The Old Cinema Laundrette
By Claire Dupree on October 31, 2012 in Music
The Old Cinema Launderette does exactly what the name suggests – it’s an old cinema that’s now a launderette. What its name doesn’t allude to, is that the venue also hosts live music. Based in Gilesgate, on the outskirts of Durham city centre, it’s a tiny place for live music – with a capacity of 35 (and that’ll be uncomfortably tight), the room’s more used to entertaining dirty washing than music lovers.
It’s a place full of personality and retro chic, and is obviously a labour of love for owner Richard Turner, aka Mr Wishy Washy. “I’ve loved music since I was a wee boy and now that I’ve got young children and numerous jobs going on, I thought it’d be great to bring the artists I like here,” he states, as though turning a launderette into a gig venue is the most natural of business progressions. “I think the venue sells itself really, there’s not many people that play gigs in a launderette. It’s unplugged, quite intimate, the artists mix with the audience. It’s great, I love it, it’s not really a job.”
The original Cresent Cinema opened in 1928, changed hands various times, and became the Rex Cinema which it was known as until it closed in 1958. “Because it was a cinema it gave us a chance to do something a bit different. We’ve recreated film posters from the 20s to the 50s, there are retro washing adverts, even the washing machines are named after film stars of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.”
Richard loves to tell the story of the cinema, he tells me about the old manager, Emily Studholme, whose photo adorns the back wall behind the counter (alongside a picture of Dot Cotton from Eastenders), a stern figure with a bit of a reputation as an iron lady. “Being the 50s it was a bit austere, you didn’t film Elvis Presley below the waist, Emily didn’t like the kids in the back row kissing on too much. Bill Hayley’s Rock Around The Clock was shown in this cinema and the kids were stopped from dancing in the aisles because they were enjoying themselves a little too much!”
The cinema was the smallest in Durham city and had a bit of a reputation as being rather scruffy, but it’s the source of a lot of memories for the people of Gilesgate, something that Richard’s really keen to discover more about. “Many of the people from Gilesgate we met before the business opened told us about the times they’d spent here. It’s nice to feel we’ve put something back in to Gilesgate.”
The venue’s quirkiness is its obvious selling point, and artists that play here are asked to make some adjustments to fit the tiny room. “I’m happy with a small PA, but no drum kits. People love it though, it gives them the chance to do something a bit different.”
While we’re chatting that night’s turn, Louis Barabbas, is tuning up. Usually a very energetic performer who likes to get down and dirty with his audience, Louis is looking forward to playing somewhere a bit unusual. “Normally there’s a fourth wall between you and the audience and that’s nice to break. You get a sense of how the audience are enjoying it, it’s nice to see the whites of someone’s eyes.”
Louis certainly does that later in the night, as he cavorts in front of the washing machines, slapping his feet on the floor, marching from one end of the room to the other and even barking at one bewildered audience member. I imagine it could be rather unnerving for a performer to be so close to their audience – literally playing on their laps – but Richard says most artists thrive in the unusual little set up he’s created. “I like to see an artist up close, the audience talk to eachother too, which is nice.”
It’s a tough time to be running a music venue, let alone one that has an out of town location and a capacity of 35. Louis Barrabas is emphatic about supporting venues like this. “Places like this keep things interesting and human. It’s like another band – bands are all creative entities that need lots of help – it’s the same for little venues as well, everyone’s on the same side.”
Richard’s future line-up looks extremely enticing, and he’s excited to be able to indulge his desire to see some of his favourite artists. “Richard Dawson’s coming on 17th November, he’s just absolutely incredible. There’s a special Tiny Lights showcase on 15th December with Natasha Haws and Union Choir and on 1st December we’ve got really established folk artist Alasdair Roberts. We’re trying to get a good folky vibe, but more contemporary as well as traditional. I’m always interested in hearing from new bands – if it fits the vibe, if I like it…”
The venue doesn’t have an alcohol license but there’s a handily placed off-license next door and a very good chippie up the road. Richard serves tea, coffee and cakes and will even chill your beer and give you a glass to drink it out of. He’s a congenial host, with a ready smile and a story to tell, and the warmth of his personality sells the venue just as much as the venue sells itself.
“The primary function of the Old Cinema Launderette – and I have to remember this, Mrs Wishy Washy keeps telling me – is that it’s a launderette. We wash, iron, dry, fold and alter clothes. We do cash for clothes, we recycle them, we collect bras to support women in Africa, we sell tea, coffee and cakes, we’re part of the community and we help young people. It evolves. But it’s a launderette…”
- Ewan McLennan Comes To Old Cinema Laundrette