IT’S BEEN almost a quarter of a century since the Ritz Cinema in Enniskillen closed its doors for the last time, ending an era for many Fermanagh film lovers. Recently one man, with an even closer affinity to the iconic building than most, stepped back in time to relive the romance of those bygone days. For Neil Reid, it was an emotional and nostalgic trip down memory lane. A trip he, of course, captured on film for posterity – or at least the 21st century version of film, a digital camera.
As can be seen from Neil’s photos, the Ritz has seen better days. Opened in 1954 and closed in 1992, for decades Neil’s late father Hammie was the resident projectionist.
Neil, who can be seen in one of the older photos here as “a wee lad”, spent many a day along with his brother Tony and sister Colleen helping out at the Ritz, back at a time of proper film reels, when people were shown personally to their seats, and “the boys with the torches” would shine their lights on canoodling couples.
“I literally grew up in the cinema,” he said. “I spent most of my weekends there. My brother and sister and I had the run of the place.
“We’d help with the clearing up, and we’d look for money under the seats. We’d even find some the odd time. We also helped sell the tickets and did the torches and things later.”
He continued: “Back then they used the old 35mm film, and my father would have to change the reels. That little black dot you used to see coming up on the screen at times was to let the projectionists know they had a few minutes to change the reel. In later years they had what they called a tower that let them put all the reels in one together.
“Sometimes the film would break down, there were always glitches and it could even melt. Everyone would have to wait and as my father fixed it.
“You could still smoke in cinemas back in those days. You would hear the projector going, hear the it ticking, and when you looked back around you’d see the smoke hanging in the air.”
With plenty of local characters such as Gerry Breen and Eamon Convey in the projection booth and Mrs Beatty working in the tuck shop, Neil said the Ritz, which also doubled as a music venue, always had a great community feel.
“It was like a big family,” he said. “It was a family-run cinema, and John James McManus was the owner. His son Dermot ran it for most of my childhood.”
The first film ever shown at the cinema was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of many big hits down through the decades. In Neil’s time it was Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Wars and ET that drew the biggest crowds to the 700-seater venue.
“Jaws was the first big one I remember, in 1975. They were queued the whole way up around the block and down Belmore Street for that one.
“I’ll also always remember Batman, which came out on Friday, August 11, 1989. It was the first movie that ever came out at the same time across the world, and we were all given Batman tops to wear. It was also the first PG13 film.”
Neil said he couldn’t remember too many films causing much controversy over the years, however he did recall how the cinema’s owners refused to screen the 1988 film Biloxi Blues starring Matthew Broderick as a mark of respect for those killed in the car crash the actor was involved in outside Enniskillen the previous year.
“I also remember sitting watching Rattle and Hum, when they mentioned the Enniskillen bomb,” he recalled. “That was a very poignant moment. The whole audience went very quiet, it was very raw at the time.”
The 80s saw also saw happier times at the Ritz, though, such as one jubilant day in 1985.
“Before people had satellites in their homes they brought in a massive satellite dish to broadcast the Barry McGuigan fight in 1985, when he became the champion of the world. That was very busy, and the adults sneaked in a few cans and so on. I remember watching it, it was brilliant.”
Earlier this month, Neil was kindly given exclusive permission to enter the cinema by current owner David Mahon, who is not selling the building as part of the Railway Hotel which recently came on the market. Neil stressed no one should try and enter the building themselves though, as it is in dilapidated state.
“Walking around it brought back so many memories,” he said, explaining how he and his brother had wanted to see it again for years, particularly since their father passed away. “It was so much smaller than I remember it. I found wee ticket stubs, half torn and saying ‘admit one’, that brought me straight back 30 years. There were also hand-written notes still in the projection box, which was quite emotional to see.
“To see it in the shape it’s in now, it is completely gutted and the seats are rotting, is sad. But I’m glad I did it. There was graffiti on the wall where someone wrote ‘movies are forever’, with a little kiss after it. I think that’s certainly true.”
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Posted: 9:00 pm March 31, 2016