Scottish Cinemas and Theatres

Orkney Cinema History
Back Main

The Cinema In Orkney / Phoenix Cinema
Written and compiled by Kenny Thomson

Dedicated to Dougie Shearer and Billy Scollie

Phoenix Cinema

Dougie Shearer

Billy Scollie
A familiar and popular Kirkwall building affectionately known as 'The Picture House', in Junction Road, is now consigned to the history books having been demolished to make way for the new Womens Refuge.
The Phoenix Cinema, established by D. B. Peace and Co. (Pictures) Ltd. in 1955 and acknowledged at the time to be ‘the cheapest and best entertainment in town’ providing big screen thrills and spills for 43 years, is now but a distant memory.

The former owner, Dougie Shearer died in 2002, and it is sad to think that this last link with the Shearer family is now gone. The Phoenix was Dougies pride and joy.
Billy Scollie, former Projectionist at The Phoenix was dismantling the BTH Projectors, which have gone into storage along with the old cash desk ticket machine, and sadly died before the work was fully completed.

Kenny Thomson managed to snap some photos of Billy at work ‘in the guts of the machinery’  - the projectors which had been so carefully operated and maintained, originally by Alex Leisk, and latterly by Billy Scollie himself. They were originally installed in The Temperance Hall in 1951, and in all their 48 operating years there was only ever one major mechanical failure.

Billy said that it was sad to see the old place being destroyed as it held so many memories of people – staff and members of the public - many of whom themselves were real characters, perhaps more so than some of the stars we were seeing on the screen.

However, one fixture from the old Phoenix still exists, the clock, now over 50 years old, is in The New Phoenix, having been given a new glass face and illuminated in green rather than red.

To mark the passing of this familiar establishment, Kenny Thomson takes a look back at Orkneys cinematic history.

Entertainment in Kirkwall, even in the memory of our oldest inhabitants, never lacked sophistication. During the 1890s there were the convivial assemblies and in the hey day of Gilbert and Sullivan various groups produced their own operas, which often were laughter making local parodies on the originals. There then followed a graduation from fancy dress balls to charades and eventually magic lantern shows.

A new era was beginning and the 20th century mind was devising new ways of entertaining itself, in an atmosphere of scientific progress.

D. B. Peace, a Kirkwall cabinetmaker, was aware of the craving for modern entertainment within the generation of young folk who were growing up around him and he began to look at ways of satisfying the need. He was aware that in the south, roller skating was all the rage and of course youthful exuberance called for an active pastime.

With this in mind, he converted his Junction Road wood store into a roller skating rink in 1910.
Two professional instructors taught the patrons the intricacies of their art. Round and round they whirled on the fine maple wood floor, the graceful and the clumsy, tumbling and colliding, with the clattering of their roller skates drowned out by the music of the brass band.

Four years later, while storm clouds were gathering over Europe, a wonderful ‘new art’ was developing. Visitors to Orkney were telling marvellous tales about the animated pictures which they were seeing.
Some Orcadians had of course already seen moving pictures on the silver screen, as during the late 1800s, a mobile cinema operated by a man named Calder, had come to Orkney generally round about the time of the Lammas Market and this was continued for a short time by a Mr Bell.

On the big bright screens, the early stars including Charlie Chaplin, complete with his stick and bowler hat, were waging an irresistably comic war. Another war was beginning in Europe as the Kaiser was preparing to invade Belgium and in the midst of it all, Mr Peace was taking home to Orkney his first movie projector, a ‘Gaumont’ machine.

Electric Theatre
The roller skating rink was replaced by The Electric Theatre, (nowadays the site of Peaces Car Showroom) which became a wonderland for Orkney children and the subject of much head shaking discussion by grown ups, who were upset at the demise of the rink.

For fourteen years The Electric Theatre - with D. B. Peace senior himself as projectionist, later to be joined in the 1920’s by J. W. Sinclair (Jimmy Halfo) - was the most popular place of entertainment in Kirkwall, with unbelievable dramas and tear jerking cinema moralities flickering over the screen. To the delight of the threepenny seats (a penny - halfpenny at matinees), cowboys and Indians began to make their appearance and in simple sagas of good and evil, the children quickly began to distinguish between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’.

There was of course no soundtrack to the films as yet, so the musical accompaniment was provided by pianist Rose Petrie, and Dougie Shearer once recalled that as time passed, he was promoted to the post of ‘Musical Director’, which involved playing the old wind up gramophone at each show, at what he described as a good weekly wage of seven shillings (35p). Even with musical accompaniment for the films, ‘free comment’ from all over the hall followed the fortunes of the actors.

As time went by, Dougie's Grandfather paid a visit to the film renters in Glasgow and while he was there he heard about the new Brunswick Panatrope - an Electric Gramophone, ideal for the Electric Theatre which had its own electricity supply from a dynamo powered by a gas generator.
The Panatrope was ‘housed’ in a steel case with two turntables, BTH Pickups, 2 volume controls and a change over switch.
A technician from Glasgow installed the equipment which was ideal for accompanying the silent films and Dougie would use the music ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for serious love scenes and if there was a chase in the Cowboys and Indians films he used ‘The Storm’ from the William Tell Overture.

The 1920’s came and went and Mr Peace decided that the time was right for him to bring the pictures to the main street. Spectacular developments were being freely predicted and so in 1928, the cabinetmakers shop in Albert Street was converted and greatly extended to house the new cinema.
The public crowded in to the fine new 300 seat Albert Kinema and on the 8th June 1931 for the first time, the audience heard the characters on the screen talking back.
The first ‘talkie’ at the Albert was ‘Blaze of Glory’. The projection equipment here was, like The Electric Theatre, Gaumont machines with BTH lamphouses and Colin Park was one of the projectionists. Alex Leisk who throughout the war had been with ENSA, joined the Kinema staff as a projectionist in 1946.
One of the greatest moments in the history of the ‘Albert’ was when it was chosen to present the world premiere of a film adapted from a book by an Orkney author and shot in Orkneys famous anchorage of Scapa Flow. The author Mr J. Storer Clouston and the director Mr Michael Powell were both present at the first public performance of ‘The Spy In Black,’ which starred Conrad Veidt.

D. B. Peace guided the fortunes of his cinema for almost 30 years and when he died in the spring of 1943, his daughter Mrs J. F. Shearer (along with her sons Tommy and Dougie), took over the management.

Albert Kinema Exterior

Albert Kinema Interior

The ‘Albert’ performed indispensable service to troops and civilians alike during the war years, with Mrs Shearers tearoom which had been set up within the Kinema, being removed to make way for extra seating to accommodate the vast increase in audience numbers attending the three shows daily - which were helping to counterbalance the grim news in the Press and on the Radio. Christmas Day at The Albert was always a family occasion, enjoyed by youngsters and parents alike and this was the only time of the year when the film start times were governed by the whereabouts of the ‘ba’ game! If the ba was in Albert Street, the patrons could not get in – or out of the Kinema.
Just as people were beginning to forget the wild thunder of guns around the ‘Flow’ and the tramp of army boots in Albert Street, a tragedy occurred.

Demolition of
Albert Kinema (1970s)

On the morning of Thursday May 8th 1947, flames were seen shooting from the upper windows of the Kinema by Boots the Chemists storeman Mr John Cooper and soon half the town was out to watch the fire hoses swishing back and forth, in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue the blaze. The crackling of the asbestos roof lining could be heard from as far away as Kirkwall Golf Course. “It was some blaze” recalled Dougie Shearer, who had watched the inferno from the upstairs of his home next door to the Kinema.

Such was the ferocity of the blaze that there was fear of nearby premises catching light. The business of A. M. Morgan had to move their stock of gun ammunition to safety for fear of explosion. In an hour or so all that was left of The Albert Kinema was a burnt out shell and for the first time since 1914, no one could go to the pictures.

Elma Wilson from Sanday recalled that she had travelled in to Kirkwall especially to see the film ‘Tarzan Escapes’, but the fire put paid to her plans.

Kirkwall wasn’t without a cinema for too long though, as the Temperance Hall (now Orkney Arts Theatre) which had operated as a Royal Navy Cinema during the war, was leased and for eight years until May 1955 the management maintained a regular service to its patrons, striving hard to counteract the difficulties of limited seating and the disadvantages of a building never intended for a cinema. In the knowledge that a new cinema would eventually be built, the management decided in 1951 to equip the Temperance Hall with two new British Thomson Houston (BTH) Projectors which would eventually be transferred to the new cinema.

The task of erecting a new building to replace the Albert Kinema was a frustrating one, as the authorities would not allow the building of a new cinema on the Albert Street site and so a fresh location had to be found.
Many sites were considered, including The Keelies just off Victoria Road Kirkwall (now an allotment) - but most were unsuitable in one way or another. Finally, Kirkwall Town Council agreed to grant the use of a site at The Crafty where the ‘new’ cinema opened on Tuesday June 14th 1955, rising figuratively from the ashes of the old. It was almost inevitable that this new ‘picture house’, far exceeding in equipment anything which had preceded it in Kirkwall, should be called ‘The Phoenix’.

The BTH Projectors were transferred to the new cinema and upgraded, in order that they could handle the latest development in movie entertainment - Cinemascope films. High intensity carbon arc lamps with 14.5 inch mirrors were fitted in order to cope with the large screen 29 ft wide by 16 ft in height. Engineers from Glasgow called to ‘service’ the machines every six weeks for their first few years of operation and these machines ran for nearly 50 years with only one major breakdown in that time.

Temperance Hall

Temperance Hall Interior

Temperence Hall today as Orkney Arts Centre

Phoenix construction photos gallery
The special screen of curved construction was made from a toughened plastic material, large enough to accommodate Cinemascope films but decreased in size for standard films by means of an automatically controlled black masking curtain. Before each performance, the beautiful silver – grey eleven drape satin front curtain was raised gently at the touch of a button in the projection room.

Coloured lighting was projected on to the curtain from the stage footlights and the lighting cove in the proscenium arch, giving a variety of colour combinations. It was once said by a regular patron that he didn’t care what film was showing, it was worth going to The Phoenix just to watch the beautiful illuminated curtain and its sequence of changing colours!

The Phoenix Cinema was erected by Mr Peace’s son - also named D.B.Peace (Junior) - in conjunction with the Shearer family, to provide better film entertainment for Orkney and to keep abreast of whatever the great art of the cinema might have in store.

The 650 seat Phoenix Cinema, a ‘Stadium’ style cinema, was part of the company of D.B. Peace and Co. (Pictures) Ltd of which D. B. Peace Jnr. was the head, and was officially opened by Provost James Flett of Kirkwall, who described it as a magnificent building, a credit to the management and to the town.
The project was perhaps the most costly venture ever undertaken by a private Kirkwall firm at that time.

Building construction Orkney Builders Ltd.
Site Checking T. Firth, Colwyn, Kirkwall
Foundation Testing R. Findlay and Sons Junction Road, Kirkwall
Foundation James Drever, Cliffdale, Cromwell Road, Kirkwall
Electrical and Plumbing Work J. Rendall and Son, Laing Street, Kirkwall
Plaster Work Andrew Tait, Cannola, Old Scapa Road, Kirkwall
Decorating George Bain, Broad Street, Kirkwall
Carpeting and Floorcoverings James Tait and Sons Broad Street, Kirkwall
Clerk of Works John S. Flett, Bignold Park Road, Kirkwall
Solicitors Macrae and Robertson, Albert Street, Kirkwall
Accountants Foubister and Bain, Broad Street, Kirkwall

Once the introductions and speeches were over, the lights dimmed, the curtain slowly lifted and the specially invited audience were treated to the first film performance, ‘Doctor In The House’ starring Dirk Bogard. It was a nerve racking time for Projectionist Alex Leisk who was always a perfectionist at what he did. The copy of the film dispatched from the distributors in Glasgow was in rather poor condition and not really suitable for showing at this special opening ceremony.

However Alex managed to check and splice the film and it ran without mishap. Notwithstanding, Alex was sick with worry! It was extremely important that the first public show should proceed without a hitch. Films were shown Monday to Saturday with two performances daily, the first ‘house’ at 5.30pm., the second at 8pm and three main programme changes every week. In addition there were matinees on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, with the occasional late show at 10.30 on Friday evenings.

Opening Announcement

Phoenix Cinema Gallery
Until the mid-sixties, the Saturday afternoon matinees were very popular with the Children and many an Orkney parent was happy to ‘bundle’ the kids off to The Phoenix for a couple of hours while they went shopping. When the feature lighting on the curtain changed to red, the kids knew that the performance was about to commence and a gigantic roar could be heard from the auditorium. Weekly serials such as Batman and Robin, had the youngsters on the edge of their seats, ending each episode on a ‘cliffhanger’ so that you had to come back the following week to see what had happened. You did not dare miss an episode. The main features for the matinees were generally films made by The Childrens Film Foundation.

In the projection box was Alex Leisk (whose career in films was to span some 30 years), Mac Johnston and Dougie Shearer, with Billy Scollie joining the team in 1963 as ‘apprentice’. In 1964 Billy took over the Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon film shows in Stromness Town Hall from ‘Bunt’ Knight, operating the service with two Ross projectors which had been made in the 1930’s. Billy showed the films, which the week previous had been screened at The Phoenix, independently with full permission from the Phoenix management.

At the cinema cash desk was Rene Shearer, with her sisters Liane and Ella running the shop. Edgar Cook was to be found on duty at the door, along with D. B. Peace Jnr., later to be followed by Bob Craigie and Bill Raeburn amongst others, with Margaret Roxby, Vina Macgillivray, Bertha Archbold and June Bews as usherettes. Jock Mears was employed as cleaner and night watchman.

The ordering of films was a task usually carried out by Dougie Shearer, who received film travellers from such distributors as The Rank Organisation, Warner Brothers, British Lion, Columbia Pictures, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox plus some others. Some years ago he recalled with a smile, the time when he had six of the travellers to see in one day. Only the ‘unflappable’ Dougie Shearer could handle such a situation!

The arrival of Grampian Television in 1966 had a significant effect on audience figures and to try and counter this, Tuesdays and Fridays were given over to Bingo, which really went against the grain as far as D.B.Peace Jnr. was concerned. The Bingo evenings literally ‘saved the day’ at least for a while and were supervised by Mac Johnston who acted as Bingo Caller and who had agreed to help out temporarily until someone permanent was found. Mac held this ‘temporary’ post for fourteen years!
Films were therefore cut to 4 days each week, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

With the advent of colour television in the seventies, the cinema audiences were further depleted, although films such as ‘Grease’, ‘Saturday Night Fever’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’ did excellent business, proving that if the product was good, the people would turn out. Video had appeared on the scene by the early eighties and was almost the final nail in the coffin when film performances were further cut to two nights weekly.

This unfortunate downturn continued, leaving the Shearer family no option but to sell the Phoenix in October 1985 to Orkney Islands Council, effectively ending their 73 year association with cinema in Orkney.

It seemed apparent at the time, that this was indeed the end of ‘picture going’ in Orkney in general, but a new company was formed called Orkney Entertainments Limited, who indicated their interest in leasing the Phoenix from Orkney Islands Council for the purpose of running film shows twice weekly. The Council supported this proposal and film shows re-commenced during November 1985. At this point it was considered necessary to install a large stage for concerts and this was added in the auditorium at the expense of 100 or so stalls seats. Some time later, the cinemas sound system was upgraded to ‘ultra stereo surround sound’ which significantly enhanced the audio enjoyment for the public. Apart from this, very little changed over the years, the original chandeliers in the foyer were replaced with fluorescent strip lighting, the illuminated flower boxes above the cash desk and shop kiosk were removed and in the projection room, the slide projector which enabled messages to be flashed up on the screen was removed along with a 16mm film projector on which were run the local newsreels filmed by Dougie himself.
There were plans to convert the Phoenix into a theatre and transfer the cinema to the Arts Theatre in Mill Street, but this never got off the ground.

When Satellite Television came on the go, the commercial viability once again was severely tested and in 1992 Orkney Islands Council Education and Recreation Department itself took control of the film shows and with Billy Scollie as Projectionist / Manager, a regular service continued. Billy had many fond memories of The Phoenix and was especially pleased to be projectionist for the film ‘Venus Peter’, which premiered at The Phoenix on Midsummers day 1989 as part of The St Magnus Festival.
Billys favourite films included the 1970’s Sun Classic films starring Dan Haggerty as ‘Grizzly Adams’ and the epic movies such as Ben Hur along with the old westerns and magnificent musicals, all sadly gone from the screens these days.

Dougie Shearer, whose favourite film of all time was ‘Singing In The Rain’, maintained an interest in and was a regular visitor to the cinema even after it was sold to Orkney Islands Council. The Phoenix had screened over 5,000 films in its 43 years and topping the charts as the number one film was Grease which attracted an audience of 4,220 on its first run in September 1978, beating the previous best for Jaws in April 1977.

Over the years many well known personalities have graced the Phoenix stage: Robert Wilson, Jimmy Shand, Jim Macleod, The Corries, Bridie Gallagher, Ruby Murray, Edwin Heath (Hypnotist), Boxcar Willie, Susan McCann, Philomena Begley, Hank Locklin, Manson Grant and The Dynamos, Colorado, the 114 strong National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Boxing and Wrestling Matches, plus the ever popular Miss Orkney Talent Contests, and in more recent years, Del Amitri, The Indians, Billy Connolly and Barbara Dixon, but to name just a few. Many local bands made their first appearance at The Phoenix and went on to greater things.

Phoenix Records produced a number of discs in the 1960’s including ‘Owre The Ferry’, ‘Orkney Goes Dancing With The Vikings’, ‘Billy Jolly Sings’ etc etc. The recording engineer was Bert Stockan and the actual recordings were made in the cinema itself. The record sleeve photographs were the work of the multi talented Dougie Shearer who combined the art of photography with a keen interest in sound recording as well. A point worthy of note is that Dougie was actually following a family tradition, as his Grandfather D. B. Peace Senior, used to make sound recordings back in the old days, on an Edison Bell machine with cylindrical discs.

Dougies skill as a keen photographer, led him, along with his nephew Donald, to create a photography business which was called Phoenix Photos, concentrating on commercial, wedding and newspaper photography. Their famous photograph of a Loganair Islander aircraft flying past The Old Man of Hoy, featured prominently on Loganair publicity for many years. The photography business expanded and two darkrooms were created in the cinema, one beside the projection room and one at the stage end of the building where most of the colour work was processed.

The Phoenix, with all the character of a 1950’s style cinema sadly came to the end of its working life on 28th November 1998. Many people will have their own memories of favourite films, or concerts, perhaps even bingo. For a goodly number of Orkney folk, it has always been there and was the most northerly working cinema in the U.K.

Special ‘nostalgic’ events took place during the cinemas emotional final week of operation in November 1998 and this included a bingo evening on Tuesday 24th November, and a concert, ‘Farewell To The Phoenix’ on Friday evening 27th November, featuring a host of local talent. The last picture shown was the war time drama ‘The Land Girls’ on Saturday 28th November and once the final image had flickered from the screen, Dougie Shearer, the former owner of the cinema who had been invited along by the staff for the evening, closed the doors of what had been his ‘pride and joy’ for the very last time.

Phoenix Closure Gallery

Prior to the final show, Dougie Shearer on behalf of The Phoenix Staff, presented the Projectionist / Manager Billy Scollie with a framed photograph of the cinema auditorium taken by Mr W. Marr prior to its opening in 1955.

Phoenix Cinema Demolition Gallery

An additional gallery of interior pictures during demolition can be found here, courtesy Kevin Kirkness.

New Phoenix Cinema
In the spring of 1999 a “New Phoenix” rose up from the old in the shape of a fully equipped modern cinema at the new Pickaquoy Sports Centre – The New Phoenix Cinema ensures that the work of D.B.Peace Senior, D.B.Peace Junior, Dougie Shearer and Billy Scollie will carry on and that Orkney still has a cinema of its own. This in itself is a tribute to those who have given most of their lives to providing thousands of Orkney folk with ‘a night out at the pictures’.

At the farewell concert James Oliver Alexander paid a very fitting tribute to the Phoenix:-


You arose from the ashes of the ‘Albert Kinema’,
You once were the North’s most popular cinema
But like all men you are doomed to perish,
Tho’ the mem’ries we have we will always cherish.
We entered your door and paid our money,
Had a kiss and a cuddle at the back of the balcony-
And in the stalls, when we were boys
Got threatened with eviction for makin’ a noise
The image of our idols on the silver screen
And live: Rock Bands’ Daniel and Ann Breen
Miss Orkney contests and Talent Show,
The first recording of ‘Scapa Flow’.
Every year at the St Magnus Festival
National Orchestras grand and classical.
Orkney’s own orchestra and choir
In that great Oratorio ‘Handel’s Messiah’
We remember too the ‘two little ducks’
The ‘two fat ladies’ and ‘Clickity – click’.
You may have forgotten Mickey Mouse
But you’ll remember the night you shouted ‘House’
Some will have many more mem’ries to tell
We all loved you!! We will all miss you!
Phoenix, Farewell! Farewell!

The signs which were originally above the door of The Electric Theatre which opened in 1914 have been sympathetically restored by Mr Harold Esson from Dounby and at Dougie Shearers request these signs are now on display at Harolds museum.

Additional photos of the Phoenix can be seen here.

Back Main
Unless otherwise specified, all photographs and other material copyright (c) 2001 - 2020 Gordon Barr and Gary Painter.
All rights reserved. Permission for use elsewhere normally granted, but please ask first
No attempt is made to infringe any existing copyrights or trademarks. Please contact the editors in case of any queries.