The Stella Theatre, a memorable suburban cinema founded amid the zenith of the Irish Free State, has been given a new lease of life this autumn. Despite the stifling censorship that loomed over Catholic Ireland, the theatre opened its doors to the public in 1923, offering some cinematic escape to the Irish people. It continued to be a prominent social establishment throughout the 20th century, until it fell victim to the unyielding era of Xtravision. The theatre had become an outdated, forlorn enchantment and closed down in 2004. Now, in 2017, the once-prestigious cinema held its long-anticipated re-opening on Halloween night, screening the fitting Hollywood classic Casablanca. The Rathmines landmark has overcome its past tribulations to offer its audience the opportunity to experience the golden age of cinema in a time defined by Netflix.
Upon entering the Stella’s foyer, there is a sense that you have stumbled upon the cusp of a forgotten era. The saloon-styled refreshments bar at the front entrance feels welcoming with its alluringly subdued lighting and restless atmosphere.
Servers in smart uniforms hurriedly take orders and fill yellow buckets with fresh, crackling popcorn as the public excitedly queue in the anticipation of viewing an old-world film. The bustling activity is captured in the reflection of the antiquated mirrors, lining the walls of the narrow hallway that runs all the way to the screen room.
Ascending the cast iron stairway for a pre-film refreshment, the Stella’s lavish Cocktail Club exudes an undeniable sense of opulence and extravagance. It exhibits bold art deco furnishings, along with a quaint outdoor terrace that is ideal for sipping on craft beers and film-inspired cocktails under the stars.
Hidden oak spring floors underline the vibrant monochrome carpet, originating back to a time when the room above the theatre functioned as a social dancehall in the 1920s. A large front window overlooks the bustling Rathmines main street, with passersby utterly oblivious to the fact that you feel a million miles away.
Humphrey Bogart’s illustrious line from Casablanca – “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” – comes to mind. There is a semblance of nostalgia and serendipity in the air, which adds to the bar’s ambience.
Speaking to The University Times, Karl Geraghty, the Stella’s new director, reveals how he initially became involved in the theatre’s renovation. A man with no cinematic background, Geraghty co-ordinated live music events around Dublin before being offered the opportunity to take charge of the Stella’s direction.
His lack of experience in the film world is balanced with his infectious enthusiasm. It becomes clear that he is fixated on creating an invigorating experience that will resonate in the hearts of the audience. “There is a huge element of escapism”, he remarks, as he chats about the cinema and the forces that shaped it.
Aptly, the screening room itself is breathtaking, showcasing detailed panelled walls clambering up towards the original ceiling. Dusty, dimmed lampshades are partnered alongside crimson, leather armchairs with individual ottomans and blanketed beds, all facing the brilliantly broad screen.
The service provided by the Stella is also immaculate, with personable staff serving pre-ordered nibbles and cocktails directly to your very own table, promptly arriving just as the lights fade out. Gazing over the Stella’s original balcony and absorbing its atmosphere in the moments before the credits begin to roll, it’s hard not to feel overcome by the room’s history: imagine flutters of conversations, half-hidden glances and long-lost conversations.
Every conversation, whisper and laugh shared in this picture house is echoed in its physical revival and restoration.
Inspired by independent cinema houses of London’s Electric in Notting Hill as well as New York City’s Nitehawk in Brooklyn, Geraghty’s mission has been to utilise these influences and adapt them to suit modern Ireland.
Geraghty is not oblivious to the threat of existing competitors on the Irish film scene. On one side there are the more commercial establishments, while on the other there’s the more hip Light House and the IFI.
Arguably, the Stella fulfils a distinct niche in providing a high-end quality experience that is unique to any existing provider. Geraghty admits that he was acutely aware during planning that not all will be eager to pay the Stella’s premium pricing – a standard ticket costs €19 – particularly when an IMAX can provide for far less.
Geraghty is confident, however, that there is an demand from those who “appreciate the higher-end offering” of cinema and overall experience. He adds that perhaps the Stella fills a void that corporate cinema chains can’t in terms of the art of screening film.
Geraghty says that the uptake has been “phenomenal”, with the recently released Murder on the Orient Express selling out consecutively: “We’ve had to turn people away.”
With large-scale cinema chains increasingly acquiring independent picture houses in recent years, the dusty surroundings of this Rathmines landmark is a breath of fresh air on Dublin’s cinema scene.
The Stella’s strong affiliation with the past is palpable, but what can we expect in the future? According to the director, the theatre’s existing audience is currently small but they intend to broaden their reach in the new year: “We are still trying to find our audience.” Clearly, Geraghty is adamant to avoid “pigeonholing” the cinema to fit one particular demographic.
This is evident in their expanding array of movie screenings, which include brunch films, kids’ matinees and midnight screenings, each catering for an entirely different audience. According to Geraghty, the theatre intended on “showing classic films in the beginning to attract people but are slowly starting to incorporate new releases”.
Geraghty also hopes to screen the Stella’s original feature film, The Blues Brothers, in the new year along with many cult classics and new releases. The Stella’s production team admirably welcomes a combination of both old and new films.
It is not a prerequisite to be an avid cinephile in order to appreciate the wonder of the Stella. One can still capitalise on soaking up the euphoric atmosphere with trendy cocktails and snacks. Whether you’re looking for the ultimate date night, a casual Sunday brunch catch-up or just an excuse to indulge in a good, old-fashioned night out, visiting the Stella theatre is a must.
When asking Geraghty about the reaction of the public to the revamped theatre, he fondly recalls a particular encounter: a young man said that he now knew where to take a girl on a date, to which an elderly man promptly responded, “I used to buy tickets on the balcony when I wanted to impress a girl, they were always the seats to get!”
It’s charming then that new memories are being made in the Stella. Ultimately, in traditional Dublin fashion, everything changes and nothing changes. The Stella experience is undoubtedly a hidden cinematic delight that we are graced with on our doorsteps.