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The Albert Hall,  Swansea (formally The Music Hall) is facing the biggest crisis in its long history. It closed as a Mecca Bingo Hall in 2007 and in the years since is showing signs of decay. Swansea theatre and cinema enthusiast Ian Howells is leading a campaign to restore the venue to its former glory.

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The Music Hall, which opened in Cradock Street in 1864, aimed to be a particularly high class example of the rapidly developing music hall scene of the

time.It featured a wide variety of attractions. The first music halls were specially built rooms above or alongside pubs.In many cases the entertainment was provided free of charge as long as the customer bought sufficient food and drink. From the beginning therefore, music halls were considered more suitable for the lower classes and not respectable enough for the gentry. Gradually they gave way to the more family-friendly variety theatres. The Swansea Music Hall acquired a major business rival within five years, when a new, proper variety theatre opened. However in the early 1870s the Swansea Music Hall, still a new building, saw its business collapse through lack of support. Obviously, some major changes were needed. Eventually it relaunched itself as a more serious musical venue. Staging classical concerts, choral events, religious meetings and musical evenings. In 1874 the Music Hall was host to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, was a group of black Americans raising money for the Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. The Fisk University was established after the American Civil War to provide university education for freed black slaves. Over 1,500 people attended the Swansea concert, making it one of the most successful of a UK tour. Swansea citizens were highly praised for their generosity and support. It soon created its own specialised market. In 1881 it underwent some refurbishment and re-opened with a new name: the Albert Hall. It was intended that this new name – echoing the name of the 11-year-old national concert hall, built in Kensington as a memorial to the Queen’s Consort – would emphasise the respectability of the premises and disassociate it from its earlier few years. On August 14, 1884 The Stage reported:

Madame Adelina Patti, assisted by Madamoiselle Castellan, violin; Signor icolini, Signor Bonetti, Signor Tito Mattei and Mr Josiah Pitman gave a morning performance at the Albert Hall to raise funds on behalf of Swansea Hospital. This is the second time, within a comparatively short period, that Adelina Patti and her friends have come forward in a similar manner to assist this deserving institution, and this fact has endeared her to the townspeople of Swansea, who accorded her a hearty welcome by an ample display of bunting on the route from the railway station to the concert hall, which, it need hardly be added, was crowded with a delighted and enthusiastic audience. At the conclusion of the entertainment the fair cantatrice

was warmly thanked in person by Sir H Vivian

Hussey for the generosity displayed by herself and friends, and she returned to the station en-route forher Welsh residence, Craig-y-nos, loudly cheered by the crowds assembled to do her honour.”

Another great moment of respectability came on August 3, 1899, when the legendary Adelina Patti gave a one night charity concert at the Albert Hall. She sang The Nightingale’s Trill, The Jewel Song, Quand Tu Chantes and Home Sweet Home. She was received by the Mayor and Corporation at the railway station and escorted to the venue. Other performers were Richard Green and Hirwin Jones and Marianna and Clara Eissler. The concert raised over £600. The Albert Hall survived into the 20th Century. Its role as a concert hall for Swansea was replaced when the Brangwyn Hall – a purpose built concert auditorium opened in 1934. However, before that the Albert Hall had become a cinema — firstly a home for the ‘silents’ and then the ‘Talkies’. Like so many theatres and cinemas, the Albert Hall hit hard times in the last quarter of the 20th Century – the age of television

– and became a bingo club. The building still exists – happily with a preservation order – as one of the hidden gems of Swansea’s historical past. Unfortunately the Albert Hall closed as a bingo venue in April 2007 – a casualty of the smoking ban in public places – its future is uncertain, but let’s hope it has not seen the last of its entertainment days.

(The Albert Hall was a cinema when I was growing up in Swansea and I remember seeing the movie Jaws there. My first job was as a steward when it was a bingo hall in 1982. It also has its own resident ghost!

As an entertainment venue it played host to a number of Midnight Matinees starring some of the best entertainers of the day in the 1970’s)

©Ian Parsons 2012