PLAZA historical moments:
IN THE BEGINNING…
Plaza was originally built to replace a smaller cinema further down Talbot Road that was destroyed by fire while showing the film FireFly in 1936. The new bigger cinema next to the train station was to be a joint venture between Cardiff developers/theatre owners and the Odeon Company with the intention to become an “ODEON” cinema in 1939, however owing to the war it was never completed fully on time and the Odeon Company pulled out of the partnership selling their interests in the theatre.
As such, it never opened as an “ODEON” and became “PLAZA”. The Odeon Group, in turn, took over the recently completed “Majestic” in Forge Road and renamed that cinema “ODEON” even though it never looked like an “ODEON” whereas Plaza eventually did look like one from the outside when it was fully completed.
The first film at Plaza was “Babes In Arms” with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in April 1940. The theatre opened somewhat incomplete as the outbreak of the Second World War meant that there was an embargo on many decorative materials available. Consequently, much of the building, such as windows, doors, the famous cream tiles and even the sign “Plaza” itself weren’t installed until building restrictions were lifted after 1950.
Plaza seated 1,600 people and would generally play films from Warner Bros, MGM, British Lion and EMI, with all other film company’s films playing at Port Talbot’s other “first run” cinemas ODEON and Grand, and there were other cinemas in the town too.
It had an ingenious “air cooling” system pumped near the stage into the auditorium and used the luxurious “Ambassador” seating system, some of which were still in use on Plaza’s final day in 1999.
The Plaza building also had two small shops created either side of the exterior foyer, one of which was initially used for “advance bookings”, the other eventually became a small cafe when construction was finally completed in the early 1950s.
For eighteen to twenty years from 1940 to the late 1950s, the cinema was moderately successful but always played second fiddle to the ODEON group who now ran two other cinemas in Port Talbot, the Majestic (in Forge Road) and the Regent (at Taibach).
DECLINE OF CINEMA
Cinema admissions in Britain had grown massively since 1945, however ten years later the tide had started to turn and a long slow decline in attendances started throughout the late 1950s and 1960s with the arrival of television sets.
After Port Talbot’s Grand, Regent and ODEON cinemas decided to stop showing films in the mid 1960s and early 1970s, Plaza then had a free reign on all the film distributor’s product and enjoyed a run of adult audience prosperity during the 1970s. However, family popularity largely eluded it.
Nationally, admissions to cinema had further declined during the 1970s owing to the arrival of colour television, and as such Plaza became largely only open in the evenings as many of the staff had other full-time jobs in the daytime. As a result, Plaza was unable to really capitalise on the new found Disney, Columbia and 20th Century Fox family audiences that came their way after ODEONs closure.
Plaza was never being open in the afternoons, not even on Saturdays or school holidays, and it was closed totally on Sundays. Because of this, youngsters hardly ever went to the cinema in Port Talbot in the late 70s/early 80s and so the next generation of cinema-goers was not being nurtured. However, great strides were made in the projection room, and very clever Philips “pulsator” type lamps with water cooling were used to replace the old carbon rods that previously gave the light source on screen.
By 1981, Plaza’s fortunes had waned further with home video initially causing a massive dent in cinema attendances. Films at Plaza now were now only being run on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings with bingo being played on other days. A new larger screen was installed along with further modifications of the projection equipment, but this was all to no avail. The cinema, running part-time, was doomed.
Finally, in June 1983, the last film was announced as Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman and the theatre then became used exclusively for bingo for the next two years. Bingo had peaked in Britain, however, and the 1980s recession hit Port Talbot hard, so in July 1985 it was “all over” for Plaza as the bingo’s last call was heard leaving the building “boarded up” and unused for the first time in over 40 years.
RE-BIRTH OF PLAZA
Around the UK in 1985, cinema was having a massive revival thanks to “British Film Year” where the audiences were being told that cinema was the “Best Place To See A Film”. This heralded the start of Plaza’s most exciting period ever… 1985 onward…!
A young management Team, including one with local cinema experience, secured a lease for the Plaza building in August 1985, and in a blaze of publicity re-opened in October as a “full time cinema” with films running three times a day, seven days a week (more than ever before).The first film, Disney’s Peter Pan, enjoyed one of the busiest weeks in the cinema’s 45 year history attracting over 10,000 people. Plaza’s future became secured.
In 1986, Plaza had significant improvements made bouyed on by the huge admissions and big film offers (sometimes running concurrent with London) and they increased the seating capacity, upgraded the carpets, lighting and installed what was billed as “The most modern sound system in Wales” – a Dolby Stereo system costing over £10,000 (a huge amount in 1986).
In order to counteract the problems encountered during the 1970s and early 1980s when young people didn’t attend the cinema in Port Talbot regularly, Plaza (being a single screen cinema) would now play different “mid-morning” films for all the family every Saturday if their main film playing the rest of the day was a “15″ or “18″ certificate.
By mid 1986, the popularity of these Saturday morning films had mushroomed and so in September Plaza launched what was to become it’s legendary “Saturday Club” with weekly programmes from the Children’s Film Foundation. This was to include cartoons, cliffhanger “serials” and fun stage work with weekly prizes, all interspersed with fun and laughter brought to the weekly 500+ attendees by a black cladded “hoodie” weilding custard pies at the children during random parts of the performance! This mysterious creature became affectionately known as “The Phantom Of The Plaza”, a pastiche on The Phantom Of The Opera and Tiswas’ Phantom Flan Flinger! Plaza Saturday Club (later known as Saturday Cinema) ran until early 1990 when it was dropped owing to the cinema no longer needing “alternative programmes” for children after the installation of extra screens playing “multiple choice” films.
The decision to add more screens was always on the back-burner and was being discussed as a future option when it would have been possible to finance such a scheme correctly, but it was a local competitor that ended up causing these plans to be rushed forward without a proper business plan, and this then became the cause of Plaza’s financial woes that would often plague the cinema until the end of it’s life.
Following on from the success of Plaza’s re-opening, another smaller cinema in Port Talbot (Picturedrome Taibach) re-opened and a battle emerged on who would show which big films. With Plaza only being one screen at the time, it was difficult to play all titles or to keep films for longer than one or two weeks.
In January 1988 a problem was encountered in the fact the the film Fatal Attraction was playing to an excess of 2,000 people a day with no signs of waning. Plaza was under contract to play “Predator” from 20th Century Fox but instead decided to “retain” Paramount Pictures’ “Fatal Attraction” by public demand. 20th Century Fox were furious, and instead offered the film to the Picturedrome.
In order to avoid this situation happening again, Plaza used the huge takings coming in from Fatal Attraction to hurridly build a second screen which they managed to get open in record quick time in February. A further screen again was added later that Autumn but the spending spree, along with new expensive Lease arrangements, had put Plaza’s finances into a precarious state and the partnership that had re-opened the cinema in 1985 came to an end in November 1988, leaving just one of the former team in charge.
BOOM AND BUST
Business still remained very brisk with 1989 being the most successful year in the cinema’s history ever – sometimes attracting over 5,000 people in one day aided by Batman and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. But with bank interest rates running massively high it became difficult to sustain the debt caused by turning Plaza into a “multi-screen” cinema in 1988 and 1989 which had cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Plaza was once again the only cinema in Port Talbot, after Picturedrome had closed to films. But a new type of “American” cinema was about to invade the area with the opening of a ten-screen multiplex cinema in Swansea. Surprisingly, the dip in admissions at Plaza was only minimal after the arrival of UCI Swansea, but it was enough to cause severe pressure on the debt repayments which had been aggravated by further misguided and almost un-needed foyer and front-of-house improvements made in the Spring of 1990. By May 1990 the firm announced that their lease was “for sale”, and all staff were given notice.
Whilst there were three offers of substantial amounts from two cinema firms, the largest offer came from a bingo company who wanted to cease all film exhibition at the cinema immediately. Contracts came very close to being signed and the last film rolled (Nuns On the Run) in June 1990 ready for a “hand-over”. One week later it was decided that one of the former partners would return instead, and the business was re-financed and re-opened as a cinema with Dick Tracy in July 1990.
The cinema then run profitably and very successfully for another nine years and saw some incredible attendances on films such as The Silence Of the Lambs, Jurassic Park, Mrs Doubtfire, Toy Story, The Flinstones, The Lion King and Independence Day. Some films, such as Ghost and Shirley Valentine managed to run for over six months!This showed a huge reversal of fortune for cinema in Port Talbot, with Ghost completing over 500 performances since it started in 1990, and yet a decade earlier The Empire Strikes back had only managed four performances during its’ ENTIRE run at Plaza.
Plaza was now the only cinema between Swansea and Cardiff and was ideally located to capitalise on that fact.The recession of 1992 and the opening of the M4 “missing link” to Swansea combined with the launch of the National Lottery did affect business in the mid-to-late 1990s, but largely Plaza would always weather the changes and come back fighting. Normally the cinema would have great promotional campaigns to keep the crowds local who, for now at least, loved the traditional feel of Plaza with it’s huge front of house displays and theatrical looking auditoria with spotlights and giant sweeping screen curtains.
However, despite Plaza still attracting big crowds, these had started to become sparodic and as such it was a very difficult business to keep financed.
Some further refurbshment and modernisation continued into the 1990s, including air cooling of the smaller screens, new seating, larger screen pictures, new sound systems and new toilets, but the exterior of the building was now starting to look tired especially after a major storm in January 1998 had damaged the exterior’s appearance by ripping down the giant poster frame and the huge rooftop chimney.
With the announcement of the impending multiplexes at Bridgend and Port Talbot seafront, it was evident that further hundreds of thousands of pounds would need to be spent to upgrade again on a “gamble” that Plaza may or may not survive the new competition. It was decided instead to open another Plaza cinema further West Wales, and to “see how things went” in Port Talbot.
1998 had been a very busy first half of the year for Plaza with there being so few cinemas in South West Wales following the closure of Swansea ODEON in December 1997. But by the autumn of 1998, ODEON had opened their new cinema off the M4 on the outskirts of Bridgend causing a devastating blow to Plaza’s admissions which suddenly fell to less than 40 a day.
Whereas the bland American themed UCI cinema in Swansea hadn’t really affected Plaza’s admissions, the much plusher ODEON at Bridgend now offered all the showmanship that Plaza also gave but in much more modern surroundings. It was impossible to compete. The drop in admissions resulted in the film distributors not offering “first run” new releases to Plaza any longer, and the writing was on the wall when Columbia Pictures, who had always had a chequered relationship with the cinema, demanded £10,000 “up-front” for Godzilla.
After October “half-term” in 1998, The Plaza Film Theatres Firm decided to finally and sadly make all staff redundant at their Port Talbot cinema, and a “pause” was given to film exhibition after “The Truman Show” in early November. At this stage some sketchy plans were in place to move the films onto the upper floor and to rent off the ground floor as a nightclub or bingo hall, however the accountants advised against it and the decision was made to keep the Port Talbot cinema closed and to concentrate on the new West Wales cinema only.
It was felt that Plaza had not been given a fitting “swansong” and so in late November, just before the Apollo Cinema opened on Aberafan seafront, the electricity was reconnected and the cinema returned for a final six weeks to be run solely by the management and their families.
The last weeks saw the cinema actually make much more money than the new Apollo cinema with packed houses and sell-outs from school bookings and coach parties.The final week’s line-up of Antz, The Siege, Babe Pig In the City, Small Soldiers and The Prince Of Egypt became the cinema’s final well publicised “farewell” in January 1999.
As the credits rolled for the last time on the very last film in the main large auditorium, hundreds in the audience sat in silence refusing to leave until the curtains had closed and the lights came on. As a mark of respect, no “exit music” was played after the film finished, and the audience were left to troop from the cinema in silence (apart from the sobbing heard from many of the crowd).
A true part of Port Talbot had died that night, and in recent years the building has fallen into shocking disrepair. However, most remember Plaza as being a hive of wonderful activity, one which brought millions of people to Port Talbot from outside the area, and one which remains unrivalled in showmanship by many of today’s soulless multiplexes.
Plaza truly was…The Main Attraction!
“We’ve got to get you back to 1985!” – BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
With thanks to Alex Jones for this excellent write-up of the cinema’s history.