Despite the absence of television, the 1930s era still had a plethora of entertainment available. In addition to numerous cinemas and theatres, there were many dance venues, travelling fairs and circuses, social and political clubs, and, of course, radio.
By December 1938, when the latest in a chain of picture houses was opened, the Maxime in Sketty, Swansea had enough cinemas to satisfy even the most ardent movie fan. Pride of place undoubtedly went to the Plaza (in recent times reduced to rubble and re-established as the Top Rank complex). The Plaza was the height of elegance, always showing the latest films, with a ground floor and circle capacity capable of swallowing up several thousand people at one sitting. The entrance was ornate, its broad marble stairs leading to the posh seats in the circle, and a restaurant where, on special occasions, an excellent meal could be purchased. The entire building was spacious and regal. During holiday times it was nothing to see huge queues of people standing outside for several hours to gain entry to the evening performance. A much appreciated feature of the cinema was the electric organ. For many years it was played in a masterful manner by Mr Tom Jones. During his performances, there frequently appeared on the screen, above his head, the printed words of popular songs of the time and the audience would all follow the bobbing ball picking out the words and join in a boisterous sing-song. Upon completing his recital, the organ would slowly descend into the lower depths of the cinema and the films would continue.
Its main rival was the Albert hall, not because it ever matched it in size or elegance, but because it specialised in giving first run in Swansea to many of the other leading films of the time. Among other film centres was the Elysium in High Street, the Rialto in Wind Street, the Carlton in Oxford Street, the castle in castle Street and the New palace in High Street, which, like the Grand Theatre, switched its allegiance, at varying times, between films and live stage shows.
But for those living on the fringes of the town, there were many other picture houses available. Manselton had the Manor, St. Thomas, the Scala – more frequently referred to as the fleapit. In Townhill stood the Tower, Mumbles featured the Tivoli and at one period the Regal, while in nearby Morriston was another Regal and a Globe.
Admission was always measured in coppers, but those wealthy enough to afford shillings finishing up in the circle seats.
In addition to the main film, most cinemas would show a newsreel of current events, sporting items being very popular. Cartoons included the Three Stooges were always in demand. Travel shorts and in many cases long running serials always ended with the hero or heroine about to suffer a fate worse than death, but, somehow, by the following week, managing to extricate themselves. I can still vividly recall the exploits of Buck Jones, the cowboy, whose white suit was seldom dirtied, and whose ten gallon Stetson never fell off.
There were also the many Saturday morning matinee shows, designed for children. The Upland cinema always attracted large crowds, probably because their serials were more exciting, although the Albert Hall was also well supported. In addition, several church halls or semi-religious institutes offered their shows. The YMCA with their hard wooden seats and projection camera that nearly always packed up some time before the show ended, was another popular venue.
Among the venues showing live entertainment, the Empire ruled supreme. It was the mecca for large crowds, especially at weekends, when house full signs would go up irrespective of what was on offer. This was the day when variety was at its zenith, each week a packed programme of assorted talent would regale itself on the stage of this large, splendid building. The safety curtain that enveloped the stage before the show began, was covered with advertisements of every description, and, when the small, often out of tune orchestra (in the pit) would strike up, the backcloth scenery would transport one into another world of glitter and sound.
At one time or another most of the household names graced the stage of the Empire. I well recall seeing Laurel and Hardy performing, and Morecambe and Wise, as the robbers in the pantomime “Babes in the Wood”, although in both cases these were after the war years.
Variety was its name and that is what you had. There were magical shows, touring big bands, comedians, vocalists, dancers, jugglers, trick cyclists and even a potted circus. The list was seemingly endless, and from the pit stalls, the circle and the gods, where you perched precariously at a great height looking down towards the stage, the roars of approval or boos would flow.
The New Palace, in between its stint of displaying films, also presented variety shows, but rarely did they attain the standards set by the Empire. As for the Grand Theatre, another place with high seating, their more orthodox drama presentations and annual pantomime just enabled them to remain solvent.
There was also a glut of local drama productions given by various churches etc., all popular in their day, even attracting limited attendance.
The 30s saw the decline of the crystal radio set, the introduction of battery operated receivers and later electric operated radios. In many a household, piped reception was available through the courtesy, at a modest price, of the South Wales Rediffusion Company. The days of nonstop pop music had not arrived, instead on the national welsh or western wave bands we were treated to discussion, light orchestral or serious music. Comedy shows and news bulletins were steady contributors, and on major sporting occasions commentaries would take place. Plays and serials were firm favourites, as were children’s hour and interviews. Unlike television, it caused one to conjure up visions of what was taking place, but it was at least less taxing on the optic nerve.
On the sporting front, the Swansea Rugby Club and Swansea Town football teams were prominent, even if success was hard to find. Greyhound racing was held at Skewen and Morriston every week, and on an amateur level, despite a lack of playing areas, a host of outdoor sporting activities took place. It was a period when money was in short supply for the working classes, and, consequently all forms of societies flourished. There was no television to distract one, with the result that much leisure time had to be utilised in some way or other. Equipment for many activities was costly for an individual to purchase, but as a member of a club or group this difficulty was overcome. Maybe the activities indulged in would not appeal to the youth of today – the magic lantern shows, glee clubs, gardening societies, pigeon keeping, amateur theatricals – but they served the needs and purpose of the time. One pastime not dealt with as yet was dancing. There was a glut of dance halls, including the Patti, Park and Belmont, being the leaders, but this leisure time activity will be examined later.
Next Page, When Dancing was Fun