Dark Fridays in November, when night would begin before day had a chance to properly end. When the air was cold and damp and light mist drifted along Pantbach Road, caressing the rooftops of the parked cars, swirling in arcs of light from the streetlamps. Friday nights when the queue would wind its way around the front of the large looming, yellow rendered picture house, disappearing into the darkness of the car park on Ty-Wern Road. Family treats – adults and children, husbands and wives, boyfriend, girlfriend, nervous young lovers in the first throes of awkward adolescent romance. Sombrely attired pensioners, silently judging the younger crowd.
Familiar faces. The woman with the earrings in the claustrophobic ticket booth, her bottom half forever hidden beneath the counter. The woman in the tuck-shop, her back always half turned, reaching for sweets or drinks. Mr Monico himself, standing at the back of the foyer, a bespectacled observer, immaculate in navy blazer and grey trousers, matching the neatly trimmed beard and receding hairline; his shadow crawling up the blue-grey wall, sandwiched between glass framed posters for ET and Rocky III. A man of severity, intolerant of those whose mischief threatened the wider audience’s pleasure .
We huddled, slowly moving, shifting patiently towards the small kiosk at the entrance to the foyer. Handing over money without thought for an evening’s entertainment – a ticket for the film and a box of something sweet. A drink – 7-Up or Coke or maybe a tub of orange cordial with the bendy straw that would spew juice as it pierced the plastic lid. Inching through the small and crowded foyer, adults holding children’s hands in the growing crowd of limbs and overcoats. A general murmur of clipped conversations as all headed towards the stairs; darkly lit and winding away from the hubbub below.That was the Monico.
Two screens, two theatres. Proudly boasting its use of Dolby Stereo. Cinema 1 – the original auditorium, bigger than its newer, more intimate counterpart. Soft lighting and an aura of red. The heavy velvet curtain at the front, draped from ceiling to stage. The piano to the left that harked back to an older, more silent age. Two tiers of deep red, soft cushioned seats, faded and worn by generations of backsides. Dust and nicotine tinged smoke drifting up into the spotlights as the theatre would slowly fill and settle. Underfoot the carpet, hidden in the darkness, detected only by its sticky grip from fallen popcorn and pastilles.
No matter the film, the feeling always the same. Anticipation and excitement that grew with the bobbing heads and swaying shoulders, with the elbows that rubbed on reluctantly shared arm rests; while the curtain slowly raised, the huge screen tantalisingly revealed. It was the knowing. The knowing of what would follow. The same old comforting rituals of commencement. A shaft of dusty light overhead firing from the small window at the back of the theatre, the screen before us turning blue, a black splodge within. The music starting and faint white writing appearing, moving closer in a wonderful, ludicrous, 20 second fanfare of our childhood.
Pearl & Dean, purveyors of cheap local advertising. Poorly scripted, badly filmed, jumping and skipping grainy images to entice us to the local Indian restaurant, travel agent, tyre repair specialists. To remind us of the treats in the foyer, Westlers Hot Dogs, cowboys and Indians informing us all of bite after bite after bite of processed pleasure; or Butterkist popcorn with its cheerleading chant:“Butterkist, Butterkist, rah, rah, rah.”
And then the trailers. The teasers of films to come – as exciting as the main event itself. A glimpse into the future. A source of conjecture and anticipation.
“I’ve got to see that.”
I remember these nights and the many films. The screen fading, the theatre dimming to black, the hushed silence or the whoops of over-stimulated teens. The whirr of the projector, the BBFC classification page, wobbly on the screen and then…
Star Wars, Grease, ET or Indiana Jones. Sci-fi or comedy, action, romance. James Bond or Crocodile Dundee.
That was the Monico. Rainy school holidays watching Disney’s latest fairytale. Visits with mum, with dad, with friends, with cousins. Later, with girls. That was Saturday morning cinema club. An onslaught of local kids, dropped off on wet weekend mornings; minors hopped up on e-numbered treats, entrusted to the care of Mr Monico and the cheery patience of Uncle Ian, the good-natured moustachioed host with the thankless task of containing and entertaining armed only with scratched copies of old Flash Gordon episodes and the delights of the Children’s Film Council – Calamity Cow or Anoop the Elephant. Being called onto the stage to a chorus of cheers and jeers if it was your birthday. Little kids standing somewhere between proud and shell-shocked with their 10 Today badges pinned to their jumpers while Uncle Ian tried to lead a tone-deaf rendition of Happy Birthday that could make or break your big day.
The lights of the projector dimmed for the final time in 2003; another independent cinema wilting and ultimately dying from the might of the multiplex. Ten and twelve theatre behemoths sucking the life from the smaller sites. In its place a block of inoffensive but largely uninspired apartments – we used to call them flats.
I’m as guilty for its demise as anyone else. As numbers dwindled and the breeze became more pronounced through the fire exits; as the yellow stuffing forced its way through the stitching of the worn red seats, I, like most other regular cinema goers, finally succumbed to the comfort and variety of the large cinemas down at Cardiff Bay and Nantgarw. The Monico’s time had past. And yet its passing left a void. Bulldozers rolled sadly in and the walls finally crumbled, leaving in its wake a poignant void as another monument to my youth disappeared, fading into a foggy past.
That was the Monico