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Old Cinema Memories
Brian Patterson finds out about old cinemas
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The public art piece entitled 'Omnibus Route 77' took to the streets last May 2002, for five bus tours. The process of re-activating the 77 route was part of a larger public art event under the banner, Routes, which was an acknowledgement of the contributions from busworkers in keeping Belfast moving during its breakdown period. The Routes Project was set up and managed by Littoral Arts to record the history and experiences of the bus workers in a variety of art forms. Working in partnership with the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers Union, Translink and the local arts community (Flaxart Studios, Belfast Exposed, Banter Productions & An Crann), Routes aimed to put a spotlight on the bus workers and their stories, highlighting their success in maintaining an essential public service to all communities during the past 30 years of conflict.
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Old Cinema Memories
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The reason for selecting this specific route was that it represented a time when people lived together, if the 77 bus was ever to return that this would be an indication of normality returning to the city. What made this bus route significant was that it circumnavigated the city, travelling from the Waterworks in the North via the Shankill and Falls Roads in the West to the Gasworks in the South. At the time all other bus routes operated in a radial fashion while the 77 serviced all the major tramlines in the city. The 77 bus could also be described as a litmus test for Belfast's civil unrest. It was attacked in the early 1930's during the Outdoor Relief Strike (It should be noted that this is a very interesting period in Northern Ireland, because both the unemployed Catholic and Protestant fought side by side, against the State). Then again in the late 1960's during the rioting of the early troubles. Eventually in 1971 it was withdrawn by request of the army and its removal represents a copper fastening of the ghettoization that was taking place within this city.
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As the project unfolded, it became apparent that the importance of the route lay in its service to industry, bringing people to work and play. Transport served as a major catalyst to the industrialisation of this city and the achievement of this era had cinema as its major form of popular entertainment. This is also reflected in the route because it had twelve cinemas located along the route. (Incidentally Belfast had 56 cinemas at various times, it now has 6 + 1 nomadic one.)
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'...I must have been about say seventeen, eighteen years of age, in fact under seventeen. One of the films I remember most of all was 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' - with James Cagney. It was playing in the Arcadian that night ..and the hall was filled with all the boys and girls, and there would have been girls from the Shankill because they worked in Greeve's Mill and knocked about with girls from the Falls. So Yankee Doodle Dandy came along and was going well and everyone was enjoying it, fellas were holding on tight to the girls... everybody enjoying themselves. Then when it came to James Cagney singing the party piece, there was one particular piece in the song, now this would have been about way back in '46/'47. There was nothing political at all going on but almost always there was an undercurrent of politics/religion going on. So in the Arcadian that night they came along and James was singing his part and dancing well and they came to the part of the song 'Red White and Blue what does it mean to you?' The Arcadian tried to blot out that piece of music out and they only managed to get a piece of it blotted out. And the hall went up in an uproar! Not a violent uproar but all the catcalling whistling, yelling and screaming. It took Peter Power coming down threatening to clear the hall, to get them settled down again to see the rest of the film. .. Peter eventually got order restored and back it went on again. But everytime it came to that part of the film all the other nights of the week, the same thing happened. They just couldn't blot it out successfully, that one wee bit of it. 'Red, White and Blue what does it mean for you'? They were happy days, they weren't the good old days, but they were happy days. But it is good to be happy when you're young!' (Frankie Fox reminiscences about The Arcadian.)
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'..I mainly went to the gods in the Hippodrome and the entrance to the gods was on the Grosvenor Rd. There was a circular stone staircase which took you up to the top of the building, the entrance to the gods was at the very top and when you come out into the cinema itself the seats were very steep, very raked, matter of fact you had to be extremely careful or you would have tripped and went straight down into the bottom, right down into the pits. During the war years the Hippodrome had what you called cine-variety, they had all sorts of variety acts, tumblers and magicians, along with the films that they showed. I remember an American magician he was very famous at the time, a guy called Dante, but they usually had local acts. The Hippodrome had a screen, a big canvas screen with advertisements, the same as the Coliseum, with advertisements for all the local shops and shops in town and it remained down until the show was about to start, then it was wound up so you could see the screen.' (A reminiscence about The Hippodrome by Billy Graham.)
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'Bob Hope appeared there and passed jokes about the people in the gods, did they need oxygen tanks up there. The famous show about the Hippodrome was the Christmas circus. Most of the picture houses and theatres carried a lot of publicity from their managers' point of view. But maybe nothing more than G L Birch, he incorporated his own name in all the advertisements. So each year would appear the big posters, 'G L Birch presents Dr. Hunter's famous circus' now it was a big show, clowns, the big ring, animals and everything went on. People looked forward to G L Birch's famous Christmas show at the Hippodrome presented by Dr. Hunter who was a lecturer (in anatomy) at Queens University.' (A reminiscence about The Hippodrome by James Doherty.)
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'The Ritz was a very modern cinema, I think it only opened in 1936, but it was very very plush, I can recollect that it had a restaurant on the first floor, with a fairly extensive menu. Many people used to go there for meals; I personally wasn't able to afford that sort of luxury. But during the war years they got the big movies that were made for that period, the patriotic movies, I can recollect that there was one about the 'Battle of Britain', and there was another one with Noel Coward, which was called 'In which we serve', they were patriotic movies of the period. The one about the 'Battle of Britain' the airforce put on an exhibition of artifacts in the foyer. There were tailor's dummies dressed up as pilots standing in the foyer with all the gear on them and the instrument panels a sort of a section out of a bomber with the two seats and dummies as pilots sitting them, things like that you know. In the case of 'In which we serve' they had sea cadets in the foyer and they were showing all sort of bits and bobs of nautical gear.
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But the Ritz was famous for having a cinema organ and during the interval there was a guy called Joseph Seal playing the organ. When you went into the Ritz the organ couldn't be seen it was right down in front of the screen but when the house darkened, the cinema organ came out of the floor. It was on a sort of lift arrangement, with lighted glass panels all the way around it. As well as that they used to have sing-songs in the cinema during the war, where the words of a song, a bit like karaoke today, where the words of a song were projected onto a screen and a little bouncing ball and Joseph Seal played the organ and the bouncing ball bounced across the top of the words and everybody sat and sang along and this was in the cinema, Gods' honest truth!
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I don't think that the Ritz was exclusive in that but the Ritz is the one I remember. I also remember the Ritz having the first 3D movies that I ever saw. It was one with Vincent Price, called 'The House of Wax' it was a horror film, and they gave you cardboard 3D glasses. I must say it was very effective, 3D is very good, it really is, you know.' (Reminiscence about The Ritz by Billy Graham.)
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Old Cinema Memories
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'The Grosvenor Hall belonged to the Methodist Church and it was used for gatherings of the different Methodists congregations and Annual General Meetings. But on Friday nights and Saturday nights they had a cinema show either serial films or B movies, with a main movie. On Friday nights it was mainly children that went to them, it was nicknamed the 'Friday grope', I don't know what it was called on Saturday nights; Saturday night was nearly always adults that went to it. Other times it ran other sorts of shows. I remember going to see Mr Universe show who was at that time a guy called John Grimmick a very strong man. And they ran variety shows from time to time but it was mainly the cinema on Friday night and on a Friday night the kids perambulated all about, never sat very long. The sort of movies that were shown were the serial with Buck Jones and Flash Gordan, with a predominance of Westerns or B movies and travel logs, I don't know what happened to it. When I grew up I stopped going there.' (Reminiscence about Grosvenor Hall by Billy Graham.)
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'In the days that I went to the Coliseum when I was a child I went downstairs and all the seats were all forms. There was no cushioned seats or tip-up seats they were wooden forms. The projection room was on the ground floor because... the floor sloped down towards the screen, with a result that they could project the film from the ground floor and it was exactly on the screen. But it meant that the wags the walked passed the projection beam and put their hands into the projection beam and then projected rabbits and birds and chickens and all sorts of things.
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There was a bar right up on top of the balcony, that was a much nicer bar and you could have bought a pint there and stool with your elbows on the top rail and watched the movie from there. You would have got guys who would have been to the toilets standing at the back having a smoke in the isles, having a chat together and lots of people walked around in those days, not like today at all, not like today'. (Reminiscence about the Coliseum by Billy Graham.)
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'I remember one night we went to see a particular picture, come from the other end of town where I lived, but there was three of us together and we went over to see the picture (with) Bing Crosby, 'Pennies from Heaven'. And I'm sitting there in the semi-darkness and there was an notorious character from York St known as Ali Baba came over to see me... and he says to me 'you're a York St man, aren't you? Well I had lived in York St and I knew our friend Ali, he was a notorious character for fighting and I said "Yes I used to live..." And he says "Ah you needn't worry" he says "Here's a friend." So I was wondered who Ali was a friend of anybody. He says "We're going to have a rub at a few of the boys from the Sandy Row. One of our mates got a kicking from them and he said we've come over in force. If you want to join us well and good or otherwise someone might have seen me speaking to you and you'll be in trouble each way" So of course we left the cinema. Didn't even see the whole picture... Apparently what happened was during the interval the boys had went to the bar and got bottles of drink, broke the bottles and started a row, with broken bottles in the cinema, jabbing each other and the row extended out onto the street. And the newspapers on the Monday morning carried the headlines "Gang Warfare in Belfast: Many arrests and ambulances kept busy" and that was one of the biggest fights that ever happened in a picture house in Belfast. From time to time there was some small agitation but the was a gangland fight involving anything up to 100 people were engaged with that, knives, broken bottles and anything they could use including their fists and boots. One big fight which carried the headlines on the papers on the Monday morning'. (Reminiscence about the Coliseum by James Doherty.)
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'The Crumlin Picture house was a strange place, known as the Ranch. There were different stories as to how it got its name... It did show a lot of Western Pictures, the cowboy ones as we used to call them as children and as patrons, number one reason for the Ranch. Number two, it had a strange type of waiting room known as the corral. You paid you're money at the ticket office, which was actually part of the foyer of the picture house itself, went back out onto the street and entered the corral. Now unlike 'The Clonard', which had a big waiting room also, the waiting room of 'The Ranch' was divided by steel bars into three sections. Then we came to the Manager himself and perhaps this is the reason that it is called the Ranch. I know that he was known as the Sheriff, a flamboyant type of character, wore a Stetson hat, colourful waistcoat and a moustache. And he would walk down from the back of the cinema turn abruptly and look up at the projectionist and just wave his hat and as that, the lights dimmed and the audience went mad, they stamped their feet and whistled and shouted. Then everything went silent, the beam flashed through for the pictures and all was silent and the sheriff returned to the back of the hall. Now he had other things that he kept to a strict figure and that one of them was that the young people were not allowed, of the different sexes, the boys went to one side and the girls to the other side of the hall, this was a strict rule... I was young about seventeen at the time and I fell prey to the sheriff. One night in the waiting room with a friend of mine we met two girls. In the course of the conversation as to what picture housed they had been at and what they're recent travel were, the conversation became interesting and as I walked in and not thinking I moved off with the girls, just continuing the conversation. But the sheriff was always ready to pounce, he dived at me and caught me by the arm physically threw me across the hall. "We'll have none of your rascality here" he says, "Get over there to where you should be" So of course, I don't know if I was blushing, you wouldn't have seen it in the dark but anyway I had to take my place.
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Another peculiarity about that particular picture house, the cheaper picture houses all ran at the same price, sixpence and threepence, the better seats were sixpence and the cheaper ones threepence, but for some reason or another the old sheriff fixed his rates at sixpence and two and a half-pence. So you always had a halfpence change out of your threenence, that's all you had. Now there was an old character from one of the local streets, he must of known about this odd halfpence because he stood outside the cinema, a big basket of little prepared candy which he sold at a halfpence. He had a plaintive voice, I can still hear, "CANDY, HAPENCE A BAGG, CANDY HAPENCE A BAGG" And he kept on saying that and his bags of candy went like hotcakes. And everybody was eating candy on the corral while they were waiting to get into the Crumlin'. (A reminiscence about The Crumlin Picture House by James Doherty.)
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Cinemas along the route of the 77, starting from the Gasworks.
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1) The Shaftesbury Pictoria, situated where the Northern Bank is in Shaftesbury Square, opened 21st Dec 1910, seating 200, closed 1917. It was the first cinema to introduce non-stop screenings from 3-11pm daily.
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2) Kinema House situated at entrance to Europe Bus Station, opened 1914, seating 550, closed 1920.
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3) Opera House operated as a cinema between 1949 and 1972. Films were slightly distorted because of the high position of the projector.
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Old Cinema Memories
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4) Hippodrome, situated beside the Opera House, opened 1935, seating 1900, later the Odeon, 1961 and then the New Vic, 1974, eventually closed 1987
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5) Ritz, situated where Jury's is, opened 1936, seating 2220, closed 1994.
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6) Kelvin Picture Palace, situated where the Electronic Centre is, opened 1910; seating 630 closed New Year's Eve, 1971.
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Old Cinema Memories
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7) Grosvenor Hall on Grosvenor Rd had screenings there every Friday night.
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8) Coliseum Cinema, situated on Grosvenor Rd and Durham St, opened 1915, seating 900, closed 1959.
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9) The Arcadian, Albert St, opened 1910, closed 1960.
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10) The Tivoli, situated just off Albert St, opened 1918 closed 1927, showed mainly silent movies. PJ Kelly played the fiddle during the interval between screenings.
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11) Wee Shank, situated on Shankill and Northumberland Rd, opened 1910, seated 500 closed 1958. Finished life as a Spar, the first supermarket in Belfast.
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12) The Crumlin Picture House commonly known as The Ranch, situated on corner of Crumlin Rd and Century St, opened 1914, seated 973, and closed 1972.
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13) Lyceum Cinema situated on Antrim Rd, opened 1916, seated 960, and closed 1966.
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