Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Story of the Palace Cinema

The Palce Cinema still stands rather awkwardly on the Stratford Road in its original location. It ceased to function as a cinema over 50 years ago and it has had various uses since then.

In my young and teenage years it was regarded as a bit of a flea pit. The last renovation was in 1935 and the interior was certainly frayed at the edges. The Empire was regarded as the better cinema.

The great sensation of 1956 was the release of the film Rock Around the Clock, a sort of biopic about Bill Hayley and the Comets who had been projected to unlikely stardom by the release of the hit record. Looking back now, I think it was a 'B' movie to end all 'B' movies, hurriedly put together to cha in on the craze.  Bill Haley and his band had been on the road for year and were approaching their late 30s Two of them including Haley himself were balding and Haley had a few strands of his forelock arranged like a question mark on his forehead. The publicists dubbed it a "kiss curl." At any rate it wasn't a Bobby Charlton comb-over.

Even so, they brought a new energy to popular music,, quickly supplanting the mellifluous ballads that were typically crooned at the time. It was a  revolution to us and the Palace was packed with primed teenagers, all pumped up ready to jive in the aisles.

The manager, sensing trouble, came out to warn us that no misbehaviour would be tolerated. In those days that was enough to settle us down.

The filmmakers had hired some dancers to accompany the band in the film  and as jivers they were pretty good. Lots of throwing over the shoulder and hips and swinging under legs. At one moment a female dancer was supported overhead by her crotch and this became too much for one boy, who shouted out,
" 'E's got 'er quim!"
This was greeted by laughter and stamping of feet and another visit from the manager, who stopped the film and put us on final warning.


The Picture Palace was the first of its kind in Wolverton and was erected in 1911. Astonishingly, the building of the Palace took only nine weeks from the laying of the foundation stone to its opening on December 11th 1911. Even in those simpler days this was some feat of organisation and this probably tells us something about the very remarkable man who gave us the Palace Cinema - George Barber.

George Barber was born in 1860 in Tunstall, one of the potteries towns in the worst of imaginable circumstance in Victorian times. He grew up in the Workhouse. The Workhouse was conceived with charitable intent but Victorin attitudes insisted that the charity be earned through work. So the inmates of the workhouse got food and shelter in return for menial and often back-breaking work together with the loss of status that being in the workhouse implied. Many, who out of desperation committed themselves to the workhouse, were single unmarried mothers who had no other support for themselves or their child.

George Barber was not quite in that predicament but at the age of five his father became too ill to work and without any other means of support the family had to commit themselves to the workhouse

For most people that would have meant a miserable life at the lower margins of society, but there was something in George Barber that drove him to rise above his circumstances. He taught himself to read and write and learned mathematics. He learned to play the accordion so that he could earn money in pubs  and as a boy about 12 or 13 went to work in the mines. Later he found work with a chemical manufacturer and advanced to become a chemical and gas engineer.

All of this was in his native town of Tunstall and it was here, in 1909, that he opened his first Picture Place. He was approaching 40 and this was certainly an adventurous phase in his career. This was the new age of cinema and George Barber was ready to take advantage. He had opened a picture house in Bletchley earlier in 1911 and this foray into North Bucks must have brought Wolverton to his attention.

The first showing on December 18th in Wolverton was a film called Zigomar. Not much is known about it except that it was a French production - not that that would have mattered in the silent era - and it was a 3 - reeler. That is the total playing time was about 35 minutes. With reel changes the actual time for the audience would have been about 1 hour. Moving picture were such a great novelty in 1911 that I don't suppose anyone minded at all about some of the things that would bother us today.

George Barber stayed in Tunstall, eventually becoming Mayor of Stoke on Trent, but he sent down a manager, Mr Thomas Moss, to run his Wolverton Picture Palace.

In 1920 a steel girder was installed to span the building so that a larger balcony could be supported. In the same year Barber opened the Scala at Stony Stratford. Thomas Moss moved to Stony to manage the new facility while Jack his son was left to manage the Wolverton Palace.

In 1923 Barber initiated a publicity stunt whereby "messages" were dropped from a plane on June 21st. These messages are essentially numbered tickets and in the weeks following a number was flashed on the screen in the interval. Anyone with a matching number would be entitled to 10s.

The last serious renovations were undertaken in 1935., and although these were extensive - lush seats, new thick pile carpet, by the mid 1950s it was all looking a bit shabby.

George Barber died in 1946 and either around that time or before the theatres were sold.
In 1955 the Palace and the Scala were owned by F W Allwood Theatres who went out of business in July 1955. The cinemas were then acquired by a Mr EV Thomason. He struggled to make them financially viable and did not renew the entertainment licence which expired at the end of 1960. The Palce officially closed on January 23rd 1961 after screening a film called The Tattered Dress.

The property was subsequently acquired by a man called Eddie Green, who owned the California Ballroom in Dunstable. His plan was to convert the Palace into an entertainment and dance centre and he succeeded in getting a music and dancing licence on August 17th 1962. Later he was able to get the premises licensed for the sale of alcohol.

It proved a popular venue and several big names in the entertainment industry of the day made their way to Wolverton.

On weeknights when music and dancing was not allowed Bingo was the min entertainment and indeed, only three years later, in 1965, the South Midland Social and Bingo Club purchased the Palace. The magistrates were increasingly reluctant to grant occasional music and dance licences because of persistent unly behaviour outside the dance hall and eventually the palace settled into becoming a Bingo venue. Zetters acquired the site as a bingo Hall in 1970 until 1999.

I was u for sale for many years until it was acquired by the Pentecostal Church for Faith Ministries.

A some time during these years the awning at the front, which was a useful bus shelter as well as providing some decorative embellishment, was taken down. The building, now painted apple blue looks very stark.

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