After the lights go down on the silver screen
Ever since James Joyce opened Dublin’s first purpose-built cinema, The Volta on Mary Street in 1909, Ireland has had a love affair with the movies. The history of cinema buildings in Irish cities, towns and suburbs is rich with local folklore. Much-loved suburban cinema theatres in Dublin such as the Prinner (the Princess in Rathmines), the Core (the Inchicore) and the Killer (the Killester Grand) are long gone, but local cinema houses were once the beating hearts of every child and every courting couple’s lives.And they still have a hold over people, according to George Kearns, a former usher of the Princess and co-author of The A-Z of Old Dublin Cinemas. “When I spoke to people [for the book], some of them started to cry . . . I never encountered such a sense of nostalgia,” he says.
These buildings were sites of drama and action and not just on the silver screen. In the 1950s, while the film Blackboard Jungle was shown at the Star in Crumlin, a riot broke out, resulting in extensive damage. Management at the Phoenix cinema (the Feeno) on Ellis Quay insisted that all their ushers be able to swim, as the audience were prone to throwing them in the Liffey on a boisterous night.
Gráinne Humphreys, director of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, notes that movie-watching has changed profoundly. “I remember double bills at the Cameo. Films that ran for over a year, like Diva and Betty Blue . . . The way people experience cinema is different now, where there can be more of a factory approach rather than performance.”
As the movies have changed, so have the buildings we watch them in. Many beautiful Irish cinema houses – including Michael Scott’s Ritz in Athlone, with its art deco design and carved figures by Louis le Brocquy – have been demolished.
“Historically, cinemas have always been regarded as ‘throw away’ architecture,” says Marc Zimmermann, chairman of the international Cinema Heritage Group and author of The History of Dublin Cinemas. “They don’t command the same respect as stage theatres. No one would ever dare suggest tearing down the Gaiety Theatre.”
Zimmermann established the heritage group six years ago and has been working to preserve cinematic heritage internationally. Both Zimmermann and Humphreys attribute the demise of cinema architecture to its association with mass culture. “Unfortunately, cinema suffers from its own accessibility, because it is a cheaper form of entertainment,” says Humphreys.
The re-use of cinema halls for a new purpose presents commercial and architectural challenges, but it can be done. Internationally, there have been some excellent refurbishments of old cinema buildings, including the Tuschkinski Theatre in Amsterdam and the magical Tampa Theater in Florida, which was donated to the city after a huge public outcry against its threatened demolition. It now presents concerts as well as classic and arthouse films.
In Ireland, a lot of cinemas were given over to a variety of uses, such as bingo halls (the Grand in Cabra and the Gala in Ballyfermot), supermarkets (a Tesco outlet in Drumcondra was once the Drumcondra Grand), furniture stores and ice rinks. Sometimes, this rendered the original building unrecognisable, but there have also been creative re-uses.