Wetherby Film Theatre celebrates its 100th anniversary

Wetherby Film Theatre - or The Rodney - in the 1950s.
Wetherby Film Theatre - or The Rodney - in the 1950s.

By Graham Chalmers

The first time I visited Wetherby Film Theatre in the late 1990s, it was like travelling back in time to the world of Cinema Paradiso.

Bucking the trend for impersonal multiplexes, this backstreet picture house on Caxton Street belonged to the land of the lo-fi and the handmade.

Just look at it now. More popular than ever, it’s also more modern, though still as independent.

Under the guiding hand of Ray Trewhitt, his wife Irene and family, Wetherby Film Theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary this week.

Celebrations include a recreation of a typical cinema programme from the ‘Silent Era’ with 14 shorts featuring Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and more - plus newsreels of the time and a performance on a classic cinema Wurlitzer organ.

It has to be said, fter all these years, Wetherby Film Theatre remains its personal touch, remarkably so.

Ray said: “It’s still a cosy place, even cosier since the roof insulation was done!

“It’s a community cinema. We can show any film we want, which is one of the things our customers enjoy.”

Wetherby Film Theatre own history since it first opened on April 21, 1915 could be said to reflect the broader story of the times.

Originally owned by a local painter and decorator, The Raby, as it was called then, was used during the First World War to entertain the troops.

The Second World War saw a change of ownership and a new name – The Rodney.

Although a national chain, its well-liked manager of the 1950s, Peter Osborn, retained its friendly neighbourhood feel.

But the 1960s and the arrival of a major rival - television - created tough times for many cinemas in the UK.

Among the many casualties was The Rodney.

It did survive as a bingo hall but by the 1990s the number was up on that, too.

And that would have been the end of the story had not Bob Preedy stepped in.

With the help of John Uphill, this radio presenter and mad keen movie fan turned what had become a derelict building back into a cinema, using his own money as well as a public appeal.

Things got off to a flying start when Wetherby Film Theate reopened in July 1994 with a screening of launch movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it quickly gained a loyal audience.

It was Bob I saw manning the makeshift ticket booth and rudimentary confectionary counter when I first visited nearly 20 years ago.

But the DIY days that I experienced then are long gone.

In 2007 film fan Ray Trewhitt and projectionist the late Roger Spence, who sadly passed away recently, took over the cinema from Bob.

A true labour of love, Ray has been a cinema fan since childhood. He even ran regular film nights at Deighton Gates School when he first moved to Wetherby from Edinburgh 30 years ago.

Although the anniversary events offer film fans the chance to see vintage movies such as South Pacific and Show Boat, it’s encouraging to note that improvements have been a constant feature in recent years.

When the recent decline of 35mm film in the cinema industry him with a dilemma, he bit the bullet and invested £50,000 to install state-of-the-art digital projection.

To be sure, Wetherby Film Theatre is a long way from Cinema Paradiso these days except in one way – it’s still run with passion.

Recent refurbishments of the cinema have been carried out with loving care.

Ray said: “When we rebuilt the foyer, we used the original plans. We didn’t want to make it ultra-modern. We like the cinema as it is and our customers like the atmosphere.

“Some of the first owner from 1915’s taste in decor can still be seen today in the panels and mouldings on the walls.”

I wouldn’t expect anything less from Ray, who was one of the community volunteers who helped Bob Preedy bring the cinema back to life back in the 1990s.

Today Wetherby Film Theatre is better supported than ever but it’s also very much 21st century, streaming in opera and ballet and theatre by satellite from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the National Theatre as well as the latest movie releases.

In a way, however, nothing has changed since it opened 100 years ago.

Ray said: “We still stand in the foyer when people are going out to say ‘thank you’ for coming.

“It gives us a lot of pleasure when an audience leaves saying they enjoyed a film.”