Palaces and flea pits - Dublin's lost cinemas
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
The recent closure of Dublin's Screen Cinema has robbed the city of a reassuring landmark. The Screen had been in business since 1980, and in the 1990s became a popular venue for younger punters thanks to its attractive mix of mainstream, independent and foreign films. Its closure, while depressing, seemed inevitable: it had become a little run-down in recent years, and audience numbers had steadily declined.
The Screen's disappearance means there's now just one cinema left in the south inner-city - the Irish Film Institute in Temple Bar. The IFI specialises in arthouse and foreign film, and the Light House, across the river in Smithfield, has cleverly revived its fortunes by mixing mainstream and esoteric movies just as the Screen once did. But in the other city cinemas - the Savoy, Cineworld, and the state-of-the-art but eerily empty Odeon complex down the docks - large and loud Hollywood productions predominate.
A quick look at the schedules at the time of writing tells a predictable story: kids' animations like Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootropolis, and mainstream thrillers and fantasies like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Allegiant and Deadpool are omnipresent, and many screens will shortly be overwhelmed by Zac Snyder's bombastic superhero yarn, Batman v Superman. Things get even worse in the summer, when blockbusters block book entire cinemas, and quieter films get pushed aside.
Foreign and arthouse films have their home, for the moment, in the IFI and Light House, but the middle ground once occupied by intelligent adult Hollywood films has been badly squeezed. When more thoughtful fare - Spotlight, for instance, or that other recent journalistic drama Truth - turns up, you must rush to your multiplex to catch it or you'll be too late.
The notion that only teenagers go to the movies has become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and explains the constant diet of trite nonsense to which we are now subjected. And the disappearance of a cinema like the Screen makes you worry about how and where we're going to get to see more serious films in the future.
Still, we are where we are, I suppose: Irish film-going figures have always defied the times and outperformed the rest of Europe, and no doubt Dubliners will continue to stubbornly go to cinemas to watch new films. But imagine, if you will, an earlier Dublin in which 'picture houses' big and small were everywhere, and cinema was the lingua franca of a movie-mad population.
In his handsome pictorial history, Dublin Cinemas, Jim Keenan estimates that there were no less than 56 cinemas in and around the city and its near suburbs in the mid-1950s. And while some of these were grand and prestigious downtown emporiums like the Savoy, many others were small 'flea pits' that did brisk business running western and action serials during the day and lush melodramas for the daters at night.
In a time before television, films and film stars were integral parts of Dubliners' lives. And while the large central cinemas like the Adelphi, Carlton, Ambassador and Metropole were weekend venues for young people, a dense network of local cinemas were frequented during the week.
I remember my late mother telling me that, between her home in Five Lamps and Fairview Strand, there were no less than five small cinemas in operation in the late 1940s where she and her cinema-mad cousin would watch all the latest Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Cary Grant and Gene Kelly pictures. Popular films would play for months, even years, and devoted fans would queue to see them again and again.
Dublin's love affair with cinema had begun with a most unlikely pioneer. Aside from his other accomplishments, James Joyce fancied himself an entrepreneur. He returned to Dublin from Trieste in 1909 with a grand plan to open Ireland's first dedicated cinema. He had cobbled together financial backing from Italian friends and businessmen, and chose 45 Mary Street as the site for his venture.
The Volta Electric Theatre opened on December 20, 1909, with a not exactly crowd-pleasing programme of French and Italian melodramas. This preference for continental over British and American films would frustrate Joyce and bemuse an indifferent public. Just seven months later, the writer severed his connection with the venture and returned to Europe.
But the Volta stayed open, and was quickly joined by more astute rivals.
In 1911, The Picture House opened its doors on Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street); the same year, the grand and opulent Grafton Cinema opened at 72 Grafton Street, and quickly became a favoured haunt of the respectable classes. Altogether saltier was the Camden (opened in 1912), which would later become a haven for the city's fleas.
Rougher still was the Phoenix, or 'Pheno', on Ellis Quay, where ushers reputedly carried canes to deal with boisterous youths, who caused mayhem in the auditorium and rained urine from the balconies on those poor souls beneath them in the cheap seats. Wooden seats were ripped from their moorings during fights, and the smell, by all accounts, was intolerable.
Downtown, things were far more civilised. La Scala, on Prince's Street, which opened in 1920, was part of a grand entertainment complex that included ballrooms and a café. The imposing circular foyer was finished in marble and decorated red and gold: the 1,900-seat auditorium had 32 private boxes.
The original Carlton, on O'Connell Street, was fronted by a handsome tea lounge and attracted a better class of punter. The cinema was totally rebuilt in the 1930s, had a beautiful deco façade and stayed in business until 1994. The Savoy Cinema, across the road, was similarly grand, and its original interior had an audacious Venetian theme. But the Metropole, down the street near Nelson's Pillar, was perhaps the most impressive Dublin cinema of all.
The first Metropole was obliterated during the Easter Rising, and shortly afterwards a Jewish businessman called Maurice Elliman purchased the site and built a grand entertainment complex. When completed, it included a much-loved grill room, a 1,000-seat cinema, a restaurant and dance hall. It was hugely popular in the 1940s and 50s, when it had a staff of over 200, but in the 1970s it was demolished.
These pioneering cinemas were often witnesses to history. The Pillar, which got its name for obvious reasons, was badly damaged by a land mine during the Civil War. In 1938, the nearby Astor was raided by three warriors of Erin who objected to the screening of a film called Victoria the Great. They forced their way into the projection booth at gunpoint and made off with the offending reels, which probably ended up at the bottom of the Liffey.
In the 1930s, when slum clearance began and Dubliners were moved from inner-city tenements to newly constructed suburbs like Crumlin and Cabra, cinemas were quick to follow. A network of smaller cinemas sprung up across greater Dublin, catering to a lively and enthusiastic clientèle.
When I interviewed the late Dave Allen some years back, he talked fondly of going to cinemas in Rathmines and Terenure to watch the Saturday morning western serials, simple stories of white-hatted heroes and black-clad villains whose exploits on screen were loudly mimicked by rowdy audiences of urchins who used the seat backs as horses.
My father-in-law, Dermot Byrne, remembers saving jam jars and lemonade bottles to earn the price of entry to the Star in Crumlin, or 'Rats' as it was known, where Hopalong Cassidy was a firm favourite. These little auditoriums were often the life and soul of suburbs, but after the arrival of television in the early 1960s, their popularity began to decline.
RTÉ launched a television channel in December 1961, and by the end of that decade, TV sets were a feature of most Irish homes. Smaller cinemas began disappearing with alarming speed, and many of the grander ones were put to other use, or demolished. In fact, many pundits in the 1970s confidently predicted that television would destroy cinema altogether.
But that's not what happened, and certainly not in Dublin, where locals have retained their fierce devotion to the big screen through thick and thin.
A rather special site
The now defunct Screen Cinema sits on very distinguished ground, and the Hawkins Street site has a connection to entertainment stretching back almost 200 years. The celebrated Theatre Royal was built here in 1820, seated 2,000 and quickly became a local landmark. Redesigned several times, by the 1930s it was a massive 3,700-seat music hall, and big names like Gracie Fields, George Formby, Max Wall and Jimmy Durante were brought in from Britain and America in a desperate attempt to fill it.
In 1935, an exclusive restaurant called the Regal Rooms was opened behind the Theatre Royal, where the Screen now stands. It did bad business and was quickly converted into a dedicated cinema, the Regal. It had a handsome art deco front and an unusual, stadium-shaped auditorium, but none of that would save it from the wrecking ball. In 1962, the Theatre Royal and the Regal were demolished as part of a large redevelopment scheme that resulted in the construction of the ghastly Hawkins House.
The New Metropole cinema opened in 1972, and I dimly recall being taken there to see Sean Connery's last Bond film, Diamonds are Forever. It became the Screen in 1980, and the rest you know.