Jaws was a big movie. The queues went all the way up Edward Street...
John O'Rahilly worked as a projectionist in Tralee cinemas for over 50 years, showing movies to thousands of audiences. John chats to Stephen Fernane about the early days of cinema in Tralee and the many famous movies he showed over the decades.
Tralee people of every vintage know nothing compares to that cinema sensation when the lights go down and the first images appear on screen. The cinema creates its own special link between movie and movie-goer that no amount of Netflix or flat-screen TV can match for entertainment.
Chutehall native John O'Rahilly is a movie man at heart and spent 53 years working as a projectionist in Tralee. He worked in every cinema Tralee had, from the old Theatre Royal; Tralee Picturedome; and Tralee Omniplex (both at Ivy Terrace and Dan Spring Road).
It's always been about the movies for John, who says his first introduction to cinema was cycling to Tralee with his friends to watch cowboy films in the Theatre Royal in Staughtons Row, and at the Picturedome in Upper Castle Street.
"We thought it was like going to another world when we went to the cinema," John said.
"When a show would finish in one cinema, we would go straight down to the other one to watch another film. There was nothing else to do that time, but we loved it. I had no idea that I'd end up working there years later."
In 1961 John started working in Tralee Picturedome (or Coffey's, as it was better known). The Picturedome first opened in 1912 showing silent movies with an orchestra set up in what became known as 'the pit'. With no experience, John started in the deep end in '61. Back then he received movies that were divided into separate reels that needed to be sorted and put in sequence in order to make a full movie on screen. John even has the collection of vinyl records that he played to keep crowds entertained before the movie started.
"I used to play songs like Ned Miller's 'From a Jack to a King' while projecting ads on the screen before the main film started. I still have those old vinyl records at home. They're part of Tralee cinema history now," he said.
John also worked part time in the Theatre Royal with the likes of Johnny O'Shea and Josie Locke, and he continued working as a projectionist up until 2014, when he set his final film in Tralee Omniplex's eight-screen cinema - a far cry from when he first started. It brought a lifetime's work behind the projector to an end for John, who described it as "a hard job" but one he took great pride in.
"There was a fair bit of responsibility to it, as the film usually came in six or more reels. If you had a long film, like Ben Hur, you might have 12 or 13 reels to sort. My job was to put them in sequence. We had two holes in the wall: one was for the projector and the other was for me to see when the reel needed changing. The reels were on spools, and they would be all pre-set. Once that small circle appeared on the top right-hand corner of the big screen that was my cue to change over the reel. You wouldn't even know it was after being done."
John tells how the cinema in the early years created an atmosphere more like a football match with crowds stamping their feet and booing whenever a problem arose with screening a film. People taking drink before the cinema was also the done thing.
"After the show was over, trying to clear the people was tough as some fellas would be fast asleep after drinking. We had to check the entire cinema for any lighting fag ends which would have caught fire easily. The cinema was a busy place back then."
Movies like King of Kings, Ben Hur, The Sound of Music, Titanic, Star Wars, and Jaws are the major films John remembers from his time, films that ran for several weeks due to popular demand. It was difficult to get the big movies as they first did the rounds in Dublin, Limerick and Cork before finally reaching Tralee - a process that often took six months.
"We showed all Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard's films too. They were massive. The Bruce Lee films were very popular as well in the early 1980s. But I remember Jaws was a big movie, with queues going around the corner and up Edward Street. People would be blocking traffic trying to get in. The first Star Wars was another popular film. Even when films like Dracula and The Exorcist were shown, you had people going around town saying 'don't go to see that film'. Different times now."
John screened films six nights a week in the Picturedome, which underwent a major refurbishment in 1971 when three screens, chandeliers and a sweet shop was added. By this time John had his job down to a fine art, and he was able to keep three movie screens running at the same time. Trips to the railway station were another part of the job, where he waited for films to arrive by train from Dublin. John distributed movies to cinemas in Castleisland and Listowel, where he also worked.
"The day started in the railway station checking in the movies in the afternoon. I needed to have it ready for the 7pm show, and I was often tight for time. But we kept a few back-up movies just in case the train broke down and we didn't have the film in time."
John recalls one particular night when there was near-mutiny in the cinema.
"I got a film one time from another cinema in Kerry which was delivered to me by bus. It was all ready for the 7pm show. The first and second reels were grand, but after that it went badly wrong, as all the movie scenes were mixed up. I found out after there had been an argument in the cinema where it came from, and someone deliberately mixed up the reels. I had to close the cinema; the crowd were booing me and everything," he laughs.
In 1994 when the Picturedome in Castle Street closed, John moved to the Tralee Omniplex in Ivy Terrace. In 1995 the Picturedrome was demolished and with it decades of personal memories for generations of Tralee people. The painted sign over its doorway read, 'The World In Motion', which was appropriate given that it brought the world a little closer to Tralee folk for one evening every week. John worked for another 21 years in Tralee Omniplex until technology finally took over. Today, the movies are digitally timed to screen, which brought a swift end to the role of the projectionist.
"It was an exciting job, and it was often a strange feeling knowing the whole town was waiting on you to put the film on, a film that might have received great reviews and people had waited months to see. The cinema today isn't the same. The films long ago were way better films with better actors. I wouldn't have much time for modern films as there's too much violence and gore nowadays."