Northern Ireland’s Oldest Cinema turns 85 with the launch of Strand Stories

Northern Ireland’s oldest cinema building is celebrating its 85th birthday. The Strand in East Belfast was opened by the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Crawford McCullagh, on 7th December 1935. Since then, three or four generations of the same families have been through its doors. This week also sees the launch of ‘Strand Stories’, a new project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund that aims to record, cherish and promote the social and architectural heritage of this iconic local landmark.

The Strand is the only survivor from that golden age of cinema when Belfast alone boasted over 40 picture palaces. Architect John McBride Neill’s stunning design was heavily influenced by the Strand’s proximity to Harland & Wolff. The exterior of the building is shaped like the bow of a ship, and the nautical theme continues inside with curved walls, porthole windows and light fittings.

Councillor Peter McReynolds, Belfast City Council, Strand Arts Centre Chief Executive Mimi Turtle and Sonya Whitefield, Development Officer, Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Strand Arts Centre Chief Executive Mimi Turtle said:

“The Strand has adapted to community needs over the decades and has enjoyed spells both as a cinema and a variety theatre. No longer a commercial cinema, the Strand Arts Centre charity took over the tenancy of the building in 2013 with the support of key stakeholders including our principal funder, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The ambition was to meet an evidenced need for more arts provision in the area. Since then, Strand Arts Centre has demonstrated an overwhelming appetite for more live entertainment. Last year over 60,000 people attended a busy programme of film screenings, live theatre and music events, creative workshops and education projects for young people. The venue is widely used by many festivals and by the local community for school visits, film premieres and charity fundraising events.”

Noirin McKinney, Director of Arts Development, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, said:

“We warmly congratulate the Strand Arts Centre on their 85th birthday and are proud to support them in providing a wonderful range of arts activities to people of all ages in east Belfast. The venue itself is an Art Deco gem and we wish the team continued success as they embark upon an impressive refurbishment to make the building even more inviting.”

Strand Arts Centre is planning a £4.6m transformation in the near future thanks to £1.8m catalyst funding from Belfast City Council.

“The Strand is full of character and we want to preserve and promote its heritage,” said Mimi, “but the building requires extensive renovation to improve facilities for audiences and performers, including disabled access throughout, and to meet the demand for youth and education activities. We are hugely grateful to the council for its vote of confidence and much-needed investment in the local community.

“Through our Strand Stories project we want to encourage Strand audiences, past and present, to share their memories of, and future aspirations for, this treasured East Belfast venue. I know lots of people out there will have great stories to tell about visits to the Strand. Many went through the life cycle of attending the Saturday Minors Club as children, progressing to first dates in the back row and subsequently bringing their own children, and very often their grandchildren too. And let’s not forget the dozens of projectionists, usherettes and concierges over the years.”

Paul Mullan, Director, Northern Ireland, The National Lottery Heritage Fund said:

“We’re delighted to support The Strand as they celebrate their 85th birthday and launch Strand Stories. This is a really exciting project which will bring to life the unique history and memories associated with the history of this iconic and much-loved east Belfast cinema. Thanks to National Lottery players, this project will involve people of all ages in shaping and sharing the stories of its fascinating past.”

Having been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions for a second time since mid-October, Mimi and her team are preparing to re-open the doors of Strand Arts Centre on 11th December.

“It’s such a shame that we have to celebrate our 85th birthday in self-isolation!” said Mimi. “But we know that our audiences will return as soon as they are allowed. A family outing to Christmas classics such as Elf or Home Alone is a festive tradition for many of our regulars. We have other seasonal favourites including screenings of Katherine Jenkins and Bolshoi Ballet’s The Nutcracker. And we have a following desperate to see the return of live performances once restrictions are lifted.”

History and Heritage of the Strand

  • The Strand was opened on 7th December 1935, built for and operated by the English-based Union Cinemas chain. It had one screen with a stage and 1,170 seats. The first film shown was Bright Eyes starring Shirley Temple.
  • It was built in the grounds of Strandtown House, home to the Heyn family of Headline Shipping and Ulster Steamship Companies fame. It is the last of the pre-war Belfast cinemas still in operation.
  • Its architect was John McBride Neill whose prolific body of cinema work included the Curzon (Ormeau Road), the Majestic (Lisburn Road) and the Tonic (Bangor).
  • The cinema’s design was influenced by its proximity to the nearby shipyard of Harland & Wolff, with the exterior curved like the bow of a ship.
  • One of the features of the decoration inside the auditorium was three rows of portholes on the splay walls on each side of the proscenium (the rectangular frame “arch” around the stage). These were backlit and gave the feel of being inside an ocean liner. The proscenium had a wide plain border surrounding all four sides and had rounded corners. Seating was provided in stalls and circle levels. A café was located on the first floor.
  • In October 1937, Union Cinemas was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) who continued to operate it until 1977. Having closed for barely a week, it then resumed under local independent ownership until 1983, when rumours began to circulate that the Strand was about to be knocked down, converted to a bingo hall or sold to a supermarket chain!
  • Reopened in 1984 by local businessman Ronnie Rutherford, it operated under the name Strand Variety as a concert and live performance venue on its 14 feet deep stage until 1987. Performers included the comedy duo Little and Large and The Drifters.
  • Ronnie Rutherford had always entertained the hope that the Strand would return to being a cinema. His dream became a reality when it reopened for films in April 1988. Moving with the times, it had been converted to a 4-screen complex: seating in Screen 1: 276, Screen 2: 196, Screen 3: 90 and Screen 4: 80. The most popular film on was Three Men and a Baby, which ran for 26 weeks!
  • The building’s façade was restored in 1999, emphasising its Art Deco style, and winning a RIBA Architecture Award.
  • In 2013, the Strand ceased trading as a commercial cinema and Strand Arts Centre was established as a not-for-profit charitable venture to ensure the short-term survival of the building. There are longer term plans to completely renovate the Strand.

To find out more about Strand Stories, and what’s on at the venue over the festive period, visit www.strandartscentre.com

Phone (028) 9065 5830

About The National Lottery Heritage Fund: Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about – from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife.

www.heritagefund.org.uk.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.