The Golden Age of Film
A look back at the cinemas that existed in Belfast city centre during the heady days of the silver screen
In the golden age of film, Belfast had a vibrant and varied collection of cinemas. Here are the names and places of Belfast’s cinema heritage.
The Central, Garfield Street
Also known as the Smithfield Ritz, this small cinema was in the great tradition of flea-pit cinemas. Situated in Garfield Street, The Central opened in 1913, having been converted from a jewellers shop. Entrance could be paid with a jam jar, the cinema presumably refunding the jars the next day. The first cinema to show Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, The Central was an early victim of the 1950s decline.
The Classic, Castle Lane
The Classic in Castle Lane was one of the largest cinemas in Belfast. Exhibiting the opulent style that was to distinguish cinemas over the next 30 years, the Classic was opened in 1923. With 1800 seats, it dwarfed all other venues until the advent of the Ritz. The Wurlitzer Organ, which rose from the stage during the interval, featured the smooth sounds of Leslie Simpson, among others. In 1949 the Classic was taken over by Rank, and the name changed to Gaumont. The cinema closed and was demolished in 1961 to make room for a shop.
The Ritz, Fisherwick Place
Built on the site of a travelling fairground, The Ritz became the premiere cinema in Belfast when it was opened by Gracie Fields in 1936. Situated on the corner of Great Victoria Street, it was hailed as the cinema of cinemas, with the name Ritz found in neon lights no less than seven times.
So large was the building that the steel superstructure was entrusted to Harland and Wolff to construct, and its ‘Mighty Organ’ was one of the largest in the UK. The organist, Joseph Seal, had the signature tune of Do you Ken John Peel?
The Ritz originally held 2219 people, all watching the same screen. It became the ABC in 1963 when bought by the ABC/EMI group. The cinema survived bombing and fire, but finally closed in the early 1990s. The site was demolished and a Jury’s hotel built.
The Royal Cinema, Arthur Street
Owned by the famous Warden family and opened in 1916, the Royal Cinema was a reconstruction of the Theatre Royal which stood on this site throughout the pervious century. The Royal was heavily appointed and lavish for its time, but investment in the cinema was low, and it gained a rather shabby, flea-pit reputation by the 1950s. It closed its doors in 1961.
The Sandro, Sandy Row
A small, community based cinema, the Sandro was a ramshackle outfit that seated 700. Built in 1919, it was without a screen, but rather used a whitewashed wall, indicating the cinemas far from lavish production values. The cinema turned out its lights in 1961.
The Picture House, Royal Avenue
The first Belfast cinema proper, with no connection to the music halls, The Picture House was located on Royal Avenue. Always the first cinema to utilise new technology, The Picture House showed Jolsen’s The Jazz Singer in 1929, which was Belfast’s first commercially produced talkie. Taken over by the Odeon group, it became the Avenue, the home of long-running blockbusters. Blown apart by a huge bomb in 1974, the Avenue attempted to come back to prominence, but ended up showing soft porn and putting on bingo. This historic venue was put out of its misery in 1982.
The Kelvin, College Square East
The Kelvin occupied the birthplace of the famous scientist, Lord Kelvin of Largs. Opening in 1910, the Kelvin was a strange cinema that lived a long time in the shadow of its rival, The Ritz. Beginning as a regular cinema, The Kelvin changed its name to the Mayfair in 1944, but closed within two years. It re-opened as The Cartoon Cinema in 1946, and this innovative approach to programming bore fruit for 12 years. Due to the proliferation of cartoons on television, however, it closed in 1969. Again the cinema refused to die, re-opening as an arthouse cinema, The Classic, in 1970. It was promptly blown into oblivion by a bombing on New Years Eve, 1971.
Kinema House, Great Victoria Street
Situated on Great Victoria Street, next to the old Great Northern Railway Station, Kinema House was a short-lived affair. Built in old English timbered style, it closed in 1919.
The Imperial, Cornmarket
When the Imperial opened in 1914, the owners placed a full page advertisement in the Belfast Newsletter, boasting of a:
‘main ceiling … of a refined Greek character … ornamental character pieces … a fine Axminister … everything being in harmony with the Architectural period, that of early Tudor or Jacobean.’
Now a shoe shop, the Imperial sat on the corner of Cornmarket and Ann Street, and was a tremendously popular 1000 seat cinema, closing in 1959 when the pressure from city centre developers became economically overwhelming. The last show became something of a carnival, with customers being encouraged to take souvenirs of their visit.
The Gaiety, Upper North Street
Placed in Upper North Street, the Gaiety was a cinema for the lower end of the market, putting on live ‘turns’ in between showings until the 1950s. The cinema was an early example of the peace process, with residents of the Falls and the Shankill apportioning days of the week to attend the shows.
One quirk of the Gaiety was the fact that the company who owned the cinema was also heavily involved in the rackrent business in the North of the city. If you paid your rent promptly, you were rewarded with tickets to the Gaiety. It closed in 1959, and Woolworth’s demolished and built a new store on the site.
The Pantopticon, High Street
One of three cinemas destroyed in the blitz of May 1941, The Pantopticon was owned by Fred Stewart, an early pioneer of film in Belfast. Listed as a picture theatre and waxworks in 1917, the Pantopticon changed its name to the Lyric in 1924, and was one of the most relevant cinemas for film lovers.
The quality of the films was high, and most of Charlie Chaplin’s films premiered here. When the Luftwaffe appeared out of the clear night sky, the Lyric lost its front half. After the war, ‘Blitz Square,’ the area around Bridge Street and High Street, was cleared, and the Lyric was turned into an Allied Carpets showroom.
The Hippodrome, Great Victoria Street
Also known as the Odeon and the New Vic, the Hippodrome was actually a theatre capable of showing films. Ornately decorated in the style similar to the neighbouring Grand Opera House, the Hippodrome alternated between live shows and cinema. Bob Hope appeared there, as did Dick Hunter’s Circus.
In the early 60s, it became the flagship theatre for the Rank group in Northern Ireland. This was the cue for some bizarre amendments to the opulent façade of the building. The great cinema architect John McBride Neill designed these alterations, creating a monumental concrete façade, very much in the modern style. The New Vic survived until 1987, when it became a bingo hall. Sold by its owner in 1996, it is now a car park.
Situated on North Street, the Alhambra was a survivor from music hall days, becoming a cinema in 1902. The Alhambra always had a rough and ready atmosphere. Able to retain its liquor license because of its music hall status, it was known as a man’s cinema, with many westerns and much drinking.
The Alhambra continued to host talent competitions and films on the same bill. Taken over by Rank in the great sell off of 1955, the Alhambra burnt down in 1959. Such was its reputation that no tears were shed for its passing, and the building was knocked down.