the Hollywood glamour and escapism that the films provided to take their minds off the austerity of post-War Britain.

Merthyr was no exception – going to the cinema became one of the big attractions in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Such was the demand that at one time Merthyr had eleven cinemas – five in town (The Castle, The Palace, The Electric, The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall); two in Dowlais (The Oddfellows Hall and The Victoria); one each in Penydarren (The Cosy); Troedyrhiw (The Picture Palace); Aberfan (The Electric) and Treharris (The Palace).

The Castle Cinema in the 1970’s. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Going to the cinema in those days was a real night out. As well as the main feature, you would be treated to a ‘B’-movie (usually a Western from memory), a news-reel, a cartoon and adverts for forthcoming films. The news-reel footage made a huge impact – we only saw the news in newspapers or heard about it on the wireless, but seeing the pictures on the big screen really brought things home to us. I (Ken) particularly remember my grandmother being very upset and having to leave the cinema when they showed news-reel footage of the liberation of Belsen. Everything was on a continuous loop – there were no showings once or twice a day…the cycle would start at a certain time (‘B’-movie, news, cartoon, adverts, main feature), and would continue non-stop until closing time.

You could also have an ice-cream in the intermission as a treat. These were sold by the usherettes. They were a big part of the cinema going experience, they would show you to your seats, and woe-betide you if you misbehaved – you would have the usherette’s torch shining on you within minutes. Repeat offenders would be asked to leave!!!!

Quite often, after the last showing of the evening, you would emerge from the cinema and the town would be crowded with people coming from other cinemas all hurrying for buses to make their way home.

Forthcoming films were advertised in the Merthyr Express, and people would also turn out in droves to see their favourite stars. In the 1940’s the big stars were Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clarke Gable etc. The big matinée idol at the time was Robert Taylor, and the pin-up girl was Rita Hayworth.

Robert Taylor and Rita Hayworth

When there was a ‘big’ film it wouldn’t be unusual to see people queuing around the block to get in. The ones that were particularly memorable were ‘The Robe’ at the Theatre Royal and ‘Quo Vadis’ at the Castle. The biggest queues however were for the re-release of ‘Gone with the Wind’ in the late 1940’s  (the original release was during the war) at the Castle Cinema – the queues stretched as far as the eye could see.

How times have changed, all of these cinemas have closed, and all but the Theatre Royal and Temperance Hall have been demolished. For many years, Merthyr didn’t have a cinema at all until the Vue Cinema complex was opened at Rhydycar. It’s not the same – the glamour and excitement have all but disappeared.

To be continued……

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