BY JIM NOLAN
WHEN the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties railway closed on September 30th 1957 my dreams of becoming a train driver died with it.
I think all the boys around my age had the same wagons of cattle that seemed to have a life of their own as they powered past. As the last train passed at 7.30 pm on that day I realised I would have to find another dream occupation.
My dream of becoming a train driver began some three and a half years earlier when I experienced what it was like to drive a steam engine. At the time we lived in a gate house at a level crossing, my mother opened and closed the gates as necessary, they were supposed to be opened four minutes before the train was due, thus stopping any road traffic until the train had passed.
Over the years we had gotten to know all the drivers and firemen who would wave and blow the whistle at us as they passed.
In early March 1954 I had the misfortune to be knocked down by a van and badly injured on my way home from school, which meant I was in hospital for three months.
Shortly after my discharge from hospital a track maintenance crew were working in the area complete with a steam engine and a tender of stones. The engine stopped at our house and I was lifted onto the foot plate and shown what levers and valves to move to get some movement from this giant beast. After two hours of this I was returned home and firmly fixed in my mind was thoughts of a future career.
As luck would have it the following week there was a film showing which starred Grace Kelly who was a favourite of my mothers and I was allowed to go to the Regal cinema in Enniskillen to see it.
Although filmed and released in 1956 it took some time before the new films reached the provincial towns, there may have been only one or two copies of each film for the whole of Northern Ireland and Belfast and the larger towns had first call on them.
Having been granted a half day off school I set off with my older sister to see my first movie. It was like entering another world with its plush seats and subdued lighting.
Besides Grace Kelly, the film starred Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, incidentally, this was to be Graces last film before becoming Princess Grace of upon her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Also in the film was Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his band 'The Hot Five' comprising of Edmond Hall, clarinet, Trummy Young trombone, Billy Kyle piano, Arvel Shaw, bass, and Barnet Deems drums with Louis of course on trumpet.
While enthralled by what was in the screen I none the less looked towards the back wall of the cinema and saw this beam of light emanating from a square hole high up on the back wall. How this was transformed into the picture on the screen was a puzzle to me and the answer to this magical happening would lead to me finding my new dream career.
From this point I visited the cinema as often as my meagre pocket money would allow with westerns being the biggest attraction with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd and America’s most decorated soldier of the second world war Audie Murphy all performing heroics on screen.
On one occasion I was allowed to visit the projection box to see for myself how this magic took place this only strengthened my resolve to become a projectionist.
In my last year at school I was offered a part time post as trainee projectionist in the Ritz cinema and when the school year finished I began my apprenticeship.
After a short time in the Ritz an opportunity to take up a position in the Regal presented itself, and I moved to the opposition which was part of Odeon cinemas owned by the Rank organisation. Although the Regal was an older cinema it had much more modern equipment, state of the art Kalee projectors (the Rolls Royce of projectors) a stereophonic sound system (unheard of outside the big cities) in addition there was a generator to produce our own electricity, this was driven by a massive National engine weighting some six tons and having a flywheel some eight feet in diameter meaning that we were free from the disruption which may have been caused by a power failure.
In fact during the Second World War some local business depended on the Regal for electricity from said generator.
The Regal was part of the Rank organisation trading as Odeon cinemas and part of a large group which included Lyceum which was also the distribution centre, Regal Lisburn Road, the Broadway and Capitol in Belfast also the Tonic Bangor, Majestic Portrush, among others.
At that time there were only four cinemas in County Fermanagh - the Regal & Ritz in Enniskillen, Astral in Lisnaskea & Adelphi in Irvinestown. It always amazed me that the village of Fintona in county Tyrone less than twenty miles fron Enniskillen boasted two cinemas, the Mecca and the Pavillion, both were small with only two hundred and fifty seats each. The Pavillion closed in1968 while the Mecca struggled on until 1972.
The Regal cinema opened in January 1936 and closed in February 1967 by which time I had graduated to chief projectionist. My training had included a course in electrics, maintenance of seats, projectors and pest control as well as preparing the films for showing.
The week began with preparing the film for the Monday matinee performance usually commencing around 2.30. This involved removing the reels of film very carefully from their cases, checking for any damage and putting them on spools ready for showing.
Each reel had approximately twenty minutes so this meant five or six reels per film. Usually there was a second feature or as we called them the wee picture, quite often they were westerns with the likes of Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Smiley Burnette and Walter Brennan. There were also the singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.
The films were delivered by bus courtesy of the U T A who at that time transported parcels as well as people. They generally arrived around 10.25am but on the odd occasion they were not on that bus and this meant a mad dash to get the first reel checked and spooled up to start the matinee.
We did carry an emergency film in case the worst happened and we did have to use this on one occasion. The film was an Ealing comedy called ‘Meet mister Lucifer’ with a cast of many noted actors and actresses of the time including Stanley Holloway, Joseph Tomelty and Barbara Murray and was written by Arnold Ridley who was later to find fame as private Godfrey in the television series Dads Army.
Normally each film had a two day run so Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings the programs were prepared, when we had shown the films they were returned to the Rank depot in Belfast but sometimes we would get instructions to send them to the next cinema where they being shown. This would on occasions mean an after show dash to the bus station if they needed to be on an early bus the next day. This would also mean listening to the complaints from a friend who worked in the bus depot and had to stay late to receive the films. The usual moan was ’I could have been at the dance in the town hall half an hour ago’, he got no sympathy from me as I was in the same boat.
One of the most memorable films I showed was Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston, which won no less that 11 Academy awards. It was released in 1959, and co starring with Heston were Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd who was originally from Glengormley. Stephen has just recently been honoured by having a Blue plaque by the Ulster History Circle erected in recognition of his career which ended far too soon at the early age of forty seven.
He had appeared in more than sixty films, not bad for someone who had started his career as a policeman in the Radio programme ‘The McCooeys’ on Radio Ulster.
The chariot race lasted on screen for nine minutes and some people claimed a Volkswagen beetle could be spotted in the distance and that a Roman soldier was wearing a wrist watch during it, however we showed the film twice a day for a week and did not notice any continuity mistakes.
Some other classic films shown were Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a line often wrongly quoted as being from this film was ‘Play it again Sam’ but this was never said on screen - same as ‘You dirty rat’ credited to James Cagney from the film Blond Crazy but in fact he never said it.
One of the finest war films of the time was The Longest Day which dealt with the Normandy landings in June 1944. There was a plethora of top stars both British and American such as John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda and Rod Steiger while pop singer Paul Anka also had a role as well as writing the song for the film.
Among the British actors were Kenneth More, Jack Headley, Richard Burton, Leslie Phillips and Sean Connery whose next film was to be Doctor No the first of his James Bond movies. Richard Todd, who spent much of his childhood in Toome, took part in the D Day landings while he was a captain in the Parachute regiment was also in the film. Incidentally Todd’s father AWP Todd played international rugby for Ireland on several occasions.
Legendary producer Darryl F Zannuck who founded the Twentieth Century Fox studio was the man in charge and while there were many factual mistakes such as planes used which were not built until after the war ended and some items of uniform not in use in 1944 to be seen it was nonetheless a riveting show of close to three hours duration.
This meant only one showing per night as head office dictated all shows should finish between 10- 30pm and 10.50pm as last buses usually departed around 11pm - which suited me fine as it meant I started an hour later than usual.
With the closure of the Regal and a scarcity of employment in Fermanagh I moved to Antrim to work in the British Enkalon factory and have lived here ever since.
I joined Antrim Rugby Club - then only in their third season - and was delighted to play on the first Antrim side to beat local kingpins Ballymena and kicked the two penalty goals which gave us a 6-3 victory. It still rankles that the local paper credited the goals to another player, still this puts the record straight albeit fifty years late! A serious injury brought my rugby playing days to an end an 1975.
I very occasionally visit the cinema these days as there is no longer an art to showing films. Laser discs have taken all the magic out of the experience. One operator can now control everything showing in the gigantic multi screen theatres.
By the late sixties cinemas were beginning to struggle financially with the advent of colour television. First to fall was the Camlin, a 400 seat cinema which closed in 1962. The picture house in Randalstown closed the same year but re-opened in 1963 before finally giving up the ghost in 1969.
Incredibly the first cinema in the mid Antrim area was in Gogry which opened in 1919 but closed in 1932, an event which coincided with the Reo cinema in Ballyclare commencing to do business and entertaining audiences until its closure in the late sixties.
The two largest cinemas in the locality the Tower with 1,400 seats, 1937 to 1976 and the State 1100 seats 1935 to 1978 were out lived by the Regal in Larne which traded successfully from 1937 to 1986, it then re-opened in 1992 as a four screen theatre before finally closing up shop in 2001.
And what you may ask became of the 400 seater Antrim cinema which opened in 1931 and closed in 1977?
Well, plans were afoot to provide a replacement when it was destroyed along with most of Castle Street to make way for the new road way, but these came to nothing when it was discovered that Mr. Sheilds the owner actually only had the cinema on lease and so did not receive any compensation for his loss of livelihood, thus leaving Antrim without a cinema until the opening in October 1994 of the four screen Cineplex on Fountain hill.
This has now closed due to competition from the massive ten screen Omniplex situated at Junction One.
When they closed they were still using 35mm projectors, but the stampede to digital meant the films were no longer available. Shame.
A website 'cinema treasures' contains details of most of the cinemas in the UK and Ireland should anyone wish to re-visit their past experiences and assisted greatly with this article.