Next time you’re taking a stravaig down Strand Street, look up. For one thing, it’ll briefly stop you fretting about the depressing number of empty shops. For another, it’ll show you a fascinating range of architectural detail that has stayed unchanged and overlooked for decades.
The upper floors of Strand Street aren’t prey to the here today-gone tomorrow-not really likely to come back any time soon to the whims of the ground floor retail outlets. Down there, it’s all frequently changing window displays and easy to replace, hard to recycle plastic signage. (Incidentally, when did we stop saying ‘signs’? )
Upstairs, there’s more constancy and more curiosity. There are fewer passing fads and more lasting bits of style from earlier generations. The stained glass above Capone’s. The cool mid-century lines of the building that in 100 years’ time people will still be calling Woolies. The upper floor of the building housing the Card Factory, serving Studio 54 Seventies discotheque realness, its tiles as white and gleaming as a Bee Gee’s smile.
If you glance upwards as you pass the junction with Howard Street, you’ll see some mock-Tudor black and white timbering. This is in fact a copy of what adorned an earlier building that stood on the site. Mock Mock Tudor if you will.
These monochrome planks stand as a memory of The Picture House cinema, which opened on Strand Street 100 years ago, in 1921. WIth heavy red velvet drapes everywhere, a grand staircase, and a maximum seating capacity of 1,900, this was a big old beast of a movie theatre. (For comparison of size, the Gaiety Theatre can sit just under 900.)
The Picture House showed the first-ever ‘talkie’ movie in the Isle of Man. The film in question was called Movietone Follies of 1929 and in a truly mighty bit of traa dy liooar, it received its Manx premiere in 1930.
Following the post-war tourism decline, The Picture House underwent a renovation and re-opened in 1965, with the then-current box office hit, My Fair Lady. Bizarrely, for a single screen cinema, they continued to show this one film for several months. By which time, presumably, everybody from Cregneash to the Point of Ayre had grown accustomed to Audrey Hepburn’s face.
The Picture House was past her glory days by the time of my childhood, but I still loved it. The dark, stone-floored foyer promised adventure and escapism. The kiosk seemed to know it was destined to feature in nostalgic memories. I can only seem to recall it stocking sweets that would either be withdrawn or rebranded – Mintolas, Spangles, Opal Fruits, and Pacers.
This was where Indiana Jones cracked his whip, and James Bond sipped his martinis. This is where the packed auditorium chanted along to the theme tune to Ghostbusters. And this is where on one drab, grey, post-Christmas evening, George Lucas transported me to a galaxy far, far away. I never came back.
Video killed The Picture House. Or maybe it was the dry rot. Whatever the culprit, it closed for good in 1988 and demolition quickly followed. As I mentioned earlier, somebody had the bright idea of copying the black and white exterior onto the shops that were built on the site, a memorial for those in the know. Nowadays if you’re in the right-hand bit of Mountain Warehouse or the left-hand bit of Superdrug, you’re standing on the footprint of The Picture House.
A while ago, the Manx Museum held an exhibition celebrating the history of the entertainment industry in the Island. There was Dracula from the White City Ghost Train, photos of Ivy Benson’s All-Girl Orchestra, and posters for Ronricco the Australian Hypnotist. Tucked away in a corner sat two flip-up chairs. Ancient horsehair poked through cigarette burns in their faded red velvet. Next to the chairs stood a pair of swing doors, painted light-blocking black. Bits of The Picture House has survived the wrecking ball. How wonderful.
Standing there in the exhibition I was suddenly gripped with the strongest craving for a packet of Mintolas. And perhaps a can of Peardrax, if my pocket money would run to it.