The Oldest Cinema in Europe
The Ambassador Cinema
Written By Tony Deane
This Article was first published by Box Office Magazine in August 1997 and is about The Ambassador Cinema – The Oldest Running Cinema in Europe.
In the heart of Dublin lies a building called ‘The Rotunda’ originally set up as a maternity hospital built for the poor of the city by Bartholomew Mosse in 1745. To raise funds to keep the building going he hit on the idea of a pleasure garden where the gentry could spend their evenings strolling. Some marsh land to the east of the building was landscaped and a series of decorative fountains, waterways, pavilions and a bandstand was also erected. They strolled and chatted and finished their nights with a firework display which was frequently terminated due to the inclemency of the weather.
Faced with a large drop in revenue Mosse commissioned an architect to create a permanent shelter which was to be called ‘The Rotunda’. It was a miracle building for it’s time rising fifthly feet from the ground , it’s ceiling had an uninterrupted span of eighty feet without central support… a feat of engineering. Throughout the eighteen century the building was added to and like it’s London counterpart ‘the Vauxhall’ was to be known as the place to be seen by the nobility and gentry of the land.
The Round Room as it was called then was the scene of many functions and some of the luminaries who played there were Handel, Paganini and Charles Dickens. Dickens who gave readings was the cause of a near riot when over 3,000 people turned up to hear him and half of them were unable to gain admission. In 1784 a ballroom and the world famous Gate Theatre was added to provide other amenities. The removal of Parliament from Dublin to London at the start of the 19th century almost brought the glittering concerts and parties to a standstill , the fate of the building looked doomed.
It became a meeting place for religious revivals , temperance rallies and public meetings,most of which were to become part of the history of the state. The men who were to fashion the state were to appear in the early part of the century, Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and the founder of one of the largest unions in the country ‘Big’ Jim Larkin were but a few and these all played their part in the early days.
Cinema had not hit the city but Dublin’s first cinema ‘The Volta’ was to change all that and along with it’s most famous manager writer James Joyce it became the most popular past time in the city. The Round Room was turned into a cinema and like so many other entertainment halls a slew of cinemas were to follow. Affectionately most of the cinemas had an abbreviated names ‘The Roxy’ formally the' round room' was to be called ‘The Roc’ & Cine Variety was to be the order of the day for the hall that has seen many a famous person grace it’s stage. Popular singers of the day Count John McCormac & Joseph Locke were but two of the warm up acts for the movies that were to follow.
In the forties it changed it’s title to ‘The Ambassador’ which was an apt name for the film’s that were to be shown. Ten years later saw movies like ‘Ben Hur’ , ‘Oliver’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ play to packed houses. It had several problems as a cinema one being the seating capacity. Because of the angle of the building patrons who had acquired side seats used to leave the cinema with a crick in their neck due to the sharp angle and to this day at least 130 seats are not used. With the change in name it became known as the cinema with the stereophonic sound and most Dubliners had no idea about the difference it made to a movie.
Towards the eighties the cinema became a less attractive place to go for the average cinema-goer. Changes had happened and cinemas were becoming smaller and more intimate but as as there was a government preservation on the building changes were not allowed. No longer viable it shut it’s doors and was turned into a financial services centre, where there once was long rows of seats which accommodated thousand’s of people , in their place was banks of computer terminals and a deafening silence. Fortunately in 1994 the Ward/Anderson group took the building back and refurbished it. A cinema once more it continues to be the only unchanged building in the country, the public love to look at the building that was around during their great grandparent’s time. It also reminds us that while the multiplexes and other large establishments might be in the best interest of to-day’s cinema, but there are still some buildings where the ghost’s of the old day’s still ride the range .
Copyright 1997 Tony Deane