AS he looks forward to the annual, Christmas Eve screening of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, staring James Stewart and Donna Reed, Charles Morris has been reflecting on his first 21 years as owner of Skipton’s Plaza Cinema.

The Sackville Street cinema, which has been entertaining people since 1912, was bought by Mr Morris on May 1 1998, after being owned for three generations of the Hartley family.

The Plaza was originally a Temperance Hall, built in 1873, and was apparently used for occasional film shows from about 1910 by a Mark Morris - no relation to Charles - who took up permanent residence in 1912, and renamed the building ‘The Gem’.

However, Mr Morris had a disagreement with the trustees of the Temperance Hall and relinquished it to begin construction of the Morriseum cinema in Keighley Road, which went on to become the Regal, the Odeon, the Classic, and now Kooky nightclub.

The Gem was bought by Matthew Hartley and Sons in 1928, who renamed it the Plaza. The Hartleys also owned the Palace and Majestic cinemas in Barnoldswick, and the Empire, Earby, as well as the Premier in Skipton which was on the site of the present bus station and was closed in 1956.

The Plaza’s first ‘talkie’ was Home James, starring Laura LaPlante, on Monday, March 11, 1929 - quite an early conversion for a small town, and ahead of its rival the Morriseum by some six months.

However, it meant a (old) penny increase on the ticket prices.

The Plaza was the last of the Hartley family’s cinemas, after the Majestic Barnoldswick had closed in 1980.

“Boris Hartley had wanted to retire and we had been in discussion for some 12 months,” says Mr Morris.

“He was not the easiest of people to do business with, and I nearly threw in the towel on a couple of occasions. I remember that, due to its age, the deeds of the building included all sorts of leases and covenants which were a solicitor’s nightmare. However we got there in the end.”

Mr Morris installed new seats, began opening on Sundays, and introduced family matinees, which had not been done for many years.

The Plaza has had its share of showbusiness glamour. Calendar Girls was premiered in September 2003 with actresses Penelope Wilton and Celia Imrie, together with the ‘real’ Calendar Girls of Rylstone WI in attendance.

“It was a fantastic night and really put us on the map. The film then ran for six weeks, certainly a record during my time here,” he says

Four years later, And When Did You Last See Your Father, based on an autobiographical vignette by Blake Morrison about his father, a local doctor, starring Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, was also premiered at the Plaza with Blake and two of the film’s stars in attendance.

In June 2008, The Chronicles of Narnia - Prince Caspian was premiered to a packed house with one of the film’s young stars, Georgie Henley from Ilkley, who played Lucy, there to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

A further charity premiere was held two years later for Toy Story 3, in aid of the Reg Vaux Snowdrop Memorial Fund, to raise money for research into Mesothelioma, the disease associated with asbestos. Reg had been a representative for the Walt Disney company and had retired to Threshfield before succumbing to the disease.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, but on the whole it’s been good fun. A building nearly 150 years old has its challenges and we are constantly having to carry out repairs, but we have done a lot of renovation too,” says Mr Morris.

There has been a new screen, curtains and a new heating plant, and more recently, the ladies’ toilets have been revamped, the front has been sandblasted, and the foyer has been remodelled and stairs re-carpeted.

“It really does look quite splendid now. And we’ve financed it all ourselves; no grants available to the likes of us,” he says.

After converting from film to digital projection about 10 years ago, the Plaza has been able to show films in 3D and also to carry live streaming of opera, ballet and drama from London and other theatres.

“We’ve been featuring opera and ballet from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for quite a while and recently we have signed up with the National Theatre to show their productions. And we have had a number of special events like the Andre Rieu Maastricht concerts during the summer and at New Year,” said Mr. Morris.

Managing the Plaza for most of the last 21 years has been Paul Stone, of Steeton, who began at the Picturehouse, Keighley, also owned by Mr Morris. “The cinema business seems to attract long-term employees. At the Plaza we have had a number of pupils from local schools who have gone on to university but come back to us every holiday. There was one family of four siblings who each worked for us; between them they covered several years,” he says.

Looking ahead, he adds: “I am cinema through and through. I started helping in cinemas when I was only ten years old. I have been doing it professionally for 31 years, starting at the Rex, Elland, and I intend carrying on indefinitely.

“ I have had a lot of satisfaction from carrying out improvements to the Plaza and seeing the results. One of the events I always look forward to is the annual screening of the classic It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. I think the next big project has to be to introduce a second luxury screen in the space at the back of the building, and I want to get us licensed so that we can serve alcohol.”