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16 October 2014
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The Ritz in Belfast

Ex-Projectionist of the Curzon cinema, William Blaney, gives a brief history of the Ritz cinema in Belfast

The Ritz cinema

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The Ritz was built by Union Cinemas and acquired by ABC in 1938. The biggest in Northern Ireland with over 2200 seats, it opened its doors for the first time in November 1936. The opening film was “Queen Of Hearts”, starring Gracie Fields, at that time at the peak of her popularity. On the first night all seats were filled to see Our Gracie, who appeared on stage as well as on screen.

The cinema had a large foyer at both stalls and balcony-level, the latter being reached via a grand staircase over which hung an opulent chandelier. The restaurant offered excellent meals to both cinema-goers and the public in general, as well as an area for dancing.

The Ritz was equipped with Ross projectors and Peerless “Magnarcs”. Between the machines stood a biunial slide lantern, used to project the words of the songs played on the Compton organ as part of every programme. Reckoned to be one of the finest on the ABC circuit, it was played for fourteen years by the great Joseph Seal, who also made many live broadcasts from the Ritz on the old BBC Light programme, as did his successor, Stanley Wyllie. In 1959 Stanley left to become a transmission controller with the new ITV franchise-holder for the area, Ulster Television.

I had the great good fortune to meet and work with Stanley for several years when I went there in 1977 as a film assembler. He told me that the Ritz was considered the top job amongst ABC organists, which may account for the fact that the post was held mainly by only two players in its twenty-six years.

The Ritz cinema Fisherwick Place, Belfast, was opened by Gracie Fields in 1936
The Ritz cinema in Belfast

 

In 1953 the Ritz installed synchronising equipment and a stereophonic sound system for the showing of the 3D feature, “House Of Wax”, and a few others in that format followed. It was also the first cinema in the city to advertise the fact that all its films would in future be shown on the “giant wide screen”. This was simply a larger picture with the top and/or bottom masked off to give an aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

By 1954 the major studios were shooting their product with all significant action inside an imaginary frame to allow projection at this ratio without decapitating the actors. Cinemascope followed, of course, but the greatest advance came in 1959 with the installation of new projectors for the showing of “South Pacific” in Todd-AO.

The Ritz allegedly had the largest projection box in Europe at some eighty feet wide. But the angle of projection was too steep to allow an undistorted picture from 70mm film, so several dozen seats at the rear of the balcony were sacrificed to make way for a new booth directly underneath the existing one. The projectors were not dual-gauge, because at the first showings, the newsreel, trailers and adverts were projected from the old box. But eventually, Philips DP70s and new “Strong” arcs were installed. The picture quality and that of the six-track magnetic sound was something not previously experienced by Belfast audiences. Many of the wide-gauge features were shown throughout the sixties and early seventies. These included the blown-up version of “Gone With The Wind”, and a 70mm print of “The Ten Commandments”, originally made in Vistavision.

Disaster struck the Ritz, or rather the ABC, as the cinema was now known, in 1971. The organ had already been silent to cinema audiences for about twelve years, of course, but now prolonged heavy rain resulted in the flooding of the organ chambers which occupied the space beneath the stage. Joseph Seal, who had been the circuit’s musical director since 1952, came over from England to inspect the damage, but sadly nothing could be done. But much worse was to follow in September 1977 when several incendiary bombs were hidden in the seats and the cinema’s interior and roof were totally destroyed during the night.

It was eventually rebuilt and opened some four years later as the Cannon 4-Screen. But the atmosphere of the huge auditorium, the wide screen and the plush seating could not be recaptured, and the Cannon closed a few years later with the opening of a purpose-built 10-screen not far away. The cinema was demolished and the site is now occupied by Jury’s Hotel.

 

RELATED LINKS

Billy recalls the Roy Rogers club at the Curzon Cinema

Your Curzon memories

Brief history of the Curzon

 

YOUR RESPONSES

Philip Wilson - June '08
My mother took my twin brother and I to the Ritz every year to see the pantomime. All the staff wore smart uniforms and Frank Carson usually played the role of Buttons in Cinderella. It was a huge magical place to me as a child and has memories I'll never forget

David Ellis - Feb '08
I worked in the Ritz in 1959 and have fond memories of the staff. I left to join the RAF. I wonder if any of the staff of that time remember me. Some names that I remember Ada, John, Mickey, Junior. IF any does remember please get in touch.

Robert Louden - Feb '08
The Ritz also played host to many live acts including The Beatles, 8th November 1963 and Bob Dylan, during his infamous electric tour, in 1966.

Des Walker - Jan '07
I remember going from Donaghadee to see Frankie Laine perform live on stage at the Ritz. The organ never leaves your memory, because it was played so beautifully by Mr Seal. The screen was very large, compared to "The Regal Cinema"in Donaghadee and brings back fond memories. The only other organ that impressed me was also similar to the Compton. That was inToronto,Canada (Sheas Theatre)and it also came up from below,with all it's lights,etc.That was around 1955-56.

Paul Robinson - April '06
In 1962 as part of the publicity for the launch of the Triumph Spitfire car one was driven into the foyer of the Ritz and left on display beside the shop. The car was supplied by the Clarence Engineering Co. Ltd, Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, Standard-triumph distributor for Northern Ireland.

Geoff Pike - July '05
What about the demos outside when the Exorcist was shown ??

Joe Mc Caffery - July '05
Enjoyed reading about the Ritz. Went with my mother every week seen Mrs Miniver also How Green Was My Valley. I lived at 64 Unity Street, my father at that time was in the navy.

FSDowie - July '05
I remember as a young boy going to the Ritz and being enthralled by the wonderful playing of Joseph Seal. What a magnificent sight to see the mighty Compton rise from the pit, all lights flashing, as Joe introduced his programme with his signature tune, "Do ye ken John Peel"? - Happy memories!


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