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Silver Screen to Superstore: Comber's Cinemas

Once upon a time Castle Street in Comber provided evening entertainment to the local population in the form of their very own cinema. A night out to see the ‘Stars’ was a welcome break from the dull toil and humdrum of life’s ordinary labours. Today an evening’s entertainment, as often as not, is an armful of movies from the video hire shop, viewed on the ‘box’ from the comfort of the favourite armchair. It’s convenient, cheap, and apart from interruptions of the doorbell, the telephone, the kids, and the neighbours banging up their new dream kitchen, we can watch the movies and actually get to the end before pulling our hair out!

Moving images first became possible through the work of many pioneers such as Edward Muybridge, Louis Le Prince, and Thomas Edison by the 1890s. They all deserve credit for their part in sowing the seeds of the great motion picture industry which followed in their path, for it was they who made possible the illusion of movement required to make the horses gallop, the villain fall, and the lovers embrace! After the turn of the century picture shows began to spread far and wide, and new cinemas – or “picture palaces” – were booming everywhere.

However, it was not until some years later that the Comber public were first subjected to the thrill of the movies. Comber, having grieved the loss of Thomas Andrews (Jnr) on the doomed Titanic in 1912, was presented with the Andrews Memorial Hall built by his family after the tragedy. The hall was used for various community events, and it was here in the 1920s that the first picture shows took place. R.J. White who owned a sweet and ice-cream shop in Mill Street (next door to the present Lucky House Chinese Restaurant) was apparently a very industrious type who would try a hand at anything which turned over a “bob” or two! He even produced his own postcards of Comber scenes as another line in his shop. Mickey as he was affectionately known also practised a catering facility for weddings and other functions in the locality, and was well known in the realms of do’s, dances and hunt balls, since another of his services was in the provision of musicians as well. The Memorial Hall played host to many years of dancing, where on Friday nights Albert Grey, Gerry Petts and John Donnan among many others, gave of their best with piano, drums and violin. Partners were flung around in style as the melodic strains echoed through the bustling hall.

The move to picture shows seems fitting and inevitable. R J. White somehow armed himself with a projection machine and obtained reels of film from nearby established picture houses and the mainland. The first shows must have been an incredible experience for those who flocked to witness the event. The movies were all silent then, but a piano belted out in accompaniment with the flickering images – as was the usual thing in all the picture houses at the time. With the sad classics, of which there were many in that era, more than a few noses were blown and tears wiped away as the more melancholy chords emanated from the ivorys. On Saturdays the children’s matinee was twopence (2d) or less than ½p today! The Christmas period was especially memorable for the youngsters as they were all given a bag of sweets on their way in to the show.

However, by the early 30’s a rising number of towns all had their own proper cinemas. Newtownards had been enjoying the luxury of the “Palace” for some time now, and Bangor also had its own venue. Comber was decidedly dragging its feet! A real picture house was needed in the town. A building preferably long and narrow would be ideal, with a rake in the floor to give good vision from any seat. It was found in Castle Street in the form of long sloping stables situated beside, and belonging to, “The Old House” built in 1744 by John Andrews (the great) 1721-1808. These stables were cleared out and tastefully refurbished into Comber’s first cinema in 1933 by a Mr William McDonald who had already built and was running cinemas in Holywood and Killyleagh. With a curved white art deco front façade facing onto Castle Street, the interior walls were exotically painted in a style not unlike Chinese willow pattern, with lagoons and palm trees along the walls in mysterious browns, yellows and black. Until now the talking films which had arrived around 1928 had been employed only by the major towns with cinemas adequately arranged for the “sound on disc” and optical sound prints. With the arrival of the Picture House Comber could now meet the challenge, and show movies with full sound accompaniment. The poor old pianist was to become redundant!

A Christmas opening was not possible due to work still to be done, so it was delayed until the second week in January 1934, and an advert was presented in the “Co Down Spectator”. A huge crowd gathered outside, but after a long wait the management apologised, and advised them to disperse, due to the projection arrangements being uncompleted in time! The following week the first show went on while problems were still being ironed out on the sound equipment! The first feature was the new and greatly celebrated “King Kong” with Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot. A roaring good start!

My earliest memories of the Picture House are of the early 50’s when Saturday matinees were still a big occasion with the kids. A “bob” (5p) was paid at the ticket window at the entrance porch, followed by a spritely walk – or a racing gallop – down the long wooden corridor which travelled the length of the side wall. Entry was at the bottom near the screen where everyone could see who was coming in. The “Three Stooges” was a firm favourite with the kids just then, since there was an abundance of slapstick violence among the characters which was thoroughly enjoyed. Great whoops of delight shook the rafters when the titles filled the screen! Even by the 1950s a reel would sometimes begin upside down. Yet the Indians never fell off their horses unless they were shot – when they mysteriously went up the way before the projector rattled to a halt and the anomaly corrected to a crescendo of catcalls and raspberries! Dickson Adair was the well known “chucker out”, Winnie Quinn was on the staff, Jimmy McVeigh was a projectionist, and Willie Dowds was manager.

By now great strides in the world of electronics had been slowly and inevitably creeping upon us. The domestic television had become a reality and in Northern Ireland the first transmissions from B.B.C. came with the Queen’s coronation in 1953, and with it the birth of cinema’s new rival. Since the Picture House had opened in 1934 until the mid 50’s, there had been a marked rise in the population of Comber, and the building was becoming inadequate. Andrews’ Old House was still standing alongside the Picture House, having been home to Sergeant Edwards of the Comber Constabulary for a period earlier, and was now badly dilapidated. It had become a spooky old place. Tattered curtains were dropping from dark cobwebbed windows, and the more timorous of passers by would quicken their step at any time after sunset!

By late 1956 decisions had been made and the Old House was demolished to make way for a new Comber Cinema. It was to be of the most modern design in red brick, having a good frontage with car parking, an elegant roomy foyer with cinema shop, and stalls and balcony providing plush tip up seating for 399 people – including double seats at the sides. We might wonder how many budding romances around Comber these were responsible for! The new Cinema was opened on 9th December 1957 with a charity performance of ‘Interlude’, a new American film starring June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi. The official opening was conducted by the Rt. Hon. J.L.O. Andrews of Comber, Minister of Health and Local Government. The proceeds of the show went to the Comber Coal Fund for the elderly – a charity which the Andrews’ throughout the ages have always strongly supported. Lees, Hyman and Lees were by now operating the old Picture House, and since they were also the owners of the new one, saw fit to run them both together for a time. With two films per night showing two nights each this gave Comber people a grand choice of 12 movies each week! But in due course the Picture House closed its doors for good.

With a large proscenium and stage facility forward of the screen the new cinema catered for other community events, including fashion shows and visits by the great Edwin Heath (hypnotist), who could get locals onto the stage to perform the most incredible feats and comic acts to the delight of the audience! When the big blockbuster films came to Comber, it was common to see large crowds right out onto Castle Street and down towards the Square. Comber’s Jack McKeag was projectionist for many years, while among others Muriel Patton and Hilary Stevenson took turns at the tickets, the torch and the ice-cream tray.

By 1959 the Province acquired a second TV station, Independent Television. The ‘telly’ was now fast becoming the major part of the home entertainment scene, which hitherto had been the radio and record player. The thrill and convenience of having a television set in the home, albeit only black and white, was not to be under-estimated. It swept the nation by storm and programmes were as much on the lips of gabbling neighbours as the state of the weather! Cinema’s monopoly was coming to an end. But they fought back bravely. More material was in ‘full glorious colour’.

More films arrived in Cinemascope and widescreen. High fidelity stereo and surround sound became the norm, and with all this on offer a healthy patronage was assured for a few years more.

At this juncture an unusual and interesting development was taking place at Drumhirk just 2 miles outside Comber, off the Killinchy Road. Two well known brothers, Roy and Noel Spence, had been followers from the early 50’s of horror and Sci-fi movies and were ardent patrons of the local cinemas. So much so that by the 1970s Roy was earning a reputation for making extremely competent productions of his own on 8 and 16mm film, while Noel had become immersed in the technicalities of projection and showmanship.

In August 1974 Noel opened his very own cinema beside his home and named it “The Tudor” in appreciation of the old one he used to frequent in Bangor. Having a large circle of friends and acquaintances there was no shortage of patrons and full houses were the regular result of his choice of good old Dracula and similar cult movies of the fifties. Their great love of all things cinematic gradually led to even greater reputation, with Roy gradually amassing a large array of trophies and “Oscars” for his outstanding films, while The Tudor went from strength to strength.

In the meantime, colour broadcasts came along on television, and the video recorder became a highly desirable companion to the TV set. The nation now had the means to record and play back whatever movies their whims desired. It was a crippling blow to the cinemas, and soon they began to tumble. The future of Comber Cinema was starting to raise eyebrows. In October 1977 Newtownards’ last cinema burned down, but Comber soldiered on and even outlived the fall of Bangor’s Tonic Cinema in 1983. Concurrent with these eventful times was the emergence of a new religion sweeping the western world. And while the old monasteries of the movies were coming down the new cathedrals of consumerism were going up! ‘Supermac’ at Newtownbreda was one of the first on these shores, followed by a manic growth of supermarkets everywhere, including Ards Shopping Centre in 1976, and Springhill and Clandeboye Shopping Centres in Bangor. Big names were getting in on the act despite the troubled times the Province was now going through.

Surprisingly Comber, being one of the smaller towns, was under the microscope of a major chain store company. The cinema proprietors were approached, and the building was sold for a price that could not be refused. Doomsday was 27th October 1984 when a film called ‘Top Secret’ starring Val Kilmer and Peter Cushing was to be the last one to fill the screen after 27 years of service. There was no nostalgic send off or obituary. That night the keys were quietly turned in the locks as the staff vacated the premises, and the ghosts of the cinema ‘greats’ had the dark and silenced building all to themselves! F.A. Wellworth and Co. were the new owners, and Comber looked to the future – their very own shopping centre. Over a period of time the projection equipment and other important items found buyers, and the posters and nameboards at the front disappeared leaving the cinema an empty shell.

But still The Tudor at Drumhirk continued in style, and even expanded! New toilet facilities, fire safety precautions and enlarged seating capacity all came about due to Noel Spence’s constant desire to ensure greater comfort for his patrons, where among the latest box-office movies Roy Spence’s own latest productions were run on special nights. The Tudor from the outset had always been run as a dedicated hobby, yet for anyone visiting the place it could only be seen as a beautifully and proficiently maintained top quality cinema!

It was not until Tuesday 25th June 1985 that the final demolition of the once stately red bricked Comber Cinema was watched by members of the public in Castle Street. A caterpillar crane pounded a half ton steel ball against its walls until it was reduced to a pile of rubble amid twisted ironwork. Following months saw the site cleared. Diggers dug while lorries ferried in new foundation gravel and building materials. A new metal framework went gradually aloft, and September 25th saw the closure of Castle Street while a crane lorry hoisted into place the huge pre-stressed concrete ‘Bison’ units which would span the building and make the floors. Brown clay bricks climbed upwards and finally the architecture took on its now familiar shape as the roof went on, and the large ‘W’ symbol was mounted on the wall at Castle Street.By the end of May 1986 the curious passer-by could peer in through the quaint circular entrance porch and observe the busy inmates laying out the rows of new shelving and cash tills, and stocking up with the first consignments of goods from the convoys of lorries at the rear. As opening day neared there was speculation about who would do the honours! Eddie Grundy from ‘The Archers’? John Cleese, star of Fawlty Towers? Or one of our own local radio personalities, George Jones or Linda Jane?

On Tuesday morning 8th April 1986 a queue of expectant shoppers began to amass down the side of the store, squinting through the windows as a row of neatly presented well-rehearsed staff took to their posts for the first time. Then a couple of representatives along with the branch’s new manager strolled up and unlocked the doors, and the town’s very first punters wielding trolleys and baskets stormed the brand new shiny displays amid the slightly apprehensive employees. Comber’s latest trading post was officially in business!

Today in 1995 it is difficult for the older residents to believe that a ten year old can never have seen Comber Cinema, such is the speed that time passes by. But the cinema story was now turned full circle, and a revival has taken place. On television you can watch a movie, but in the cinema you live it! Multi-screen movie houses have emerged giving a choice in some cases of up to 10 screens in the one cinema! And even today plans are under discussion for a new multi-screen cinema in the Newtownards Leisure Centre complex.

Comber may still have no picture house, but the Comber district most certainly has! The noble and courageous Tudor continues to this day. Now a most comfortable 66 seater, its owner through a life long affair with movies has successfully continued through cinema’s hardest times. Long Live the Tudor! What next for the land which Wellworths stands upon? If or when the great days of the big stores take their place with the other events that are now history, what will follow in Castle Street? We can only wonder. But the secrets of change, as sure as sunrise, will reveal themselves to those with whom the future belongs.

This Article by Len Ball was originally published in 1995 in Comber Community News


In more modern times, Comber had not one but two private cinemas. Noel Spence's Tudor Cinema on the Drumhirk Road, was complemented by Roy Spence's Excelsior Cinema on the Ballynichol Road. Award-winning film-producer and director, Roy converted his former film studio into a 28-seater cinema in the 1990s. The nostalgic theatre is evocative of the picture houses of the 1950s and 60s, with its plush red interior, tip-up seating and elaborate plasterwork. The Spence Brothers and their cinemas were the subject of a BBC NI television documentary - Movie Mavericks - which focused on the colourful twins' lifelong interest in all things cinematic. Watch the programme and read more here - Movie Mavericks - The Spence Brothers. However, following the Covid pandemic, both the Tudor & Excelsior closed their doors for a final time.

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