Recalling the day that Cork got a 900-seat cinema

JO KERRIGAN relives the glory days of the Pavilion Cinema on Patrick Street, as it marks the centenary of its opening next week
Recalling the day that Cork got a 900-seat cinema

A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES: Crowds at a memorable midnight matinee screening of Show Boat at the Pavillion Cinema, Cork, on May 16, 1952. The cinema opened on March 10, 1921, and closed in 1989.

THE first sign of something new and exciting happening on Leeside was an announcement in the papers in January, 1920:

“The Pavilion Café and Cinema Ltd, 80, Patrick Street, Cork, has been registered with a capital of £35,000 in £1 shares, the first directors being Messrs T. J. Moran, A. O’Shaughnessy, Jas. Dowdall, Jas. Madden, Jos. Slattery, and F. W. Chambers. The first directors of Dowdall & Co, whose capital is 10,000 £1 shares, are Messrs T. P. Dowdall, 4 Alexandra Ter, Cork, P. Brady, 37 Ballyhooly Rd, Cork, J. C. Foley and D. O’Callaghan.”

And finally, The Pavilion was opened, a century ago next week, on March 10, 1921, after a year during which excitement had been intense among passers-by as the immense building slowly grew from the ground up to a splendid height.

When completed, it had a decorative white limestone façade, a regal entrance, and marble steps sweeping up to the first floor.

Inside the 900-seat auditorium it had a 26ft wide proscenium. A very pleasant additional facility was a cafe, located on the first floor above the entrance, where ladies could take morning coffee, and Cork’s merchant class their lunch. There was even a ballroom, for heaven’s sake!

Notice the opening date though? 1921?

That wasn’t exactly the best of times on Leeside, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. The War of Independence was raging, Irish forces fighting British, and the Burning of Cork had destroyed Patrick Street a few months earlier.

There was danger on every corner, and, to make it even more difficult, there was a curfew forbidding Corkonians to be out on the streets after dark.

(This writer’s mother remembered the terror of going home from school along Sunday’s Well, with English soldiers swerving their Crossley tenders towards the narrow pavement to frighten her.)

But, nevertheless, the great and the good of Cork city felt that a splendid cinema was what we needed to pull ourselves out of the past and into a positive future.

And so, on March 10, 1921, the Pav opened its doors for the very first time, showing D. W. Griffith’s film, The Greatest Question.

It was good melodramatic fare, with Lilian Gish playing the poor orphan girl at the mercy of a brutal farmer and his wife, and it also brought in spirits from beyond the grave, a murder witnessed many years earlier by the heroine, and even managed to end with the discovery of an oil well so that Gish could marry the impoverished hero. Excellent stuff, and still well regarded.

You only got one chance to see it in Cork that March day 100 years ago, though, as there was just one matinee screening, due to the curfew, but the place was packed. The Pavilion was off to a good start.

Mr Wates, the first manager of the cinema, was never entirely happy with the design, though, deploring the lack of attention given by architects to the construction of theatre lobbies.

“The lobby is the exhibitor’s shop window,” he complained crossly, “so why don’t architects put in shop windows so we can display our wares?”

The keynote of all advertising, he said (doubtless with his hand on his heart) was sincerity, “and it is essential that the manager of every cinema studies the features of his programme in order that he may use his own judgement as to just exactly how much advertising each picture will justify.”

The Pavillion Cinema, St. Patrick's Street, Cork in the 1950's.
The Pavillion Cinema, St. Patrick's Street, Cork in the 1950's.

When Mr Wates showed Ranson’s Folly — a 1926 film about an American army lieutenant who holds up a stagecoach for a joke, and lives to regret it — he pointed out that he had made considerable use of “throwaways” or handout leaflets, with excellent results at the box office.

Mr Wates had been the manager of several cinemas in the UK before coming to Cork, and was thus well up on the latest techniques and strategies for getting full houses.

Today we see previews all over our TV screens, but back then hand-outs were a very practical way of letting people know what was coming up. That and De Paper of course!

In 1927, always on the look-out for new improvements, the Pav introduced the very latest word in technology, the Automaticket system which dealt promptly and efficiently with “a cashier’s inability to cope with rush-hour business”, as well as sorting the problem of patrons “vanishing from the queue because of cold or weariness”.

A stage had been included in the original Pavilion structure, and in the early days concerts and live performances took place as well as film screenings.

That organ of the theatrical world, The Era, noted in November, 1927, that Miss Sonia Summers had sung He’s The Last Word “with complete success” here.

Alas, the theatre was swept by fire in 1930, and though swiftly rebuilt, the stage did not return, and there were no more live shows.

Remember that great musical, Singin’ In the Rain, and its entertaining theme of the chaos caused by talking pictures as opposed to silents? It’s an excellent recreation of what actually happened, and how the movie industry dealt with this new invention. They weren’t slow in taking it up at the Pav. It was the very first cinema in Cork to be equipped for “the talkies”, showing The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson, in 1929.

Over the decades, great movie after great movie came to the Pavilion, ensuring crowded houses.

On one memorable occasion, the cinema held a midnight screening of the Jerome Kern musical of old Mississippi days, Show Boat.

The Catholic Standard of April 4, 1952, did a bit of advertising itself, reminding readers that they could see an uplifting film about Fatima at the Pav from that Sunday.

One imagines that this was considered suitable viewing for Easter week. Its screening would hardly have been allowed in Lent, even though on such an approved topic. Connie would never have allowed it!

The poet George Harding has happy memories of Cork cinema-going in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which he has recounted in On one occasion, he recalls, he and some friends tried to duck in without paying at the Pav.

“We were usually successful, but our plan was thwarted in the Pav one day, and we ended up in the manager’s office.

“He turned out to be a nice old sort when he discovered who we really were. He knew my father (the legendary George Harding who ran that bicycle shop on South Terrace for so many years), and sent us off home telling us to be good boys in future.

“It was embarrassing for us, but I often wondered how the Old Man felt! He never mentioned it, I suppose because he was a movie buff himself.

“I was coming home from the Palace one night on the bus, and he happened to be on it. He asked me where I had been, and I told him. ‘What picture was it?’ he asked, and I said Kissin’ Cousins with Elvis Presley. He raised his eyes to heaven as if to say ‘God help us’. He was right there, because the King only made one or two good flicks, and Kissin’ Cousins was probably the worst one he ever made.

“I asked the auld fellah where he had been, and he said he had been to the Pavilion to see The Old Man And The Sea with Spencer Tracy, in one of the triumphs of the screen.”

George, get in touch. I want to hear more!

The Pavillion Cinema restuarant, Patrick Street, Cork 12/12/1958.
The Pavillion Cinema restuarant, Patrick Street, Cork 12/12/1958.

And we want to hear from the rest of you too. What are your memories of the grand old Pav? What films do you remember seeing there? Did you join the Sunday night queue or did you rush to the Saturday matinees?

Remember the queues for Doctor Zhivago with Omar Sharif in the 1960s, or Lady Caroline Lamb with Richard Chamberlain in the 1970s? Or can you remember further back, to those classics of the 1950s?

Did you dine at that splendid café on the first floor, with its unrivalled view of Patrick Street and everybody who passed by? Did you know any of the Kelly family, who were involved in its running right through its life?

We want to know! If you can get hold of a copy of John McSweeney’s The Golden Age Of Cork Cinemas, do. It has some wonderful stories in it.

Sadly, both cinema and café closed in August, 1989, although that magnificent street frontage still stands.

Appropriately, the very last film was Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. In keeping with the new times, the auditorium was converted into a nightclub, while the former foyer became a retail outlet.

Much of the wonderful original decoration was restored and remained visible in the nightclub, which was entered from a former exit on to Carey’ Lane, where once hundreds of children would rush out after a cowboy matinee.

Can you still see some of that wonderful Pav plasterwork in the now-closed nightclub, or in Fellini’s, the café on Carey’s Lane? Somebody confirm!

We should preserve at least some of the grandeur of other days. Happy 100th birthday, Pavilion!


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