During the lunchtime break at secondary school, the question would usually crop up. “Here lads! So what are we at on Friday night?”
In the absence of a disco or someone’s parents being away for the weekend, the cinema was a common suggestion.
“Anything good on?” someone would ask. “Sure what does that matter?”
Growing up as a teenager in Letterkenny, around about the turn of the Millennium, meant that the cinema on the Port Road was a frequent hangout spot for local lads and girls. Sometimes they’d even cross paths together … of course this was usually in the back row of seats.
Long before the days of Netflix and all the other streaming services we use today, the cinema was a fairly sociable hub for youngsters. Especially when one of the more long awaited movies was staging its opening night.
One that always springs to mind for me was October 1999 when The Blair Witch Project came to our screens. I was a few weeks short of turning 15 at the time, but the fact that the joys of adolescence had done its bit, my voice was well-broken so getting in wasn’t going to be a problem.
Mind you, gaining entry would be more difficult there on later occasions but let’s come back to that later.
Now maybe it’s because the Blair Witch opened on the same night that we all got our Halloween holidays from school, but it seemed that there were loads of us there that night.
What’s more is that the movie’s obscure ending – which I won’t spoil for anyone – had many of us in hot debate outside on the front steps afterwards. You have to remember that this particular movie had tricked much of the world into creating the illusion that the shaky handheld camcorder footage was real.
“Naw! I’m telling ya! A lad down the road from me has the Internet in his house, right? And he was saying he looked up a – whatyamacallit – a website and it says it’s definitely real, so it is! They’re all dead so they are!” That was just one of the cases put forward. A case built on solid and undisputed evidence, as you can see.
On the flip side, you were always going to have that one guy who would go over the top, especially in front of thf ladies, in a zealous attempt to prove that he was in no way frightened by the movie. “Ohhhh my God, that was just soooo stupid! I mean, it’s meant to be scary but I just laughed at it the whole time.”
What I recall most about this particular trip to the flicks wasn’t the movie itself. In actual fact, it wasn’t even the arguments over whether it was real or not either. What stands out for me is that, without knowing it, we were truly in the infant ages of easy-access technology.
Googling something on our phones wasn’t a thing. Come to think of it, most of us didn’t even have mobiles by this stage! And yet maybe the Blair Witch showed us there was still a bit of time left to believe in mythology and imagination even if it was of the darker and more occult variety.
I can tell you now that walking past the dark Gortlee forest and graveyard, on my home that night, gave me a touch of the heebie-jeebies.
This was the year of ‘99. A time when people, even in this town, were dreading the Y2K bug. The world feared that when midnight struck on New Year’s Eve, that all the computer systems on the planet would collapse and that planes would “start falling from the sky!”
Now there was a case of much ado about nothing but maybe it’s another example of how there was a touch of gullibility in the air that particular winter.
As alluded to earlier, getting to see any film I wanted at the cinema was not always an easy task. At the age of (almost) 15, one tends to think of themselves as a grown up. A big man!
Sure, you might be at an age where you can hold hands across the tables in the Four Lanterns with a girl in public for the first time. You might even be something of a legend to some because your fake ID got you served in the offie one night.
Getting refused admission to see a film on the grounds of being too young, however. That brought you right back to earth. It was a subtle reminder, about as subtle as a brick to the face mind you, that you’re still only a pup.
The one movie in the autumn of 1999 that proved difficult to gain entry to was American Pie: a high school comedy with plenty of risky and raunchy humour. As you might expect, you had to be over 18 to see it and the cinema staff were on high alert to avoid letting any young ones in.
On the night myself and my pal queued up for it, we noticed a few schoolmates getting turned away at the kiosk. My mate Ultan was part-Scottish – well he still is , I suppose – and he uttered “Dinnae worry Johnny! Ah huv a wee idea mate! Follow me!”
His cunning plan was bloody ridiculous, but I have to give credit to the man. It worked! Ultan ordered us two tickets for some chick-flick film. Some borefest about a young girl trying to make it big in the city. Yawn! It even brought a bemused look on the guy selling the tickets.
“What are you at, ya muppet?” I whispered with a snarl. Ultan shushed me and carried on as normal. Picking up a couple of popcorn combos before making our way down the corridor to where the screens were, I was still quietly raging.
As we embarked down the hallway, all I could think was what a waste of £6 this was. ‘We’d have been better off buying six cans of Dutch Gold,’ I thought to myself.
Then, with one swift point of his index finger, Ultan pointed to the doorway where American Pie was being shown. Better yet, there was nobody guarding the door.
“After you,” was his simple command. “Well played,” was all I could say.
It didn’t go unnoticed either. A girl, probably in her twenties at the time, was walking behind us. She chuckled and gave an approving “I see what ye did there lads. Nicely done!”
Of course, long before that and when I was much younger, Saturday matineé trips to the cinema were a part of growing up in the town. Sometimes they were tied in with birthday parties and on other times, they were just for the spectacle of what was being shown.
Between the ages of eight and eleven, it was here where many of us saw such (what are now considered) nineties cult-classics like Wayne’s World, Jurassic Park, Batman Forever, Dumb and Dumber and Toy Story.
They don’t look like much to younger audiences now but seeing these magnificently created CGI-dinosaurs on a full-size silver screen back in those days was truly mesmerising. A piece of cinematic art within itself. Likewise, Toy Story was iconic because it became the first ever full-length computer generated movie. History.
I should point out here that the aforementioned Dumb and Dumber also involved something of a sneak in on my part. It must’ve taken me a solid four attempts to get past old Mrs Collins in the ticket booth for that one.
Thankfully though, some lad in my class tipped us off that “she doesn’t work on Thursday evenings, so go see it then!”
At that age though, the excitement would usually build from the day before. Our bus to school used to make its way along the Port Road and as it slowed down in the traffic, we used to gaze out on Friday mornings to see a man on a ladder slotting in the tiles of letters on the boards to advertise that weekend’s showings.
On the day itself, we used to buy bag loads of penny sweets from the shop a few doors down. Drastically undercutting the income of the popcorn kiosk within the cinema, right enough, but sure these things happen.
The one thing you had to be prepared for back then was, because it was still the afternoon when the film was over, the daylight always seemed that bit more blinding after being cooked up inside for the last two hours.
Of course, that old building is gone now. It’s been taken over by offices and a youth centre and, we can’t complain, because the town has a new and much more modern cinema house over by Leckview. One with comfy seats and beverage holders.
Even though some lads used to give out that the new state-of-the-art armrests were a preventive barrier to some ‘high-quality shifting.’ Well sure, you can’t have everything, now can ya?
Still though, the old cinema house on the Port Road may be long gone now, but it certainly had its charm back in the day.