Work began on the Abergele Road building in 1885, by the newly formed Public Hall Company. The first group recorded as using the hall was the congregation of St Paul’s Church, whose Iron Church had burnt down. Services were held at the hall until 1888. The venue was also used for a wide range of events including glittering military balls held by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, political rallies, shadowgraph shows, and illustrated lectures and, after 1901, plays direct from London’s West End. The Public Hall also became the ‘public’ face of the world famous Congo Institute, based nearby. Reverend William Hughes, its founder, was also minister of the still standing Welsh Baptist Church, which is a few doors away Theatr Colwyn.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the venue was taken over by the impresario and performer Harry Reynolds, already a famous face in Colwyn Bay with his ‘Serenaders’ minstrel troupe. By January 1909, he’d had the Public Hall converted into Colwyn Bay’s first ‘picture house’ with the installation of the electric light and a modern auditorium, after obtaining a one of the first proper licences to screen moving pictures.
On January 25, 1909, under the name of ‘Harry Reynolds Unrivalled Animated Pictures’ he screened several short films, which included A Fairy Godmother, A Bad Pinch of Snuff, Lady Jane’s Flight and The Misdeeds of a Sack of Coal. Tickets to sit in the newly installed tip-up seats were 1 shilling, the cheaper seats priced at 6 pence and 3 pence. This makes Theatr Colwyn the oldest operating cinema in the UK, with a film history that dates back 102 years. Reynolds stayed, with his minstrels performing at the venue during wet weather, until 1922 when he sold the business to Coastal Cinemas and the name was changed to The Rialto.
Sadly, even the advent of the ‘talkies’ could not save the business under its new management and the venue closed at the end of 1930. Then disaster struck when a fire tore through the roof of the Rialto, causing it to fall into the auditorium. It wasn’t until 1936 that a new stage and roof were put in and it reopened as The New Rialto Repertory Theatre, under the leadership of actor/manager Stanley Ravenscroft. He leased the building initially for 9 weeks, but stayed for 22 years!
He remains the most elusive piece of the puzzle in our historical research on the venue. We know little about him, but then most of the people who worked with him during his two decades at the venue knew little about him. A most enigmatic character, who lived ‘over the shop’ in his flat over the auditorium, with his black cat, he created a theatrical company of such high repute that the entire Old Vic company, led by the grand dame of British theatre, Dame Sybil Thorndike, came to watch their performances.
Many of the actors who worked at ‘the Rep’ as it was known, went on to great things. Patrick Desmond later discovered the playwright John Osborne, whilst Pauline Jameson was spotted performing in Colwyn Bay and offered a role in a West End play. She went on to become a personal friend of such luminaries as Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and was hailed as one of the leading classical actresses of her generation.
During World War Two, the population of Colwyn Bay received an unexpected boost when thousands of Ministry of Food employees moved to the town. Audiences at ‘the Rep’ surged and demand for shows was higher than ever. At that particular time, the stage manager’s job was held by Jack Howarth, who would later go on to play the famous Albert Tatlock in Coronation Street.
Ravenscroft left the theatre business in 1951, due to ill health, but it wasn’t until 1959 the council bought the building and it became known as The Prince of Wales, with a new repertory company, led by another well-known London theatre manager, Geoffrey Hastings. Again, the rep was a massive success – in just a few months an incredible 33,000 people came to see the productions! During the next 4 decades, rep was to feature heavily again in the programming at the theatre, with one of the seasons featuring performances from a then unknown actor by the name of Charles Dance!
In 1991, as part of a modernisation programme, the name of the venue changed again, this time to Theatr Colwyn and five years later Conwy County Borough Council formed and took over responsibility for the venue. Since then, the cinema has been re-introduced and is now a firm favourite with patrons. It co-exists alongside the live theatre programme, so films are now an established feature again, alongside drama productions, dance, gigs, musicals, amateur theatre and school shows. Theatr Colwyn now also has its own popular recording studio and band rehearsal room.
By Roy Schofield & Joann Rae