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A 15-minute walk up the hill from Hotel Indigo Durham, the Old Cinema Launderette is a place of unique and quirky charm. Indeed, the unmistakable, bright blue, art deco building on Sunderland Road is probably the only venue in Europe where you can sip a cocktail, wash your sheets and watch a live band all at the same time.
Opening as a 320-seat picturehouse back in the 1920s and rejoicing under the name The Rex, the cinema closed its doors for the final time in 1958. It had been through various guises – betting shop, bingo hall, tool-hire merchants – when it was spotted by current owners Richard and Kathy Turner back in 2011. After some extensive repairs, the Turners installed old-school coin-op washing machines decorated with images of Hollywood icons, and a bar serving great coffee, fresh cakes, craft ales and local gins.
The Turner’s decision to turn the building into a launderette and laundry (you can get your duvet cleaned here, and your shirts ironed, too) always came with a twist. “Because of the history of the place we wanted to do something a bit more creative with it,” Richard explains, pointing out the poster for Eagle Squadron (1942), the last film that played here.
It’s the sort of attention to detail that marks the place out as special, reflecting genuine affection for the building and its past. It comes through in a warm, friendly atmosphere, too. The Turners have created a convivial, community space where it’s easy to fall into conversation with strangers amongst the scent of soap and fresh-brewed Americanos.
A music nut who grew up in Durham and confesses to having seen Bruce Springsteen ‘something like 23 times’, Richard put on the first of the music events that have become known as The Launderette Sessions almost from opening day. “The space was smaller then, so we could only do acoustic. We’ve had Martin Carthy [the English folk musician, credited with teaching Bob Dylan the tune that became Girl from the North Country] here half-a-dozen times.”
The gradual restoration work has seen the launderette expand, allowing the addition of a long wooden bar with keg craft ales and a range of what Richard calls ‘fancy-pants gins”, more washing machines and full electric music. With a capacity of around fifty, watching bands playing in front of the tumble driers, it’s an up-close-and-personal experience for audience and performers alike.
This season’s highlights include Chris Helme from The Seahorses, Martin Carr (The Boo Radleys), Beccy Owen, acclaimed US singer song writer John Murry and veteran punk rocker-turned-national treasure, John Otway. Many of the acts are return visitors.
“Musicians seem to really enjoy playing here,” Richard says, “some of them even bring their washing!”