Old time cinema goes down memory lane

Time Cinema: this cinema, or theater for showing films, was unique among theaters in the vicinity because it catered to a certain clientele, that of the needs of some people who described themselves as conservative Christians, as well as interesting groups intrigued by nostalgic films or films from the vault. John and Margaret Bell founded the popular film house but have since retired and sold the cinema to someone who is keeping old films playing in their original setting. Here’s my 2004 article about Time Cinema, written for Challenge Weekly, a Christian newspaper, where I interview John Bell, the founder of Time Cinema, who told me about their slice from the past.

Cinema programming that is Christian-friendly

By Peter Veugelaers

The promise for moviegoers at Wellington’s Time Cinema is for audiences to leave the theatre with “a happy feeling in their hearts”. 

“We don’t want audiences coming here to be troubled, upset or somewhat disturbed,” says theatre operator John Bell, who runs the 40-seat privately owned cinema with his wife Margaret in Melrose.

“We like people to come out with smile on their face and feeling good because that’s what it’s all about.”

John and Margaret have screened nostalgic films for Youth for Christ, school-aged students involved in World Vision’s 40-hour famine, church youth groups, singles and young married groups, senior members of congregations, home groups, and other clubs, associations, and individuals interested in wholesome entertainment from the past.

John believes their historical documentaries are not only educational but entertaining, particularly for young people who get the benefit of a visual and audio teaching experience, which is more appealing to them than being stuck in a classroom. Sometimes schools reward pupils with an outing to Time Cinema, and other teachers take their class along to research a subject they are covering at school.

Time Cinema captures the past. Pictured is Don Ameche from the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

Time Cinema screens non-commercial films so none of the modern-day fare that dominates the mainstream and art house theatres is shown.  Nostalgia is the key, John enthuses, and comedies and musicals are popular. Holding several thousand short reels of documentary materials, which is predominantly made up of New Zealand history circa 1940-1980, also in stock are short reels from Britain and America and documentary footage of the world wars.

Other features showcase old style Hollywood slapstick from the 40s and 50s, cartoons, fiction, and some classics, usually screened by request, and sometimes screen religious programmes where appropriate.

John says he has always enjoyed film as a hobby. “Now I have got an opportunity to share my hobby. Everyone else gets to enjoy what I enjoy and of course I enjoy the fact that I can show the films as well.”

Time Cinema started 26 years ago from the Bells’ home in Berhampore which showed films to neighbours and developed over the years to display vintage commercial and amateur film equipment and screen monthly programmes. It was through the encouragement of people that sat through those early meetings in their home that motivated them to push forward, fuelled by demand and John’s enthusiasm.

John and Margaret’s Christianity influenced the selection of films screened as well as their attitude to profit. This is essentially “sharing a ministry as well as a hobby that has meant we have been able to share our joy with others through the medium of film.”

He says that if Christian groups are not aware of what they are about it can cause “alarm bells. An organiser of a group will say we don’t want anything of this or that nature. I say, that’s something we don’t do anywhere – even to non-Christian groups.

“Christian people are cautious on a first time visit as they always are when visiting a movie theatre, because when Christians do visit a move theatre they can be subject to something on the screen they find quite abhorrent. When they have been made aware of the fact that this is unlikely to occur at our place, they can relax.

Therefore, Christians tend to be a bit cagy about going out to the cinema these days particularly when films do seem to have content that is against Christian ideals.”

John explains that when members of a church invite a friend who is not a churchgoer to an occasion in a church building, he tends to shy away – he says, “I don’t want to go there because it is a church.” If a church fellowship goes to Time Cinema, John says, the non-Christian friend feels freer to come with them because it is not a church venue, but they are mixing with a fellowship group and “will discuss matters of the Spirit sometimes quite openly with each other. Of course, they’re within listening distance of their friends who are visiting and quite often that can arouse curiosity.”

Some church groups have commented that Time Cinema has brought enjoyment and relaxation to their cinematic experiences – “and all the other things we associate with entertainment.” John recounts he has been told that not only do they enlighten audiences but send them away with a joy that they didn’t have when they arrived.

Photo by KML on Pexels.com

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