Stars, Celebrity and Showmanship in Post-War Northern Ireland: Part 2

07th June 2021 4 Minute Read

Dr Sam Manning takes another look at the cinema culture and history of NI, this time on the stardust and marketing techniques used by exhibitors here after WWII.

'Cakes, Lions and Robots'

The art deco picture palaces built during the 1930s came of age during the 1950s. Many of these cinemas used their 21st birthday as an opportunity not only to mark this occasion but to promote their venues with elaborate campaigns. In 1957, the Curzon celebrated by presenting each patron with an illustrated brochure of the cinema’s history. A giant cake in the shape of the cinema was placed in the foyer and then later presented to the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women.

The Gaston Family celebrate 21 years of the Curzon Cinema

The Ritz also celebrated with a 20-inch, two-and-a-half stone cake which was distributed to welfare homes by the Corporation Welfare Committee. The picture below shows that this real cake was accompanied by an even larger ornamental cake perched over the cinema marquee.

Many promotional campaigns left the cinema foyer and went into the streets. In 1954 Tobor, the robot star of Tobor the Great, helped to rip up tramlines on Belfast’s Albertbridge Road. If the stunt was designed to receive column inches in the local press, then it was certainly successful.

Tobor the Great, the Robot Man on the Albertbridge Road

The Belfast Telegraph printed a picture of the spectacle and the Northern Whig reported that a ‘mechanical giant stalked through Belfast yesterday tearing up tramway lines, hoisting little boys shoulder-high and sending startled girls scuttling for the shelter of the nearest open door’.

Last month, Queen’s Film Theatre used an image of a cow propping up the cinema bar to advertise the upcoming showing of First Cow. Truth, however, is stranger than fiction. In 1955 one of ‘Buck Alec’ Robinson’s lions appeared in the lobby of Belfast’s Majestic cinema to promote A Lion is in the Streets. Patrons were assured they should not fear for their safety and were ‘advised that rifles are not necessary. Certain precautions are being taken’.

Buck Alec and Lion

Over 1,000 people came to see the lion and the Northern Whig reported that ‘the more he growled and snarled, the more the young members of his audience enjoyed it, as they perched on parents’ shoulders, hung from convenient lampposts, stood on nearby walls, sat on top of the furniture van or milled closely round the cage itself’.

As audiences declined dramatically in the 1960s many cinemas closed their doors and those that remained open had a limited budget to spend on promotional activities. The growth of television also provided a new outlet for producers to promote their films. It no longer made as much sense to regularly send stars on promotional campaigns across Britain and Ireland. And as the Troubles commenced, the glamour of many cinemas faded, the value of promotional stunts diminished, and it became more difficult to attract big names to Northern Ireland. But while the days of taking lions to the cinema are thankfully over, social media and new marketing techniques provide opportunities for cinemas to promote themselves and attract new audiences.