14-16 New Row,
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In the small town of Kilrea, in County Londonderry, the Cinema opened on Friday 17th August 1945 with “Johnny Doughboy”, starring Jane Withers and Henry Wilcoxon (see scan of “Grand Opening Night” advert).
It was constructed within a very basic building that had been used as an agricultural feed store. Ernie Stewart, who became the first manager, had persuaded the building’s owner to transform it into the Cinema. When Mr Stewart died, W. G. Shiels, from Maghera (who, I gather ran five other cinemas in the area) took over. Johnny Maxwell assisted him at his cinemas, primarily by collecting the films from Belfast and looking after the projectors. When his workload increased Joe Crothers, who had started as an usher, became his assistant at Kilrea, earning the nickname “Gentleman Joe, the Picture Man”!
When a circus or travelling show came to town, Mr Crothers, who had a life-long passion for circus, would put on a late show for the entertainers. He also compered amateur ‘Talent Nights’, which were very popular.
W. G. Shiels was manager until the Cinema closed, in the early-1970’s. Bobby Dempsey took over the lease, and transformed the building into a showroom for furniture, carpets and antiques, which he ran for about 10 years. Then, the building’s owner, Michael Henry (who’s grandfather had created the Cinema) converted it for the manufacture of kitchen appliances. (As part of this conversion, he built thicker concrete walls within the basic structure.)
Michael Henry ran that business for about 15 years before retiring. Patrick Tohill took a lease on the building and has continued the kitchen appliance business.
When I visited, in August 2019, one of the employees gave me Michael Henry’s phone number. I subsequently had an enjoyable conversation with him, during which he very kindly provided much of this information – and enjoyed reminiscing about his building’s life as the town’s only full-time cinema.
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