On Thursday, April 29, 1971, Shamrock Cinema made its debut on Montserrat with an invitation-only gala that featured 330 guests, including Chief Minister Austin Bramble. The following night the cinema opened to the public as a sold-out crowd watched the movie Airport.
Fifty years later the Shamrock – like most of Plymouth – has been buried under an avalanche of volcanic ash. All that remains are mostly memories of a theater that provided larger-than-life entertainment, thrilling concerts and festive shows.
Shamrock Cinema was built on the fringe of downtown Plymouth on a former cotton field, just west of Church Road near the intersection that featured Barclays Bank and the National State (John Bassie) Building that housed Kelsick’s Supermarket.
Shamrock was not Montserrat’s first cinema. A few others preceded it, including the Rialto theater on George Street in the 1950s. Movies were also shown for a time at the Roman Catholic school auditorium. But Shamrock was Montserrat’s first authentic cinema, with quality video and sound, a wide screen, ample seating and concessions.
Owned and operated by American businessman Leonard Kocen and his wife Midge, Shamrock became a cultural phenomenon. In the early 1970s most Montserratians did not own a television. The movies provided an outlet for entertainment and kept locals in touch with the latest international trends.
Mr. Kocen was an executive with Klein’s department store in Manhattan when he decided to relocate to Montserrat. During a 1975 interview he said: “I didn’t know a thing about the movie business but decided it was something the island needed . . . so I just quit my New York job, moved down here with the family and started from scratch.”
In 2011, Midge Kocen provided details about the cinema’s operations.
“We had a proper concession stand with a popcorn machine and soft-drink dispenser,” she said. “We got our syrups from the [Coca-Cola] distributor. We also had a peanut machine. We got the raw peanuts from Guadeloupe. Our machine was too small to roast the peanuts so we took them to Mr. Walkinshaw’s bakery in Salem and he roasted them for us while the oven was still hot from baking his bread.”
INSIDE THE SHAMROCK
The cinema, which had a seating capacity of 434, had three sections: Balcony, which was accessible by steps from the left side of the lobby; plus Circle and Pit, which were located on the floor level and accessed from the right side of the lobby. Balcony and Circle featured theater-style seats while Pit provided bench seating.
The staff also became well-known due to the popularity of the cinema. Lennox Malcolm was a manager, Mary “Girlie Ann” Gerald worked at the bar, Melvin “Smiley” Tuitt ran the projector and “Hashie” Fenton collected tickets.
Evelyn Cabey-Lynch was another employee who became synonymous with the Shamrock. She says she started working at the cinema around 1977. She mostly worked at the concession stand and bar.
“It was a very happy time,” says Evelyn, who worked at the Shamrock into the late 1980s and migrated to London in 1997 amid the volcanic crisis. “Even though I wasn’t working for a lot of money I really enjoyed it.”
Evelyn recalls the first movie she saw at Shamrock . . . several years before she worked there.
“I remember going to see To Sir With Love,” she says of the Sidney Poitier classic. “The place was really full that night.”
During her 2011 interview Mrs. Kocen explained that the films came from Trinidad, which was the hub for Caribbean movie distribution. Mr. Kocen, a pilot who owned his own plane, would import the reels. “He booked films for Dominica and I think St. Kitts,” Mrs. Kocen said. “He moved the films between the three islands.”
Each night at Shamrock had a theme. Friday nights featured Spaghetti westerns or karate movies. There were also Saturday matinees and “Lover’s Night” on Sundays. Mondays were called “White Night” because the audience consisted mostly of expatriates, Mrs. Kocen said.
‘KUNG FU FIGHTING’
During the early years of the Shamrock, fans were treated to an array of movies that became iconic. They were terrified by Jaws (1975), mesmerized by Star Wars (1977) and enthralled by the musically driven Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978).
However, the karate movies were a huge fan-favorite. Karate gained popularity in the early 1970s mostly due to martial arts star Bruce Lee. UK-based Jamaican singer Carl Douglas had a No. 1 song in 1974 called Kung Fu Fighting that further fueled the novelty. Boys and men alike would exit the Shamrock following a movie and exchange playful karate kicks. Some men in Montserrat even created their own noon-chucks, so popular was the craze.
Indeed, the drama at Shamrock was not confined to the big screen. It was not uncommon for some men to attend several nights in a row, with a different lady in tow each time. The balcony became a spot for clandestine escapades. Meanwhile, the Pit was known for hosting the noisiest patrons.
Shamrock was more than just a movie theater. It hosted school graduation ceremonies and many concerts. Montserrat’s Arrow performed there, as did Mighty Sparrow and Lord Shorty – who was later known as Ras Shorty-I and is credited as the pioneer of soca music. Reggae star Eric Donaldson performed for a sold-out crowd at the Shamrock in October of 1977 but was arrested the following morning for marijuana possession and deported.
Shamrock served hot dogs, sandwiches and other treats that customers could purchase even if not attending a movie. Cabey-Lynch says some of her best memories are from serving lunch to students of the Montserrat Secondary School, located about a quarter-mile north of the cinema.
“The children would be shouting for the sandwiches,” she says. “You could tell they really appreciated it. Sometimes I would sell a student a sandwich and they didn’t have enough money. I never took back the sandwich. I would just tell them to pay next time.”
The car park at the side of the Shamrock was the site of netball games, during which spectators could purchase hot dogs and other snacks from the cinema. Across from the Shamrock was Lett’s Ice Cream, another popular eatery.
As the 1980s arrived, more Montserrat homes began acquiring televisions. It also marked the introduction of cable and VCRs. Shamrock’s business began to tail off and the facility curtailed its movie schedule and became more of a hosting venue.
“When [the movies] became not profitable Mr. Kocen put fridges and freezers in the lobby, mostly for the ex-pats, and brought fancy foods from Guadeloupe,” Mrs. Kocen said in 2011. “He also brought in yogurt.”
By the time Hurricane Hugo struck Montserrat in 1989, the Shamrock was basically defunct. “After the volcano and the closing of Plymouth, that was it,” Mrs. Kocen said.
Aside from her work with the Shamrock, Mrs. Kocen was also community spirited. She made history by becoming the first female member of the Rotary Club – not just in Montserrat but for the entire District 7030, which covers the Caribbean.
Montserrat has not had an official theater since the Shamrock. Movies have been shown at venues such as the Montserrat Cultural Center in Little Bay but only on a limited basis. The Internet age plus streaming services such as Netflix have also rendered the theater experience obsolete in some cases.
Sadly, Leonard Kocen died in a plane crash off the northeast coast of Montserrat while piloting his twin-engine Cessna on May 3, 1986. He was 58 years old. Kocen’s second wife Pat and their grandson Bradley also perished.
Midge Kocen moved to Houston, Texas, following the volcanic crisis. She passed away in June of 2015 at age 83. As a testament to her love for Montserrat, her remains were interred on the Emerald Isle.