Demolition of a Princess
The demolition of the Princess Cinema in Hemel Hempstead
By Alan French
When I first moved to Hemel Hempstead from Islington, there were two thriving cinemas in the town. The Luxor (formerly the New Aero) and the Princess. Both were owned by Shipman and King. (This information is corrected later in item to Southan Morris) My new home was an old Tudor farm house in Belswains Lane. What land reduced in size remained belonging to Belswains Farm, was utilised for the storing, and selling of, items from my relations’ demolition business.
Barn in strategic position
Today, what is now known as Oliver Close, is all that remains. But physically, there is still part of the old property there. It basically consists of two low cement walls. One of these walls is tapered. Along part of this tapered wall was a barn. Evidence suggested that this barn had been a stable. But why I mention this building is because the side where the tapered wall was constructed, faced the bus stop opposite. This put the stable barn in a strategic position for advertising. Shipman and King each week, had posters pasted here, advertising what was on at their local cinemas. This resulted in the families dwelling in Belswains Farm House having a complimentary ticket.
One thing that struck me about the Luxor and Princess, was that the latter seemed to be the poor relation. For years, there had been talk of a new cinema. This came to fruition in the summer of 1960. Oddly, it was the Luxor which closed first. The following week, the Odeon opened. This was owned by the Rank organisation. I was not happy with the Rank organisation’s advertising presentation. This was due to the fact that their posters were stuck on specially designed boards. None of these boards appeared on the stable barn wall. This meant that I had to pay when visiting the Odeon.
The Odeon, was not far from the Princess, and possibly looked more super slick against its competitor. Therefore, to some, the Princess became in comparison, to some people, even more, the poor relation. However, it did a good job. It was an alternative cinema when the Odeon was full and had an overspill. It also became fierce competition when ‘The Rebel’ was shown, starring Tony Hancock. But it was doomed to close in 1962. Its last film was ‘The Errand Boy’ starring Jerry Lewis. The ‘B’ film was ‘Hey! Let’s’ Twist!’ starring Joey Dee and the Starliters.
The Princess’ metaphoric death sentence was carried out by my relations in the demolition business. I visited the cinema for the last time, one Saturday morning. Demolition was in process. The large wide screen, had been removed, thus revealing a previous small screen. It seemed strange. Some of the wall panellings being scaled and demolished, were in turn, revealing film posters. It was possibly that day Tarzan’s operatic yodel was heard for the last time at this cinema. It was voiced by both one of my older cousins in jest, as well as myself.
At length, I entered the projection room. It was here that I started to gaze at what I believed to be trade publications. They contained details of films for hire. I read with both interest and nostalgia some of their content. This in some ways could be considered a farewell finale, and reminder of cinematic gems that hopefully had thrilled audiences in the past. My absorption was itense. But then I sensed something was wrong. A strange feeling came over me. The men had finished work. I realised that I was the only one in the building. And so I left the Princess cinema for the last time. I regret I did not film the visit with my Kodak Brownie cine camera.
The Princess had survived the silent film era. In the 1950s, bravely for a whole week, it showed the controversial film, ‘Rock around the Clock’. This film had turned the whole of society upside down and caused social upheaval. It had frightened some British cinemas in thinking that teddy boys might adjust the fixtures on the seats, as had happened elsewhere, so that they could dance to the film’s musical sequences.
Wide screen facilities were installed in 1956 prior to the Luxor. The first big film in this format projected at the Princess being ‘Cockleshell Heroes’. But like many other cinemas of the day, it faced the prospect of closure. A threat of which it did not survive.
Some cinemas survive
Cinemas have continued despite competition. In fact the tide seemed to have turned during the 1980s with increased audiences. At this time, nearby Berkhamsted was fighting to keep its sole remaining cinema, the Rex. This did close. But despite this, after many years of battle, it re-opened. Here, there is a success story.
The Odeon in Hemel Hempstead, whittled down to a bingo facility, which showed films for a small portion of the week until a new cinema was opened in the Leisure World complex at Jarman Park. The original Odeon in our town centre is now a pub called the Full House.
Somehow, despite closures, cinematic industries still continue in one form or another. At least, if the local cinemas ever did close, I am sure there will be somewhere in the area for film buffs. The Hemel Hempstead Movie Makers maybe?
Alan French, 2009
P.S. Did you know that former member of Hemel Hempstead Movie Makers, Tony Rogers, was projectionist at the Luxor, and our honoury member, Alan Willmot at the Princess? A lot of people don’t know that.
Someone from Britmovie has kindly pointed out that there is an error in the above article. I thought that I would turn the correction into the following footnote:-
Oh! Dear! I am guilty of something of which I am critical of others. I have made a mistake on my ‘Demolition of a princess’ article.
I stated that the owners of this cinema were Shipman and King. Someone who, like me, is a member of Britmovie, has kindly pointed out that this was not the case. The last two owners were Southan Morris who sold out to the Essoldo. This explains why the Essoldo at Watford was referred to on our barn wall.
I know that some of my blogs have been edited after submission, but in this case I should have known better as this was definitely my mistake. I will wear sackcloth and ashes until the next meeting. However, having some misty memory of seeing on some early twentieth century Gazette, via microfilm, something about under new ownership, I have consulted a history book in the local studies area in the library and have come up with some other names.
W.H. Barton Esher was the architect of the Princess Cinema. The owners were Mr. George Allanston and Walter Greey. The man described as the operator was ex-policeman Wally Pratt. He worked in boiler suit and smart uniform. Miss Floe Allaston (Allanston?) in the pay box. Albert Tavener dashed about and was the boss. Percy Tavener stood at the entrance and tore the tickets in half. Sid Tavener went around with the chocolate tray. George Motherwell was pianist. There was a projectionist and a lad, George Miller, who later was manager.
In 1925 Captain F.A. Webb acquired the Princess Cinema. The owner/s after that are not referred to by name, but the cinema started projecting ‘talkies’ as from Boxing Day 1930. Circa 1943, the cinema was then acquired by S.M. Super Cinemas, a circuit operated by Southan Morris. There is reference to a second projectionist named Les Bowie who years later won an Oscar for the special effects on Superman. The year 1968 quoted in the book is incorrect. The film was not out until circa 1978.
Both the nearby Luxor and Princess became part of the Essoldo group in 1954. However, it was forced to close in 1962, due to a compulsory purchase order.
Source of references: ‘Cinemas In Hertfordshire’ by Allen Eyles with Keith Skone. Who in turn also refer to Bill Groom reader of Hemel Hempstead Gazette together with Tony Rogers and Alan Willmott. But more importantly, Earl B of Britmovie for pointing out the error of my ways.
This article originally appeared on Alan’s Blog on the Hemel Movie Makers website hemelmoviemakers.org.uk.
Britmovie website http://www.britmovie.co.uk/