Northern Ireland’s oldest cinema building is celebrating its 85th birthday. The Strand in East Belfast was opened by the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Crawford McCullagh, on 7th December 1935. Since then, three or four generations of the same families have been through its doors. This week also sees the launch of ‘Strand Stories’, a new project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund that aims to record, cherish and promote the social and architectural heritage of this iconic local landmark.

The Strand is the only survivor from that golden age of cinema when Belfast alone boasted over 40 picture palaces. Architect John McBride Neill’s stunning design was heavily influenced by the Strand’s proximity to Harland & Wolff. The exterior of the building is shaped like the bow of a ship, and the nautical theme continues inside with curved walls, porthole windows and light fittings.

Strand Arts Centre Chief Executive Mimi Turtle said: “The Strand has adapted to community needs over the decades and has enjoyed spells both as a cinema and a variety theatre. No longer a commercial cinema, the Strand Arts Centre charity took over the tenancy of the building in 2013 with the support of key stakeholders including our principal funder, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The ambition was to meet an evidenced need for more arts provision in the area. Since then, Strand Arts Centre has demonstrated an overwhelming appetite for more live entertainment. Last year over 60,000 people attended a busy programme of film screenings, live theatre and music events, creative workshops and education projects for young people. The venue is widely used by many festivals and by the local community for school visits, film premieres and charity fundraising events.”

Noirin McKinney, Director of Arts Development, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, added: “We warmly congratulate the Strand Arts Centre on their 85th birthday and are proud to support them in providing a wonderful range of arts activities to people of all ages in east Belfast.  The venue itself is an Art Deco gem and we wish the team continued success as they embark upon an impressive refurbishment to make the building even more inviting.”

Strand Arts Centre is planning a £4.6m transformation in the near future thanks to £1.8m catalyst funding from Belfast City Council.

“The Strand is full of character and we want to preserve and promote its heritage,” said Mimi, “but the building requires extensive renovation to improve facilities for audiences and performers, including disabled access throughout, and to meet the demand for youth and education activities. We are hugely grateful to the council for its vote of confidence and much-needed investment in the local community.

“Through our Strand Stories project we want to encourage Strand audiences, past and present, to share their memories of, and future aspirations for, this treasured East Belfast venue. I know lots of people out there will have great stories to tell about visits to the Strand. Many went through the life cycle of attending the Saturday Minors Club as children, progressing to first dates in the back row and subsequently bringing their own children, and very often their grandchildren too. And let’s not forget the dozens of projectionists, usherettes and concierges over the years.”

Paul Mullan, Director, Northern Ireland, The National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “We’re delighted to support The Strand as they celebrate their 85th birthday and launch Strand Stories. This is a really exciting project which will bring to life the unique history and memories associated with the history of this iconic and much-loved east Belfast cinema. Thanks to National Lottery players, this project will involve people of all ages in shaping and sharing the stories of its fascinating past.”

Having been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions for a second time since mid-October, Mimi and her team re-opened the doors of Strand Arts Centre on 11th December.

“It’s such a shame that we have to celebrate our 85th birthday in self-isolation!” said Mimi. “But we know that our audiences will return as soon as they are allowed. A family outing to Christmas classics such as Elf or Home Alone is a festive tradition for many of our regulars. We have other seasonal favourites including screenings of Katherine Jenkins and Bolshoi Ballet’s The Nutcracker. And we have a following desperate to see the return of live performances once restrictions are lifted.”

To find out more about Strand Stories, and what’s on at the venue over the festive period, go to www.strandartscentre.com