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Cinema saviour keeps it reel for Keighley and Skipton
More than 25 years after re-opening the Rex cinema in Elland’s Coronation Street, cinema entrepreneur Charles Morris is still in love with the whole business of showing films to the public.
It pays too as people still want to go out to the pictures. All six cinemas he now runs, including the Picture House in Keighley and The Plaza in Skipton, have been equipped with digital projectors at a cost of £250,000.
“It would have made more sense financially to give it up but I am still too passionate about the whole thing,” said Mr Morris.
The Rex, originally the Central Picture House, opened a little more than 100 years ago but succumbed to bingo in the 1960s and then closed altogether in 1985.
It was rescued by Mr Morris and his then business partner, Peter Berry, in 1988 and re-opened as a cinema on October 7 that year.
Originally the cinema had a seating capacity for 600 people. That has now been halved. The old seats have been replaced with comfortable Pullman-style seats including double seats along the back row.
When he started out he said there were no big multiplex cinemas in the vicinity. Now they surround him in Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds. But the Rex and the other Morris cinemas continue to attract an audience. Why?
Mr Morris said: “I have run the Rex as I think cinemas should be run. We look to treat our customers as individuals. We try not to hurry them in and hurry them out and they know they won’t be ripped off at the confectionery counter.
“We have organ-playing on Thursdays and Saturdays and we choose the films carefully.
“Also, we don’t put up with any nonsense. We had to be quite firm about that in the early days and people got the hang of it after that. That’s how we built up our reputation.”
Mr Morris was hooked on cinemas as a child and had always wanted to have one of his own. But 30 years or so passed before his ambition became a reality.
“First I ran film societies at school and university and then worked part-time in 16 different cinemas before having a bash on my own. To start with, my family and I ran a summer season at the Victoria Hall, Settle, in 1986, which was quite successful.
“That started us on the road to seek somewhere permanent. We were looking at cinemas all over the place until my friend Peter Berry, of Halifax, mentioned the Rex.
“We first visited it one sunny evening in May 1988 and it was in a very run-down state.”
Mr Morris and Mr Berry decided to join forces to renovate and re-open the cinema.
“It took us from May till October to refurbish and equip the cinema. We and our families and friends worked in the evenings and at weekends. Then we both spent our summer holidays completing the refit. We did everything ourselves except the laying of the carpets.”
The cinema reopened in 1988 with Big Business, starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. The opening ceremony was performed by the then Deputy Mayor of Calderdale, Councillor Mohammed Najib, and further entertainment was provided by Andrew Nix on a Technics organ.
“Success came gradually,” Mr Morris recalled.
“The first night was poorly attended, which we attributed to the weather, but this set the pattern for the next few weeks and we began to panic a bit.
“We would arrive to find people on the doorstep, but they were only waiting for a bus to take them to the nearest bingo. We used to receive anonymous letters from people wanting us to change back to bingo.
“We continued distributing our monthly leaflets for a year, and then everything happened all of a sudden. We appeared on television after our first year and soon afterwards we screened Shirley Valentine and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Cinema-going had only just started picking up at that time; it had reached an all-time low in 1984 and was gradually getting better. But the film trade thought we were mad and wouldn’t take any risks with us.
“We had to pay financial deposits to the film distributors so that they would do business. We couldn’t get any new films for ages.”
The Conn 651 Theatre Organ was installed in 1990 for Sunday concerts and was later played on Saturday evenings and Thursday mornings. The first resident organist was 16-year-old Belinda Abbiss, of Halifax, followed by Harold Lister, of Brighouse, and eventually professional organist Arnold Loxam.
Over the years the cinema has been progressively upgraded. It has been given new seats twice. Dolby Stereo sound was installed in time for the second Harry Potter film and recently digital projectors have been installed.
Mr Morris said: “The 35mm film projectors served the cinema industry well for its first 100-plus years, but new technology has brought us the digital revolution and we have joined in with it.
“We now have a superb image and the ability to choose from a wider variety of films. But we still have our original projectors for occasional use.”
The Rex continues to screen a wide variety of films, from new releases through to specialised and occasional foreign films, plus family matinees at weekends.
The Thursday morning show is especially popular with those who do not wish to be out in the evening.
Mr Morris and Mr Berry continued to run the Rex in addition to their full-time jobs as a quality manager and a coach driver, respectively, until 1992 when Mr Morris gave up his job to take on a cinema in Windermere.
He now has a circuit of six cinemas – the Rex, the Picture House, the Plaza, the Cottage Road in Headingley, Leeds, and the Royalty and the Roxy in Cumbria.
He has now been running cinemas for longer than he worked at his previous job. He still comes to the Rex every Tuesday and for the monthly organ concerts – and to serve ice cream during the evening intermission.
“Monday is my busiest and longest day of the week, when I compile the programmes for all the cinemas for the following week and deal with the publicity; but I get through it in the knowledge that I will be visiting my favourite cinema the following day,” he said.
“We’ve put a lot of effort in over the 25 years and seen a lot of changes round about us. There were still the Cannon cinemas in Halifax and Huddersfield when we opened, and the nearest multiscreen cinema was in Salford.
“The Cannon Halifax used to charge £1 and Huddersfield £2. We opened at £1.50 for adults and £1 for children, with two cheap nights at £1 for everybody. Even now we are only £5 and £4, which is probably the cheapest anywhere.
“There is so much else to look back on, like the filming in 1998 of LA Without A Map on location at the cinema, with David Tennant and Vinessa Shaw outside and inside the cinema.
“Then the premiere in 2005 of The Jealous God, attended by actors Denise Welch and Jason Merrels. But more than anything it’s been the fulfilment of an ambition and a very happy and rewarding second career,” he added.