Living legend Pat Church looks back on 50 years of Abbeygate Cinema in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds
PUBLISHED: 19:00 18 February 2016
A ‘living legend’ who has been the face of a popular independent cinema for generations of Bury St Edmunds residents marked 50 years on the job this week.
Pat Church has been a regular fixture at the Abbeygate Cinema, keeping the picturehouse open through thick and thin with 12 different owners and four close calls with permanent closure.
For Pat, 69, the cinema is his life and his family. Since starting as the second projectionist five decades ago he has become a force of nature, determined to make his “back street theatre” the cultural centre of the town.
“We have had 12 different owners and each one has kept me on,” he said. “I guess I must be doing something right.”
Since Pat started all those decades ago, the Hatter Street cinema has had to constantly reinvent itself to keep alive.
“We have had so many changes it is like a new job every few years,” he said. “I started on February 16 1966 – it was a whole different world back then.
“My whole aim has been to see our back street theatre become an important part of the community – that has been my dream.”
From the digital revolution, heralding the end of 35mm, to the construction of Bury’s multiplex Cineworld on Parkway – the cinema has never been allowed to stand still.
“You have to keep on changing,” said Pat. “Many people said to me when the Cineworld was built ‘that will be the final nail in the coffin for Abbeygate’, but we are still here.
“I think the opening of Cineworld was the making of us, we had to offer something different to survive, and now we are thriving.”
The cinema and the personal, caring and intimate service Pat has pioneered, is more than just thriving – plans to “finally” expand back into the third screen they vacated decades ago are currently in the pipeline.
“40 years ago they cut up the building and next door was turned into a bingo hall, and for 40 years I have been trying to reverse it,” explained Pat.
“When the bingo hall closed [Winners Bingo in September 2014] the opportunity was there. It is not just about wanting to expand now, we need to, we have more people trying to visit us than we have room.”
Pat has stared closure in face on several occasions. The first time was in 1975, when he asked for six months as manager to see if he could turn the business around – the rest is history.
When asked if he had an idea when he might retire, Pat laughed off the suggestion. “I have never thought about it,” he said. “I want to see in the expansion first so I am not leaving yet.”
The regular cinemagoers of Bury have become like a family to Pat, who admits he has to spend quite a bit of time just making sure he catches up with everyone before the films start.
“My life is the cinema,” he said. “Every big moment of my life has a movie title to go with it. I met my wife in 1966 when I was just a young lad – she and her mother moved into the flats that used to adjoin the cinema and her kitchen window looked out onto the projection room.
“The chief projectionist invited her to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E from the projection room and you could say it was love at first sight.”
When Pat got engaged to Geraldine, who also works alongside him, he took her to see the Sound of Music. “Our song is Edelweiss,” he added.
In recent months the father of one son, Stuart, and grandfather to three has reduced his workload slightly and handed the mantle to former assistant Jonathan Carpenter.
Paying tribute to Pat, Jonathan said: “In his fifty years with the cinema, Pat has had an exciting and interesting career and has many fascinating stories to tell. He continues to support us in going forward and his loyalty to our customers has never failed.”
The cinema, which is now owned by Toby Jones, is hosting a 50th celebration for Pat next month.
To find out more about what is on offer at Abbeygate, visit www.abbeygatecinema.co.uk
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