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The Empire - Ropewalk Neath

Company registered in October 1926 as:  Neath Empire Cinema and Variety Company Ltd.   £1,000 in Capital held by unnamed directors of the company.

The company was formed to run the nearly completed cinema in the Ropewalk.

Neath Empire opened in October 1926.   The cinema which must have taken over from the promised Vint's Hippodrome.

The Managing Director of the cinema was Mr Cecil R Hedge.   Shows were booked at the hall, and they consisted of films and variety.

Prices of admission were from 6d. to 1/3d.   At first shows were theatrical pattern of twice nightly.

From the beginning this was considered to be 'the' place of entertainment in the town.  The stage was not vast, but had a procenium of 25 feet.

By 1930, the Empire was being run with three shows each day.   The dance hall below the auditorium, and cafe were well in peoples minds for entertainment.   Now 'talkies' were well establised in the cinema.

In late October 1931, Neath gained the first true 'Cinema Organ' at the Empire with the installation of a 2 manual 6 rank Christie organ with the console mounted on a lift so that it could rise into view for interludes.

The organ may have been ordered before 'talkies' came, this is not known, but it proved to be a boon for many years.    One novel feature was the opening of the organ, which was done by the Mayor.   Instead of the usual drab speech, he was given a key, which he inserted into a box on the stage.   The act of turning the key switched on the power, and the console lift began to rise with the organist playing - 'giving a new look to an otherwise drab ceremony'  being a comment from the Bioscope Magazine.

The organ was played on the opening by Jack (Courtney) Taylor.   It was then played for regular interludes.

In 1936 mid-summer the Neath Empire saw some re-bulding work, reopening that November with a seating capacity of 1,300.

When the war was declared in 1939, all cinemas closed from the 3rd September but re-opened within a week or two for business, but with a blackout in force. Shows finished earlier in the evenings, with no lights showing outside.

Around this this time the price of admission were from 6d to 1/6d with the cinema opening at 2pm. daily with the dance hall and cafe well used.

By the end of hostilities, the company was to become part of South Wales Cinemas and was run from the Albert Hall in Swansea - but continue it did.

After this period the down turn in cinemas began and the organ went into some disuse.  The Empire in the early 1950's ran three-dimentional films as one of the attempts to counter the threat from television which was developing nationally from 1948.   Television viewing figures increased still further in 1953 when the Queen's coronation took place.

The cinema trade sought re-vamped 'old' methods such as stereoscopy in an attempt to attract customer, but the necessary wearing of special glasses to view such films was not popular.

In 1954 CinemaScope came along, which was a very wide screen format, developed from another 'old' invention.    This brought 'Epic' films starring Richard Burton in "The Robe".    Many other similar films if this type were shown, including many good musicals which seemed to stem the tide away from the cinemas for a while.

In the late 1950's the prices of admission were steadily rising, from between 9d. up to 2/9., then by pennies to 1/- to 2/10d. - even to 3/2d. for the dearer seats.

Because of the wide screen format, the seating had been reduced to 1,274 with the loss of some of the front rows.

Soon Bingo came along after the change in the gaming laws in 1960 and films were gradually phased out.   Bingo sessions continued until October 2009 but as the result of the smoking ban in Wales, in enclosed buildings, from 2nd April 2007,  attendances decreased to the point where closure had to be considered.

The last Bingo session took place on St.Valentines day in 2010 after a final attempt to revive the Bingo club - who now meet as a smaller group in one of the town's social clubs.

The Empire building was put up for sale in 2011 with an asking price of £400,000 for the freehold.   It was bought at the end of the year by the Swansea based Coastal Housing Group  after they investigated the possible change of use for social housing. It was aquired for an undisclosed sum, with an alleged grant from an unknown source.

Demolition started in June 2012 after much concern by various groups who thought that the building would make an ideal art and crafts centre, a youth centre or community centre.    The layout of the building could have been suitable for all these options, which were simply ignored by the town's councillors.

The cost of demolition is likely to exceed the cost of refurbishment for community use.

Information sourced from records held at Neath Public Library with additional information from other local sources.
June 2012.

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