Ritz takes biscuit as Thirsk cinema's centenary beckons

IT was 1953 when John Potter first settled into a plush cinema chair and watched in amazement as the lights dimmed and the projector whirred noisily into action.

The film was footage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the Ritz Cinema in Thirsk was packed.

Nearly 60 years on, it is modern-day blockbusters rather than Path newsreels that are now wowing the crowds.

But thanks to the work of John and a 70-strong team of residents from around Thirsk, they are still flocking to the Ritz.

The building is the longest entirely volunteer-run cinema in the country and due to the support of the local community, who have run it for the past 15 years, it is set to celebrate its centenary next year.

To mark the occasion, artist Ann Kelvington, who lives in nearby Asenby and has been a Ritz regular since childhood, was commissioned to create 20 paintings inspired by the cinema that are ready to go display next week.

John, the 60-year-old chairman of the volunteers who has lived in Thirsk all his life, said: "The paintings are just wonderful and perfectly capture the atmosphere of the cinema.

"It is such a wonderful place here and means so much to people right across North Yorkshire.

"We get people of all ages coming here from all over, and for a lot of people in the Yorkshire Dales it is the closest cinema there is apart from the big multiplexes in York and Middlesbrough which are not to everybody's tastes.

"The first film I went with my parents with was the coronation, I was only two or three and at that age it was a rather frightening experience.

"But after I got used to the dark I was entranced.

"The Ritz was privately owned until 1994 and then the town council arranged a public meeting to see if there was any interest in keeping it going and I remember the meeting was just packed with people wanting to help.

"We operated it on a joint basis for a year and after that the volunteers took over and have run it ever since.

"We are the only cinema now operating in Hambleton district and so many small cinemas have sadly been closed down right across the country.

"We are all just delighted that the Ritz is going to reach its 100-year milestone.

"I get no greater satisfaction than driving through Thirsk on a Saturday night and seeing groups of people walking out excitedly after watching a film. It means so much to so many people and it is a pleasure for all of us to be keeping it going for future generations."

The Ritz volunteers range from teenagers to pensioners and keep the 200-seat cinema going seven days a week.

Since taking over, they have raised enough money to install new projectors and a new 8,000 heating system, build a meeting room and toilets and replace its cinema chairs with ones taken from the Palace in Pickering when it closed several years ago.

The group are currently trying to raise about 20,000 to pay for a change over to digital projection.

Artist Mrs Kilvington, 66, has spent nearly 18 months working in artist-in-residence at the cinema to compile her new exhibition.

"I grew up here and then left the area for 30 years but moved back to Asenby when I retired," she said.

"I remember going there a lot when I was little, firstly to Saturday matinees and then when I was a bit older for dates on a Saturday evening.

"As a young child growing up in North Yorkshire all the films that used to be screened at the Ritz always seemed impossibly glamorous and as if they were from another world.

"It means so much to me and I wanted to give something back to it and the volunteers that have kept it running and have done a wonderful job.

"I am a landscape artist normally and it was a bit daunting at first to have to paint inside somewhere.

"But slowly after spending a lot of time there, I started to be able to capture the atmosphere.

"It was a wonderful experience," she added.

Mrs Kilvington's paintings include pictures of the projection room, auditorium and hustle and bustle of the kiosk.

The exhibition, called Puttin' on the Ritz, runs from Saturday January 15 until the February 5 at the Zillah Bell Gallery in Thirsk – when both prints and originals will be available to buy.

Brief details of the exhibition have been posted online – at www.zillahbellgallery.co.uk.

Owner powers played the music

THE present Ritz Cinema was originally built as a mechanic's institute in the 19th century.

In 1912, local personality Walter Powers opened it as the Picture House cinema, to show the latest silent films that he would personally accompany on the piano. It soon became known locally as 'The Powers'.

The original screen remains at the cinema – hidden behind the current one.

The talkies arrived in 1927 and the cinema capacity was expanded by building a balcony to accommodate the swelling audience numbers.

As part of the refurbishment, it was renamed The Ritz.

The cinema's heyday was between 1920 and 1950 and the influx of servicemen to the area during the Second World War meant it did a roaring trade despite having to compete with another cinema, the Regent Cinema – later converted into a bingo hall – at the other end of town.

There used to be two showings a day and ticket prices ranged from 9d to 2s3d for balcony seats.