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A history of Cinema in Belfast

Belfast's cinematic history, with a special look back on the Curzon Cinema.
By James Gracey .

ML 1030

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In 1969 there were over twenty cinemas still operative in Belfast. By 1978 there were only five still operative due to the harsh decline in cinema-going due to television, political unrest and competition from multi-screened complexes.

The first cinema screenings occurred in different places throughout the world - the most notable however were those of the Lumiere Brother's in Paris 1895. However, at this early stage cinema was presented as a scientific curiosity. The Lumiere Brothers film "The Arrival of a Train" created such a stir when it was first screened to bewildered audiences - who fled the cinema thinking the train would plunge at them from the screen. Audiences are a little more sophisticated now and the only notion they have of images leaving the screen is when they are watching a film in 3D.

Early Beginnings
The first ever film screening in Belfast took place in The Empire Palace of Varieties, 1896, which used to stand next to where the Kitchen bar stood - until recently.

Other early film screenings happened in the Ulster Hall and Belfast YMCA.

This 'scientific curiosity' became very popular very quickly and the spread of cinemas throughout Belfast was rapid. The earliest cinemas known in Belfast were the Princess Palace, the Kevlin, Shaftsbury Pictoria, Picture House on Royal Avenue and the Shankill Picturedrome.

The growth of cinemas throughout Belfast serves to reflect the growth and popularity of film in general throughout this time. Film was now entering the era of Chaplin and was more popular and in demand than ever before.

The Talkies
In 1926 cinema experienced a revelation that would change it forever - sound. The first 'talkie' was The Jazz Singer and was incredibly popular. Many cinemas however struggled to make the transition to accommodate the presentation of 'talkies' in the thirties as it was expensive and many believed it was just a phase and would never 'catch on.'

The cinema boom of 1933 was greatly influenced by two men in particular - Michael Curran - a cinema proprietor - and J. McBride Neill - a local architect. Together they were responsible for creating some of Belfast's most renowned picture houses.

Cinemas during the war did an incredible job of boosting the morale of the public. Films of an uplifting inclination were extremely popular during the forties. Newsreels kept the audiences informed on what was happening on the front line.

Impact of Television & The Troubles
Just over the horizon though was a devastating blow to cinema in the form of television which would result in the gradual decline and destruction of the majority of Belfast's cinemas.

By the seventies, the political unrest and 'troubles' in Northern Ireland began to kill off those cinemas that hadn't been slaughtered already by television.

The Curzon was among those that suffered at the hands of terrorists - on 23rd September, 1977 - it and The New Vic and ABC (formerly the Ritz) were hit by fire bomb attacks. The latter two were destroyed however the Curzon managed to have a grand re-opening later that year with the screening of Star Wars.

Michael Open - author of Fading Lights Silver Screens - remarked in his book that the Curzon "seems to have been constructed from the essence of cinema."

<< Back to the Curzon Cinema

 

RELATED LINKS

Ex Projectionist Billy Blaney looks back at two of Belfast's cinematic institutions :

The Roy Roger's Club
The Ritz

 

 

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