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In Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, the Electric Theatre had been succeeded by the Albert Kinema. When the Albert Kinema was destroyed by fire in May 1947, its owner, Dougie Shearer, re-opened it in a former Temperance Hall while discussions got underway regarding a permanent replacement.
The authorities would not allow that to be built on the site of the Albert Kinema. Eventually, a site was found at ‘The Crafty’ in Junction Road, and the appropriately named Phoenix Cinema ‘rose from the ashes’, opening on Tuesday 14th June 1955.
The BTH projectors that had been acquired for use at the Temperance Hall/Albert Kinema were transferred to the new cinema and upgraded to handle CinemaScope: high intensity carbon arc lamps, with 14.5 inch mirrors, were fitted in order to cope with the large 29ft by 16ft screen. Black masking was used for standard films.
The Phoenix Cinema was actually erected by D. B. Peace Junior, son of D. B. Peace, the owner of the Electric Theatre, in conjunction with Dougie Shearer and his family.
The 650 seats were arranged in ‘stadium’ style. The cinema was opened by Provost James Flett of Kirkwall, who described it as a magnificent building, a credit to the management and to the town. Once the introductions and speeches were over, the lights dimmed, the curtain slowly lifted and the specially invited audience were treated to a screening of “Doctor In The House” starring Dirk Bogarde. It was a nerve-racking time for projectionist Alex Leisk, as the print was in a rather poor condition and was not really suitable for such a special ceremony.
Subsequently, films were shown Monday to Saturday with two performances daily, the first house at 5.30pm, the second at 8pm, with three programme changes every week. There were matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the occasional late show at 10.30pm on Fridays. Until the mid-1960’s, the Saturday afternoon matinees were very popular with children, with the usual cliffhanger serials supporting films from The Children’s Film Foundation.
The arrival of Grampian Television in 1966 had a significant effect on audience numbers. To try and counter this, Tuesdays and Fridays were given over to bingo, which really went against the grain as far as D. B. Peace Junior was concerned. Though these bingo evenings did ‘save the day’, at least for a while. They were supervised by bingo caller Mac Johnston, who had agreed to help out temporarily – but then held his post fourteen years! At this time, films were reduced to four days a week: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
With the advent of colour television in the 1970’s, the cinema audiences were further depleted, although films such as “Grease”, “Saturday Night Fever”, “Jaws” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” did excellent business. Home video had appeared on the scene by the early-1980’s; this was almost the final nail in the coffin, when film performances were further cut to two nights a week.
This unfortunate downturn continued, leaving the Shearer family with no option but to sell the Phoenix Cinema in October 1985 to Orkney Islands Council, effectively ending their 73 year association with cinema in Orkney.
It seemed that this was the end of ‘picture going’ in Orkney, but a new company was formed called Orkney Entertainments Limited, which indicated its interest in leasing the Phoenix Cinema from Orkney Islands Council to run film shows twice weekly. The Council supported this proposal and film shows re-commenced during November 1985. At this point a large stage was installed for concerts, reducing the seating capacity (which had already been reduced to 604) to about 500.
When satellite television arrived, the cinema’s commercial viability was once again severely tested, and in 1992 Orkney Islands Council Education and Recreation Department took control of the film shows, with Billy Scollie as manager/projectionist. He was especially pleased to be the projectionist for the film “Venus Peter” starring George Anton and Louise Breslin, which premiered at the Phoenix Cinema on Midsummers day 1989 as part of the St. Magnus Festival.
The Phoenix Cinema, with all the character of a 1950’s style cinema, came to the end of its working life on 28th November 1998. Special nostalgic events took place during that final week, ironically including a bingo evening on Tuesday 24th November, and also a concert, “Farewell To The Phoenix”, on Friday 27th November, featuring a host of local talent. The final film was the wartime drama “The Land Girls” starring Catherine McCormack and Anna Friel, on Saturday 28th November. Once the final image had flickered from the screen, Dougie Shearer, who had been invited along by the staff, closed the doors of what had been his ‘pride and joy’ for the very last time.
The Phoenix was subsequently demolished. A women’s refuge now stands on the site.
Happily, in the spring of 1999 a ‘New Phoenix’ opened at the new Pickaquoy Sports Centre – see separate entry.
(This narrative has been sourced from “The Cinema in Orkney” by Kenny Thomson, published at scottishcinemas.org.uk)
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