Not so long ago, before videos, DVDs, or streaming services, the cinema played a central role in people’s social lives. In 1935, the Irish Free State had 190 cinemas, with a total seating capacity of 111,438. During that decade, approximately fifty thousand people visited Irish cinemas each day.
Cinemas were exciting, new public assembly spaces built as part of the new phenomenon of democratic leisure. The cinema ticket was affordable entertainment for all, with the working classes rocking up in their Sunday best to stand in the one queue with the great and good of the town.
Cinema interiors were glamorous and modern, with comfortable, plush cushioned seats, dazzling lighting, and the bold angles and outlines of Art Deco ornament, often in imitation gold and silver. As much as its luxury, the visibility of the cinema house, too, was an important factor in its success.
The Savoy Cinema in Kilkenny occupied a prime position on busy Parliament Street. Like many cinemas of the 1930s, Kilkenny’s Savoy cinema has an elaborate frontage to make the building stand out. It is reached by a flight of six cut-limestone steps and boasts a full-height, rendered breakfront with an Art Deco parapet topped with a course of red brick flanked by a pair of wings.
This jazzy feature is repeated with the crow-stepped windows on the side bays.
The 1,000-seat Savoy Cinema opened in 1936 with Anthony Adverse, starring Olivia de Havilland and Fredric March and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
The external features were carried inside through the stepped frames of the doors, kiosk, and skirting boards.
Panels beneath the kiosks feature a three-part arch motif that anticipates the proscenium arch of the auditorium.
The gallery is reached by a stair with polished brass banister that leads to a second lobby with a bar.
Inside the auditorium is a 3-metre-deep stage framed by a moulded plaster proscenium.
Our love affair with cinema faded after the Second World War, with a decline in attendance up to the 1980s. The Savoy Cinema closed in March 1985 with Ghostbusters.
However, thanks to the local theatre enthusiasts of the Mayor Theatre Fund, the Savoy has had a second life, and is now an arts centre for Kilkenny, the Watergate Theatre, opened by the President of Ireland Mary Robinson on 4 April 1993.
Harking back to its early luxury and ceremony, the entertainment was provided by a 40-strong orchestra from St Canice’s Co-Ed school. Today, its capacity is 328 blue velvet seats (253 downstairs and 75 in the balcony).
Changes to the building include the addition of a gabled, glazed porch, the Savoy bar converted to the theatre’s toilets and the upstairs lobby an exhibition space.
The theatre is now a fixture on the performing arts circuit with visits from The Abbey, The Gate, Druid, Tinderbox, Keegan and Red Kettle, Dance Ireland, and Ballet Ireland.
The architectural stars of the day were behind some of the early cinemas including Michael Scott & Partners who designed the Savoy Cinemas in Portarlington, County Laois and Edenderry, County Offaly (both vacant) along with the Ritz cinemas in Athlone, Westmeath (1940) and Clonmel (1940), both later demolished. Robinson & Keefe were the architects for the Savoy cinema in Galway (1933), which is now the Savoy Hostel and the long-gone Waterford Savoy (1937).
Contemporary cinemas tend to be blank projection warehouses attached to fast food outlets, largely without the sense of occasion that their Art Deco forbearers provided. The air conditioning might be top-notch and sound experience richer, but are we not the poorer for the loss of these prestigious grand dames from our regional towns?
The author would like to thank to Chairman of the Board of Directors, Joe Reidy and Executive Director Joanna Cunningham.