RADIO, television, home video, the rise of the multiplex – none of them managed to kill off Wareham’s Rex cinema.

In fact, as the community-run movie house nears its centenary, it can claim to be in better shape than ever.

Audience numbers are healthy, with an average of 100 people a time enjoying one of the biggest movies of recent months, Mary Poppins Returns. And the recently refurbished venue can boast top quality presentation, thanks to an expensive digital projector and sound system.

As the Rex prepares to mark a century of cinema-going, it wants to hear from the audiences who have been there through good times and bad.

Film-going became a popular pastime in Wareham when a huge Army camp was established nearby at the start of the First World War.

David Evans, chair of the Purbeck Film Charitable Trust, said: “The military built a Garrison Cinema about a quarter of a mile from here, which closed in 1919 or 1920.

“The townsfolk had taken a shine to watching what were then silent movies, so they started showing pictures at Oddfellows Hall, which fairly quickly became the Empire Cinema.

“It started three nights a week and moved to seven nights a week as things were really taking off. This was the golden age of cinema.”

In its early days, the cinema was run by a brother and sister, George and Dorothea Tearreau, who lived on West Street. “He did the projection, she did the box office and played piano to accompany the silent movies,” said Mr Evans.

However, the business ran into trouble when George and Dorothea’s business partner, a Mr Cleall, absconded with the venue’s profits.

The cinema was subsequently owned for three years by Harry Mears, who had several other cinemas in the south and was a significant figure in the film exhibition industry, as well as being mayor of Bournemouth three times.

The venue was taken on in 1934 by Cecil Elgar and in 1937 by Joe Merrick, who saw it do excellent business as the military presence built up in the area once more during the Second World War.

Mr Merrick died in a plane crash at Ballard Down in 1949 but his widow continued running the cinema until 1963, when it was bought by the Brighton-based Myles Byrne Group. Its new manager, who would stay for 24 years, was Rusty Irons.

His enthusiasm would help keep the cinema going throughout the years when television, and later home video, caused film attendances nationally to fall off drastically.

The Rex was the last gaslit cinema in the country – though the mix of gas lighting, powerful projector lamps and cigarette smoke would terrify a risk assessor today. The gas lights are still there, but are not currently used because they would make insurance unaffordable.

In 1986, the Echo ran the headline: “When Rusty goes what will happen to Rex?” Mr Irons was 78 and keen to retire, and told the Echo he was not a fan of many modern films. He also told how, while no one was quite sure when film-going began at the Rex, he knew someone who had seen The Sheik of Araby there 60 years before.

When Mr Irons stood down in 1987, a group of local people took the venue over. “They were keen to keep cinema going and they did a fabulous job keeping it going until 2009 when they decided they couldn’t continue ay longer and put it up for sale,” said Mr Evans.

“That’s when we took it on.”

The Purbeck Film Charitable Trust, which already ran the successful Purbeck Film Festival, was the ideal buyer. Buying the cinema was made possible by a grant from the waste management company Viridor, which had a side nearby, and by other charitable donations.

At that time, movies were shown on a single 35mm projector, with a single reel that allowed it to show up to three hours of film in one sitting.

But in 2011, with the industry rapidly turning away from celluloid, it became necessary to go digital. The move was supported by the digital media specialists Arts Alliance, which offers 24-hour, seven-day support in case of problems.

In recent times, it became necessary to introduce a new digital system – a projector costing £27,000 plus VAT and a £25,000 sound system. The result is that the cinema has crystal clear picture and 7.1 Dolby stereo.

The auditorium has been upgraded too, with each of the 130 seats refurbished one by one.

Trust manager Julie Sharman said: “Somebody said to me, ‘Is it the old fleapit? We’ve worked so hard to get away from that image.”

Andy Gent, head of puppets for the film isle of Dogs and a regular collaborator with director Wes Anderson, wrote to the Rex: “Your projector is I think the best I have seen the film on anywhere! It’s razor sharp. By far the best screening of the film to date.”

He is one of a succession of film professionals who have visited the venue, along with Alan Bates, Brenda Blethyn and Dame Maggie Smith. Locally-based star Edward Fox is a patron of the venue. “He’s been a huge supporter of the cinema,” said Julie.

The venue shows the expected blockbusters as well as drawing good audiences for movies that don’t reach the multiplexes. “We show films that you probably won’t see anywhere else nearby,” said Mr Evans.

It is run by just two paid staff, supported by 43 volunteers, and has kept ticket prices to £7, or £5.50 for concessions.

Mr Evans said: “We want everybody to enjoy entertainment in the cinema. We’re a community organisation and we want the cinema to be part of the community.”

If you have memories or photos of the Rex through the years, the venue would like to receive them via email to info@therex