The Picture House & Cafe

The Picture House on Main Street was the first purpose-built cinema in the town. Opened about 1912, it was capable of seating over 500 customers. The entrance, at pavement level, led into a foyer with a central box office. The auditorium seating sloped down to the screen. As the natural lie of the land permitted this design it was not necessary to build upwards. There was, however, a popular café at first floor level.

The Picture House, Main Street Portrush
The Picture House, Main Street Portrush

A report in the Ballymoney Free Press and Northern Counties Advertiser dated 14th September 1916 indicates that Mr George Watson was associated with the Picture House but whether as Owner or Manager is not clear.

At the start of the First World War, The Picture House was reported to be enjoying good houses. The coming attraction was a film depicting life in the British Army and it was expected to appeal to the patriotic sentiment of the public. No doubt it was also intended to encourage young men to volunteer for the armed services as there was no conscription in Ireland.

The auditorium could also be used for variety shows, talks, lectures, etc. In August 1917 Mr W. Rochfort Wade M.A. gave a lecture on the work of St. Dunstan’s Hostel in aid of soldiers and sailors blinded during the war. Several more lectures, concerts and entertainments were held during the war to raise funds for organisations such as the British Red Cross Society and the Prisoners of War Fund. The Picture House continued to accommodate entertainments other than ”moving pictures” after the war.

At the start of 1928 The Bioscope,  a trade newspaper, reports the ill health, and the consequent death of Mr Bob Cooper who it describes as:

“.. the popular manager of the Picture House, Portrush, ..”
“.. who was an old member of the trade [who] had been connected with the house since its establishment some years ago ..”

From this it would seem that the aforementioned Mr George Watson was the owner of the Picture House.

Later in 1928 The Bioscope records the first of many special performances in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution who benefitted to the grand sum of nearly £30, a not inconsiderate figure at that time. The RNLI would continue to benefit annually from such special performances. Other local organisations such as Hopefield Cottage Hospital and Portrush District Nursing Association would also benefit from such events – although on a more occasional basis than the RNLI.

Once again The Bioscope is the source of our information when it reports “Remarkable Kalee Progress” and continues:

“The first eight weeks of 1931 constituted another record in the progress of the Kershaw Projector Company. No less than 104 installations have been made in this very short period and we attach a list of the various cinemas in which these installations have taken place.”

The Kershaw Projector Company was one of the leading cinema projector manufacturers at that time and the list referred to includes “Picture House, Portrush” amongst cinemas in major towns and cities across the U.K. including Belfast, London, Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Portrush was certainly keeping up with the times and providing quality through the use of the latest technology.

By 1932 The Picture House is advertising itself across Northern Ireland as the:

“Most Up-to-date and Comfortable Provincial Cinema in Ulster” and “The House of Pleasing Sound”

It offers Continuous Performances from 7 pm to 11 pm Monday to Saturday with a matinee on Saturday at 3 pm together with changes of programmes on Monday and Thursday. An article in the Northern Whig dated 28 June 1932 tells us that a new sound system manufactured by B.T.H. (British Thompson Houston Ltd.) “is a guarantee that the interests of the audience are fully catered for.” A further report in July by the same newspaper informs us that:

“.. under the management of Mr Jack May, [the Picture House] has become one of the most up-to-date cinemas outside Belfast.”

The plaudits continue through subsequent years with, in 1934 The Northern Whig again extolls promotes The Picture House with:

“ ..aims constantly to provide with courtesy, in comfort and cleanliness, the very best form of entertainment produced by the cinema world.”

In 1936 The Picture House becomes embroiled in a legal action with three local shopkeepers, whose premises adjoined The Picture House, seeking an injunction against The Portrush Estate Company Ltd., owners of the cinema, to abate a nuisance caused by the assembly of queues outside the cinema.

The Barrister for the plaintiffs, Israel Samuels, Albert Rhodich and Robert Lee, read affadavits from them:

“..setting out the harm which they alleged had been done to their businesses by queues.”

In response the Barrister for the defendant stated that:

“.. the Picture House had been in existence for 20 years and that this was the first action of the kind. It was significant that the action followed a wet July when crowds gathered under a glass verandah of the picture house to shelter from the weather.”

Mr Justice Megaw did not think that he would be justified in granting an injunction.

Mr Jack May continued as Manager up to 1939 but advertisements appearing in 1940 name Mr Charles F. Quigley as Manager.

The café above the cinema was let on a tenancy to Mrs Cooper, probably the widow of the first Manager, Bob Cooper, but in March 1942 a notice appears in the Belfast News-Letter intimating that she is retiring from business and wishes to sell “plant and Stock-In-Trade” together with a transfer of the tenancy. The café is described as:

“.. High-Class café business carried on by [Mrs Cooper] at The Picture House Portrush. A very profitable and exclusive business has been done extending over many years.”

The year 1953 saw one of the most tragic peace-time maritime accidents to impact on the shores of the U.K. The Princess Victoria, a passenger ferry travelling from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne at night foundered and sank in a mighty storm. Many lives were lost and a Princess Victoria Distress Fund was quickly set up to financially assist families who had lost loved ones and passengers and crew injured by the sinking. The first list of subscribers to the fund was published in the Belfast Telegraph dated 14th March 1953 and includes a contribution of £29 12s 5d from The Picture House in Portrush.

Cinemas prospered throughout the 1950s but the arrival of television, and especially colour television in the 1960s, created a competitive force which was to see the closure of many cinemas across the U.K. and Ireland. The Picture House persevered, passing through the hands of several owners and operating for a time more as a variety theatre then a cinema before being sold and re-developed as an amusement arcade under the name Sportsland.

Fire at Sportsland & L'Atelier 1976
Fire at Sportsland & L’Atelier 1976

On Tuesday 3rd August 1976 incendiary bombs planted by young members of the IRA, a republican terrorist organisation, started exploding in various premises around Portrush. One of the last to explode had been left in Sportsland. It started a raging fire which destroyed both it, the oldest cinema in the town, and L’Atelier Photographic Studio next door.

Sportsland was later rebuilt as a completely new building on the same site and continues to operate today.