A HUNDRED years ago an early pioneer of cinematography, Walter Power, opened the Picture House on Thirsk’s Westgate.
Although there was a period in the 1970s and again briefly in the early 1990s when the cinema had to close due to declining audiences, the cinema is still showing films in the town.
The cinema is celebrating its centenary year with an event to honour the man who brought the cinema to Thirsk, Walter Power.
Walter died on the January 31, 1934, and was buried on February 4 in Thirsk Cemetery. He was the first to bring moving pictures to a permanent home in Thirsk way back in 1912.
Walter was born in Darlington and initially worked in the town for Messrs Archibold Ramsden part of a chain of one of the biggest piano retailers in the country. During this time he developed his considerable piano skills, which were later used as accompaniment to the then silent films.
Walter moved to Thirsk around 1909 and set about converting the Reading Rooms (previously a Mechanics Institute) leading to the opening of the Thirsk Picture House in 1912. The original square section framing to the screen along with the ‘TPH’ crest is still in position though preserved behind the modern screen. Locally the cinema was known as “Powers”.
Walter’s daughter, Patricia, gave many anecdotes during the early stage of the volunteer group getting set up.
Apparently he had an uncanny knack of seeming to be in several places at one time. He could keep an eye on the projection room and the box office, yet always be around to greet his patrons – making each one, from the one-and-a-penny balcony, to the sixpenny customer, feel like an honoured guest. Should the pianist happen to let him down, as mentioned earlier, he would take over at the piano.
Music was his abiding passion and, being a born improviser, he required no sheet music, so was able to give all his attention to whatever was happening on the screen. He had a great skill in impersonating the passion of Rudolph Valentino, the drama of Lillion Gish or the deadpan antics of Buster Keaton. At times he was accompanied by a violinist, and even a cellist.
During the original silent Ben Hur props such as the clapping together of two wooden blocks would be used to mimic the sound as the lash fell on the galley slaves and a local tenor was accompanied by a trio to sing a soul-stirring climax of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
The “talkies” arrived in the shape of “sound on disc” but the technology wasn’t easy to master, and oft were the occasions when the lag would cause the heroine to emit the gruff manly voice of the hero, and vice versa. The Western Electric (sound on film) soon replaced it – but at colossal expense.
Sadly Walter died quite young at 47 and never lived to see the immense changes with wide screens and stereo sound, but we at the Ritz like to think he would be very proud to see that his early cinema is still screening films in Thirsk, and we are proud to recognise this great man at the start of our centenary year.
In his honour the Ritz Cinema volunteer group laid a wreath on his grave at the weekend to mark the start of the centenary year.
As the year centenery year gets under way the Ritz is putting on various initiatives. They include:
l A documentary short made by a local film-maker covering the cinema centenary
l A film-related quiz night
l A night of historic films from the Yorkshire Film Archive
l A themed film show for local schools
l Showings of some older films relating to time of the cinema inauguration
The exact date of the opening of the Picture House (today’s Ritz) is unknown. If any readers can confirm the opening date, contact the cinema. The cinema is also asking readers for their memories of the cinema – from any point in the last 100 years. Write to the above address or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To celebrate its centenerary the cinema is offering a year pass with unlimited film viewers for £100.
Anyone interested should either pop into the cinema or write to: Michele I’Anson, Ritz Cinema, 16 Westgate, Thirsk, YO7 1QS, along with a cheque for £100 made payable to ‘The Ritz Cinema (Thirsk) Limited’ and two passport photos.