The lost picture shows


After James Joyce founded Dublin's first dedicated stationary cinema in 1909, many more followed . A century later, much of their architectural heritage has been obliterated, writes Marc Zimmermann

Cinemas have offered us entertainment, escapism and education for over a century. We've queued, met and mingled in them, shouted at the screen, fallen in love with stars, laughed and cried, courted and kissed there. Sadly, they themselves have been a neglected part of our social and architectural heritage - their rapid demolition testifies to that. Only a fraction of them survive today, in most cases greatly altered and without any structural protection. It's time to salvage the Irish cinematic past. In the meantime, take your seats, ladies and gentlemen, the feature is about to begin . . .

On Monday, April 20th, 1896, "living pictures" were presented in Ireland for the first time at Dublin's Palace of Varieties (today's Olympia Theatre on Dame Street). Unfortunately the performance was plagued by very poor image quality and the audience of several hundred well-off Dubliners left disappointed, convinced that these flickering "pictures" were nothing more than a low-quality fad. But once improvements to the technology were made over the following months, patrons returned - to be thrilled by films such as Arrival of a Train at the Ciotat Station, which shocked audiences with its scene of a train rushing towards the camera.

FOLLOWING THIS FIRST public presentation, it took more than a decade for film shows to find a permanent home. From humble beginnings in converted shops in the early 1900s, cinemas soon developed into an architectural category of their own, some designs rivalling and surpassing the most lavish stage theatres. From 1896 to 1909 most "moving pictures" were shown as travelling attractions in tents and wooden shacks at fairs, festivals and markets, and some established theatres supplemented their stage shows with films - providing inspiration for the cinema architecture of the coming decades.

All this changed in 1909, when James Joyce opened the Volta at 45 Mary Street, Ireland's first dedicated, stationary cinema, and film began to take a firmer foothold in Dublin. Although it's difficult to make a clear distinction between the earliest cine-variety shows (including live stage acts by acrobats, comedians and magicians) on the one hand, and dedicated cinemas on the other, the Volta is generally considered to be Dublin's first venue to have been created for - and to present nothing but - films. And it was Joyce's idea.

He became aware of the absence of a dedicated cinema in the Irish capital while living in Trieste, where, by 1909, there were 21 cinemas. With investment from three Trieste businessmen, Antonio Machnich, Giuseppe Caris and Giovanni Rebez, he set out to open one in his home town. He wooed them with the line "I know a city of 500,000 inhabitants where there is not a single cinema". A contract was drawn up, allocating Joyce 10 per cent of the profits made for establishing and launching the cinema, without having to invest himself. By October 1909 he was back in Dublin, had found the premises, a builder's and ironmonger's workshop, and had begun buying benches and chairs and hiring staff for its new cinematic incarnation.

As John McCourt explains in The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920 (Lilliput, 2000), Joyce never intended that the venture would involve him moving back to Ireland permanently, though he had a clause inserted in the contract giving him the sole right to run the cinema in August and September - thereby "finding a clever and convenient way to finance his annual holidays and escape the burning summer heat of Trieste", says McCourt. With his business partners he went to Belfast and Cork with the prospect of opening cinemas in those cities too - but nothing came of that.

The Volta Electric Theatre opened on December 20th, screening a number of films, including Pathé's Bewitched Castle and The First Paris Orphanage, as well as The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci; "An excellent little string orchestra played charmingly during the afternoon," The Evening Telegraph said in a largely warm review.

The narrow auditorium had a simple layout and decoration. The cinema, which took its name from a picture house run by its Italian investors in Bucharest, was decorated in light blue and crimson and seated 420 - though the opening night audience was smaller than Joyce had hoped. Admission ranged from two to six pence. Short silent films were on continuous rotation from 5pm to 10pm.

AT THE TIME, cinemas were often cramped, hot and noisy, as no separation between the projector and the audience existed. Highly flammable celluloid film frequently caught fire in projectors that had run hot. From 1910 onwards, the Irish Cinematograph Act made a separate projection booth and safe escape routes mandatory to protect patrons from these fires. Artificial ventilation in the narrow and windowless spaces was typically absent and led to increasingly hot air with a dwindling oxygen content. To keep their patrons from fainting, proprietors came up with a range of ideas to improve air quality, including gigantic syringes filled with perfumed water to be sprayed across the audience at regular intervals to refresh them.

Joyce left for Italy in January 1910, leaving the operation of the Volta to another business partner from Trieste, Francesco Novak. But Joyce's partners decided to wind up the enterprise and after just six months in operation it was sold at a loss for £1,000 to the English Provincial Cinema Company. But Joyce did not get the 10 per cent of the purchase price he hoped for. "He decided, rather unjustly, that he had been swindled by the very people to whom he had given his good idea," says McCourt.

The Volta ran for another decade, closing in 1919. Expanded to seat 600 patrons, it reopened around 1921 as the Lyceum Picture Theatre, commonly known as the Louse House. Having changed hands numerous times, and never an outright success, it finally closed around 1948. It was demolished along with the neighbouring buildings in the 1960s to make way for Penneys department store. Today only the facade of the two upper floors survives.

But something had taken root. Throughout the 1910s, cinema mushroomed in Dublin. Early "electric theatres", created mainly through the conversion of shops and ground-floor flats, were, on average, basic in layout and decoration. In 1912, Dublin's first purpose-built cinema arrived, the Phoenix on Ellis Quay. Fortunately this landmark of architectural history is still there.

The destruction of Easter Week, 1916, took its toll on cinemas, but a new era began in the 1920s. Previously humble venues were increasingly superseded by larger, better appointed and more lavishly decorated cinemas. One of the first was the Metropole, on O'Connell Street, which opened in 1922, combining a large, 1,000-seat cinema auditorium with a ballroom and a restaurant in one venue. The late 1920s and 1930s saw a further upsurge in openings of more and more extravagant cinemas, including the ornate Savoy, on O'Connell Street, in 1929. The movie palaces were born, starting three decades of the Golden Age of cinemas. The advent of the "talkies" sparked more interest, following the premiere of the US musical The Singing Fool (1928), starring Al Jolson, at the Savoy in 1929, which heralded the end of the silent film era.

After 1955, the advent of television saw cinemas struggling to remain in business. Experimenting with new technologies, including ground-breaking widescreen systems such as Cinerama, and short-lived fads such as 3D films, only helped cinema-owners stave off the inevitable.

Some venues found specialised niches by showing mainly westerns (the Corinthian), arthouse films (the Lighthouse) or cartoons (the Grafton), while others attempted to lure people in by "twinning" or further subdividing their auditoria from the 1970s onwards, to offer film choices. But few new cinemas opened. Then, after three decades of recession, things perked up again with the arrival of the 12-screen UCI Tallaght in 1990. Other multiplexes followed, including Movies@Dundrum, its Art Deco-inspired designs throughout reminiscent of the opulent cinema palaces of the past.

Cinema attendance was back up - but the traditional, single-screen venues suffered. In recent years, Dublin's last two independent mainstream cinemas closed, the Classic at Harold's Cross (in 2003) and the Stella in Rathmines (in 2004).

Many of the closed cinemas were subdivided to accommodate offices (like the Landscape cinema) or retail spaces (the Drumcondra Grand) and only a few retained a more or less open plan (the Phoenix). The greater part of nearly 100 years of built cinema history slipped away - and almost without notice. The few cinema buildings entered into the local authorities' Records of Protected Structures mostly received protection of their facade only, leaving the major part of the structure vulnerable to demolition.

ABOUT 50 DUBLIN cinemas have been demolished, a trend that has speeded up considerably over the past decade. Only about 30 purpose-built, historic cinema buildings remain, converted to bingo halls, furniture or carpet warehouses, and clubs. Several historic cinema buildings, including the Gala in Ballyfermot and the Tivoli on Francis Street, are under immediate threat. And what will befall the former Carlton on O'Connell Street? Only its upper-floor facade is protected. Since 2001, an average of four Dublin cinema structures have been demolished or come under threat each year. In 2005 alone, seven cinemas were condemned or torn down, including the Inchicore, Regent and Dorset.

The Cinema Heritage Group (CHG) was formed last November by cinema enthusiasts and industry experts - including architects, engineers, film lecturers and historians - with two main goals: to carry out and encourage research and to exchange findings on historic cinemas, and to secure the protection of highly significant surviving cinemas. The CHG is committed to this throughout Ireland though initially its work is focusing mainly on Co Dublin. Surely Joyce would approve.

Marc Zimmermann is the founding chair of the Cinema Heritage Group and a contributor to Film Ireland. His new book, The History of Dublin Cinemas, has just been published by Nonsuch Publishing (17.99). He will lead a guided walking tour of early Dublin cinemas, for the James Joyce Centre, on June 14 and 17 (details on

A commemorative plaque at the site of the Volta, initiated by CHG, will be unveiled by Irish Film Censor John Kelleher on Tue. Details on

To subscribe to the free CHG monthly e-newsletter, The Cinematograph, or to find out more about the CHG, e-mail the_cinemas@yahoo.comBloomsday