Gaiety Cinema – domed or doomed?

The old Gaiety Cinema on City Road is under threat of demolition again.  Admittedly the iconic domes don’t look at their best any longer.  Maybe with some tasteful renovation they could be incorporated into a modern structure making a real feature in this historic street, formerly known as Plwcca Lane, the Castle Road and now City Road. Join us as we take a look at the history of the Gaiety.

Gaiety Cinema, Roath, Cardiff
The Gaiety Grand in 1913 not long after it had been opened.

Assessing the Gaiety Cinema building in 1995, John Newman refers to it as “presenting an appearance of gay abandon” a marked contrast to its appearance in 2020.  Built in 1910 and originally planned as a roller skating rink and cinema the building is listed by Cardiff Council in its List of Local Buildings of Merit (no 297). The Gaiety opened in 1912 with a seating capacity of 800. The picture of the cinema in 1913 advertises the main feature as ‘Thor, lord of the jungles’ (1913)   A feature of the design is a pair of small art deco domes on either side of the entrance. The words “The Gaiety” were inscribed above the entrance within a curved head mould.  There was also some swag detail  on the upper façade.

The Gaiety Grand Cinema was opened by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Morgan Thomas J P for the Splott (Cardiff) Cinema Co. a group of Cardiff business men who eventually owned 7 or 8 cinemas in the suburbs of Cardiff and who by 1913 had changed the name to the Gaiety Electric Theatre.  The then manager was a Mr J Schlentheim.

Gaiety Cinema, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
Gaiety Cinema, City Road, Roath, around 1912

Between 1920 and 1923 plans were submitted for alterations to the roof and the gallery seating.  As with most cinemas of the time there were two programmes each week, half the chain showing a film on Monday, Tuesday and  Wednesday and passing it to the remaining cinemas on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  All cinemas were closed on Sundays until the early 1960’s. Unlike today you could enter the cinema at any time, even in the middle of a film and stay to the end of a following screening.  Again like most cinemas there were Saturday morning matinees for children.

By the 1930’s there was growing concern about the influence of the Hollywood film industry.  Film going in the United Kingdom was most popular in Northern England, Scotland and Wales.  Data on consumer expenditure in the 1930’s indicates that the average Welsh household devoted 14.4% of their household expenditure on going to the cinema, well above the national average.  In Cardiff the most luxurious cinemas were to be found in Queen Street. The Empire was converted to a cinema in c1933 and The Capitol had opened its doors in 1920. The Queen’s cinema was less pretentious, but in 1929 presented Al Jolson in The Singing Fool, the first “talkie” film released in 1927.  By this time The Gaiety had been open for over 15 years and by 1934 had been remodelled and enlarged by William S Wort an architect who increased the seating capacity to 1518.

Gaiety Cinema, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
The Gaiety with it’s neon advertising signs (Picture: ITV Wales)

Renamed as The Gaiety Cinema, prices in the late 1940’s ranged from 1/6d to 2/6d. Plans were submitted for alterations to the toilets and to have neon lighting fitted. Thousands of leaflets were distributed each month advertising forthcoming programmes.  By the 1950’s cinema attendance was 45% higher than in 1934 and the British are the world’s most avid film goers.  In 1956 The Gaiety Cinema becomes part of the Jackson Withers Circuit, an alias for the Cardiff banker, Sir Julian Hodge, but by 1961 it had closed and reopened as a 7 Day Bingo Hall until 1994. Initially part of the Coral Bingo Hall network, by 1991 was part of Top Rank.  Edith Pearce had visited the cinema many times as a child and was later employed in the Bingo Hall.  She observes that in her opinion one of the failures of the Gaiety’s design were the two shops on either side of the entrance.  Rented out to independent retailers, they continuously changed hands, both in the cinema and bingo eras.

Gaiety Bingo Hall, City Road, Cardiff

Following a planning application to become a public house in 1998, which was withdrawn, the building was taken over by Spin Bowling Ltd in 2001. After an extensive renovation it became ‘The Spin Bar and Bowling Centre’, now having two floors,  a Ten pin bowling alleys and a bar and restaurant area. Sadly it closed in 2006.  A planning application to re-open as a bar, entailing further alterations, was rejected by Cardiff Council in 2007. The building remained empty and  visibly deteriorating.  In 2012 an anarchist group called the Gremlins break into the building and set up ‘The Gremlin Alley Social centre’. They are later evicted.

Gaiety, City Road, Cardiff
Interior of the Gaiety (picture credit: David W. J. Lloyd)

An evaluation of the state of the building was made in 2014 , when ripped  out piping, crumbling walls and a floor covered with needles were found. Councillor Mary McGary then proposed a compulsory purchase order which would have allowed Cardiff Council to dispose of the  site with the consent of the owner. The proposal was rejected due to lack of funding.  

Gaiety cinema, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
Interior shots of the Gaiety. All were taken when the building ceased being a cinema but some of the original features probably remain (photo credits: 1. David W. J. Lloyd, 2-4 Leighton Parker).

In 2015 the Wales United Housing Association began negotiations with the then owners Bonnes Mares Ltd to buy the property. Their proposal was to demolish the building and to construct 40+ affordable flats on the site.  By 2018 ownership appeared to have changed again and the new owners the MSG Group apply to Cardiff Council for a demolition order to demolish the building on 1 Aug 2019.  Recently developer Bonnes Mares has applied for planning permission from Cardiff Council for a temporary car park on the site but has not stated how long this would be for.

Young people will probably find it hard to believe that in the days when the Gaiety opened the films didn’t have any sound.  Theatres had pipe organs to provide music and sound effects to accompany the silent film.  Should, heaven forbid, the domes ever be demolished, then maybe someone should set themselves up on the pavement opposite with an organ to provide appropriate musical accompaniment in true Monty Python style.  Fingers crossed that will never happen.  

Gaiety Bingo, City Road, Roath, Cardiff
Gaiety Bingo Club in the early 1970s.