Forty years ago this month, the projectors rolled at the Abbeydale Picture House for the final time. In the intervening years the majestic domed building has had an afterlife as a climbing centre and, slightly less nobly, an office furniture warehouse - but now the silver screen is finally making a comeback at the grand venue.
This weekend a two-day film festival is taking place, with an extensive programme of short features and full-length movies, designed to showcase the picture house’s potential and rekindle memories of a bygone era when there was a packed house at the cinema every night.
The Picture House Revival event is the work of Sheffield arts promoters Hand Of and is set to be their biggest single project to date. As well as the screenings there will be an outdoor street food market, a bar and an ‘archive room’ where old pictures, artefacts and cinemagoers’ recollections will be on show.
Louise Snape, Hand Of’s co-founder, said: “This is all about trying to raise the profile of the building and get something to happen with it so that it doesn’t just sit here. It’s definitely the crown of this road, so why don’t we polish it up a bit to make it look a bit better? It’s got so much potential.”
The cinema’s original, green 1960s seats, put in storage by the picture house’s owner Phil Robins, are being put back in the stalls, a huge new 30ft screen is being constructed from scratch and two 35mm film projectors will beam films from the balcony.
“We’re so used to everything being digital, so it’s really interesting to see a reel of film, and to see how people have to deal with that by chopping it and actually taking a knife to film,” said Louise.
“The place will look pretty special when we’re done with it. It really will look like a cinema again and we’ve put quite a lot of work into it to spruce it up.”
Other jobs have included building a new bar, as well as Abbeydale’s own version of the British Film Institute’s ‘film lounge’, where visitors can flick through cinema magazines and books in between screenings.
“We’ve built a new bar area as the old one was slanted with the floor so it’s not so easy to have your beer when it’s tipped on an angle! And the BFI’s film lounge is just gorgeous so we’re going to try and emulate that. I don’t know if it will work, but we’ll try!”
Audience members won’t be allowed on the balcony - regulations forbid it - but a platform will be available so people can admire the view from the upper tier.
“The last time films were shown here was in 1975, on closing night,” Louise said.
“There have been one-off screenings, when the Friends of the Abbeydale Picture House had it they did amateur dramatics and screenings for groups of people, but nothing on this scale at all. So we’re really excited to be able to actually open it up and put on tons of film in one weekend.”
Hand Of is run by Louise, from Sharrow, and her colleagues Rob Hughes, of Kelham Island, and Ismar Badzic, who also lives in Sharrow. The three 23-year-olds met while studying at Sheffield University and began to put on arts events, which have increased in size since the trio graduated.
“We’ve been doing events all through the city, mostly music and film related, and always in odd spaces, that’s our priority,” said Louise.
“The hot point for us is always location, and this one definitely ticks that box.”
On Sunday the programme is dedicated to films from the cinema’s heyday, including Call of the Road - the very first feature to be screened on opening night on December 24, 1920. The two-hour silent film will be accompanied with music from a live pianist.
Meanwhile on Saturday the films are of a more modern, and local, flavour, including Brassed Off and Four Lions, which will be introduced by Warp Films producer Mark Herbert. The temperance bar upstairs will serve sarsaparilla - an authentic drink once served at the cinema - and other cordial ‘mocktails’.
Organisers have been inviting people to write about their memories to be displayed in the archive room.
“It’s so exciting to know how people used to go to the pictures, because we don’t do it like they did in the 40s, 50s and 60s,” Louise said.
“They used to come en masse, all of them, to the pictures and they all had the same drink and there was a certain excitement about watching the films. A lot of the stories are based around going to see a film in the morning and loving it so much that they watch it in the afternoon and the evening as well. Who does that any more?
“And that’s why a building like this can’t last purely as a cinema. It seats 1,500 people - you can’t fill that every night for a film any more.”
The festival is being run in partnership with Warp, and the BFI, Cinema for All and the Projected Picture Trust have also provided support. A 15-strong team of volunteers is helping out.
Looking to the future, Louise believes it’s just the start of the picture house’s revival.
“If we were to do it all again we would have more of a format in place. I think it will be used much more as a film venue. I think Phil has probably got it right in that he wants it to be multi-functional.
“But I would love it to serve its immediate community as well as beyond. I feel it’s possible, it just has to be thought about really carefully. We’ve already had ideas about the next one, and what we might show in two years’ time. There’s all sorts of things you can put on!”
The event starts at midday on Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.picturehouserevival.co.uk for details or to book tickets, priced from £10.