FRIENDS OF THEATR COLWYN
A BRIEF (EARLY) HISTORY OF THEATR COLWYN
By Roy Schofield and Joann Rae
Building of the theatre, situated on Abergele Road in the heart of Colwyn Bay, North Wales, commenced in 1885 by the newly formed Public Hall Company.
By the time the building was completed the nearby Iron Church had been destroyed by fire and the congregation moved into the recently completed building, which was now known as the Public Hall.
In July 1888, following the consecration of St Paul’s Church worshippers moved out, releasing the hall to become the venue of a full range of activities which met the need of a rapidly expanding community.
The Town Band held regular concerts and there were church bazaars, charity concerts, religious services and political meetings. Audiences flocked to watch plays and variety shows put on by touring companies.
At such an event, held in January 1889, the theatre enjoyed the first of a long line of famous visitors when the radical, Denbigh based, preacher, printer and proponent of the Welsh language, Thomas Gee, attended a meeting of the local Liberal Party to support its candidate at the forthcoming County Council elections.
Towards the end of the century the Royal Welsh Fusiliers hired the hall for use by its 1st Volunteer Battalion and each year, before Christmas, held a glittering dance and supper.
The hall had been used for the occasional picture show, but in January 1909, the entrepreneur and former music hall star, Harry Reynolds, took on a lease and converted the Public Hall into Colwyn Bay’s first picture house.
Reynolds also ran a troupe of outdoor entertainers. In addition to showing pictures he used the venue not only as a ‘wet weather’ refuge for his ‘Seranaders’ but also as a means of extending their season.
In 1922 Reynolds sold out and for the next 8 years Coastal Cinemas, with former army bandmaster Edward Pittingale as manager operated the building solely as a picture house.
On the 1 January 1924 the new owners changed the name of the building to the Rialto.
In June 1930 the first talkie, ‘The Hideout’, was shown, but by then, audience levels had fallen. The owners changed the format to expensive variety shows to try to win back support, but it was to no avail.
In December 1930 the building was completely destroyed by fire. It remained a shell for several years until in 1936 it was reopened initially as a venue for an Ideal Home Exhibition and later as the home of a successful summer season variety show.
Although it had re-opened under its old name, the Public Hall. On the 30 May the title ‘New Rialto’ was adopted.
In November 1936 Stanley Ravenscroft moved his Repertory Company from Warrington’s’ Royal Court Theatre, leased the building for a 9 week period and commenced an association with the Rialto Theatre which lasted for 22 years.
The quality of the company was extremely high. It attracted not only a loyal audience of local supporters, but also, many up and coming members of the stage profession.
Additionally, theatre critics such as George Fearon, usually the scourge of rep companies, wrote rave reviews and famous playwrights of the time were seen regularly not only in the audience, but also appearing in their own plays.
During the war years the company kept going. They did additional war charity performances such as the Town’s Spitfire Appeal fund when they performed with the comedian Rob Wilton. Also cast members travelled to the BBC studios at Bangor to take part in radio plays.
Throughout the war years the stage manager was Jack Howarth later to be Coronation Street favourite Albert Tatlock.
Until 1951 the Ravenscroft Company performed, with only Sundays off, throughout the year. Unfortunately in its final years support dwindled and the company performed during the summer season until in 1958, due to ill-health Ravenscroft was forced to close the rep and retire.
The New Rialto wasn’t closed for long, for in January 1959, the Council purchased the building for £12,500 from the Public Hall Company.
It was originally intended to name the building the ‘Colwyn Bay Theatre’, but it only lasted until the next council meeting when Councillor K Schofield’s motion to change the title to ‘Prince of Wales’ was easily carried.
In June 1959, after extensive alterations, the theatre re-opened with a season of plays performed by their own repertory company.
Under the directorship of Geoffrey Hastings the actors performed well and 33,000 turned out to watch an extended season giving an average of 59% capacity.
After over 10 years the repertory was replaced by a succession of stage shows, with Charles Dance making his stage debut during the final rep season.
Some featuring Stan Stennett, Ivor Emmanuel and a young Gary Wilmot enjoyed success. Others failed, but throughout the Councils overall philosophy was they must keep the theatre to attract visitors to the town.
Outside the summer season the theatre was used by local drama and musical companies. It became the venue for the then famous Colwyn Bay Drama Festival and over the Christmas periods laid the foundation for the standard of its excellent pantomimes which it still enjoys today.
In 1991, at the suggestion of the assistant chief executive and as part of a package to create a modern image, the building was renamed Theatr Colwyn.
In April 1996, when the County Borough of Conwy was formed, it took over responsibility for the Theatr Colwyn.
Since then money has been spent re-introducing cinema equipment, with modern and classic films being shown frequently for the first time since 1930.
With its current active professional staff aided by a vibrant Friends organisation Theatr Colwyn continues to provide a crucially important role in the community.
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