Irish moviemaker twins who built their own Art Deco cinemas

CNN  — 

“Sara Karloff is a regular visitor here, Boris Karloff’s daughter,” moviemaker and retired schoolteacher Noel Spence tells CNN Travel, standing in the 70-seater cinema he converted by hand from a hen house beside his home in Northern Ireland.

There are more than 5,000 miles and six decades separating the neat bungalows and rolling green farmland of Comber from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but the Tudor Cinema – all original 1950s fittings, from the red velvet seats to the marquee lights – looks like it slipped here through a time portal, direct from the era of B movies and drive-ins.

The progeny of Frankenstein’s monster isn’t the only fantasy horror royalty to have made the journey to this Art Deco picture palace some 13 miles from Belfast.

Special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, creator of the skeleton warriors in “Jason and the Argonauts,” dropped in with his wife Diana in 1991. A signed poster from the visit still hangs in the projection room.

And while Comber is a quiet, prosperous farming community of just 9,000 residents, most famous for potatoes, the Tudor isn’t even the only 1950s movie house in town. The 30-seater Excelsior Cinema, owned by Noel’s identical twin brother Roy, is just two minutes up the road.

‘Teenagers and rock’n’roll and cars’

Born Christmas Day, 1944, in the Comber countryside they still call home, the Spence twins fell in love with the silver screen at an early age.

“We always had a cinema,” recalls Roy, joining his brother in the front row of the Tudor. “When we were children we had a little cinema in the bedroom, with a hand-operated toy projector.”

The passion for movies, jukeboxes and doo-wop music that they developed as teenagers has remained with them as they became husbands, fathers and grandparents.

Most enduring of all is their fondness for B movies and fantasy horror.

“‘The Blob,’ that was the quintessential one,” says Noel. “Because it was about teenagers and rock’n’roll and cars, all the things we admired from an impossible distance.”

Both brothers collect movie memoribilia including film posters.

Their 1974 film short “Keep Watching the Skies” is an homage to “The Blob,” filmed on location in Northern Ireland.

“It’s hard to make Ireland look like America,” admits Noel, recalling wild searches for left-hand drive cars. “The equipment then was, to put it mildly, very basic. Most of our energies went to overcoming the technical problems.”

In the early days, before they were able to enlist the help of amateur dramatics societies, friends were drafted in to play parts.

“Anybody we knew who would do the part got the part,” says Noel, “Whether they looked it or not’s a different matter.”

For the Spence brothers’ outsider cinema, this meant ingenious workarounds such as the giving leather caps to the more balding members of a middle-aged “teenage” motorcycle gang in “Keep Watching the Skies,” and directing them to stay at the back.

“We did develop as we went,” says Noel, recalling a career that spanned the German Expressionist-style “The Testament of Caleb Meeke” (1969) and the Lovecraftian “The Beast of Druids’ Hill” (1971) through to their later “Tales of the Unexpected”-esque pieces, based on Noel’s short stories, which he describes as “human dramas with a sting in the tail.”

Their full collection of some 50 or 60 film shorts is now in the care of the IFI Irish Film Archive in Dublin and has also recently been digitized for the Northern Ireland Screen film archive.

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Lessons from Ozymandias

Noel opened the Tudor in 1974, with the first screening being “Them!,” the 1954 film about huge monster ants.

Roy built his cinema later, converting it from the studio where in their moviemaking days they’d built sets covering everything from graveyards to coffee bars.

The cinemas were originally for their own entertainment, but as the requests from friends and the wider public rolled in, both cinemas are now available for private hire, with the men putting on shows on almost a daily basis.

It’s time-consuming work and the brothers admit they won’t be able to carry on doing it forever.

“Sometimes I look at my cinema, I look at all the things I have and think all this is going to be dust some day,” observes Roy with the wry candor the twins share.

“But that happens, it happened to Ozymandias, it happened to the great kings of Egypt, it happens all the world over. So I don’t worry.”

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Independent and inspirational

There are screenings most nights at the Tudor and the Excelsior.

For the Spence twins, their cinematic ventures have always come from a place of love rather than profit.

After moving away from full-scale film production, the men ran one-day filmmaking workshops for jobseekers and other people looking to improve their skill sets.

It’s “one of our proudest things,” says Noel. “In so far as we unearthed some very promising talent in the most obscure and unlikely places.”

Former student Tanya Kirk O’Neill, who attended one of their courses as a teenager in the ’90s, went on to build a career in community arts.

“They were the most genuine and supportive tutors,” she tells CNN Travel. “Enthusiastic, encouraging and warm.”

As for the movie screenings that take up most of the men’s evenings as they approach their 73rd birthday, they’re mostly charity fundraisers.

They also do birthdays, anniversaries and bachelorette parties – or “hen parties” as they’re known in Northern Ireland, prompting plenty of “henhouse” gags at the Tudor.

You won’t find any price list for their services, although donations are welcome.

“No, no,” says Noel, explaining why they have no hire fee. “Once you start asking people for money, it becomes a business.”

Tudor Cinema, 22A Drumhirk Rd, Comber, Newtownards BT23 5LY; 028 9187 8589

Excelsior Cinema, 29 Ballynichol Road, Comber, Northern Ireland, BT23 5NW; 028 9187 2480

Visits by private hire only. Occasional coach trips from Belfast city center are organized by Belfast Vintage Cinema Club.