Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith

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The Central, interior detail.

Ghost cinemas surround us. Normally, as we go about our business in whichever modern metropolis we inhabit, we have no way of knowing that innocent-seeming supermarkets, pubs or parking lots were once cinema palaces, long demolished or redesigned out of all recognition.

My Dad handed me a copy of Brendon Thomas’ book, The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, which started falling apart as soon as I opened it. Attempting to scan pictures for this post completed the disintegration of the binding, and the book is now essentially a loose folder. BUT it’s also an essential guide to the buried skeletons of Edinburgh’s cinemas. Fiona and I went walking around our own neighbourhood, Leith (actually a small town conurbated by the expanding capital) and explored the phantasmal relics of a city which once boasted more cinema screens than any other city in Europe (and now boasts more ghosts).

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The Raj, our local Indian restaurant, just two minutes down the street, was once The Cinema House. According to Thomas, it opened in 1913, and its foyer of potted plants earned it the nickname “The Cosy House.” The auditorium sat 600, which was considered quite small for the day, and the first séance consisted of A TALE OF TWO CITIES (presumably this version, featuring Maurice Costello [father of Dolores], Florence “the Vitagraph Girl” Turner, John Bunny, Norma Talmadge, Ralph Ince and, surprisingly, Mabel Normand) double-billed with FOR THE KING, about which I can discover nothing.

In 1917 the cinema became the Empire Picture Palace, screening TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE with Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand again (she had now risen to stardom).

As recently as ten or so years ago, the Raj kept a back room cinema which you could hire for party screenings, and billed itself as Edinburgh’s oldest surviving cinema. The screen had never been converted for sound and the cinema obviously stood vacant for many years before the (splendid) restaurant moved in.

Just a short distance from the Raj is Parliament Street, which was home to a tent show run by William Codona of Portobello. This was upgraded to an iron shed in 1912, seating 200, and became known as The Magnet. No trace of it remains.

Our local modern shopping centre, the New Kirkgate, a dismal concrete hole, was once the old Kirkgate, though the people of those times, in their ignorance, did not think of it as old. And it had a cinema, The Gaiety, now long vanished. Once a church, damaged by fire, converted to a 1,000-seat theatre, and then to a cinematograph. How many times, while buying my frozen ready-meals, have I been lightly dusted by photons once attached to Peter Lorre? I’m no physicist, but I think I’m right in asserting that’s what happens when you walk through a space once occupied by a cinema.

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The Foot of the Walk is an enormous pub where Fiona and I have upon occasion dined — the only argument against the establishment is the dimness of the lighting, which rather makes a cavern of it. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the place was once The Palace, opening in 1913 with A RACE FOR INHERITANCE (this one?). The cinema had its own cafe and smoking rooms. In 1955, the local branch of Woolworths bought the site, and the last film screened was Ida Lupino’s THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS.

Glory days –

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Just down Constitution Street a short way was the Laurie Street Cinema, now gone. It opened in 1911, under the management of Willie Salvona. “Mr. Salvona came from a family of acrobats and this form of entertainment featured in the Christmas show at the new cinema.” The cinema closed in 1947 with THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (John Wayne, directed by Henry Hathaway) and POWER DIVE with Richard Arlen and Jean Parker. Where this cinema stood is now the loading bay of a large charity shop. Nobody there knew of the former building.

Moving a short distance up Leith Walk, which leads eventually to the city centre, we come to Casselbank Street, home to the Destiny Church, an exotic-looking building which always intrigued me –

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A church with minarets? Mr Thomas helpfully informs us that the building was originally a Turkish baths, run by J.W. Hodgson, “masseur and medical rubber.” In 1920, it became a cinema, The Central, opening with A MAN’S FIGHT AGAINST TREMENDOUS ODDS (of which the IMDb has never heard) and part one of BARABBAS (ditto). The building became a church in 1936, probably never having made the change-over to sound.

Thomas claims the interior still retains a plaster screen and some semblance of its original form, so we rang the doorbell. The people inside were very nice indeed, and allowed us to look around. They even switched on the stage lighting for us –

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The interior perches in a happy medium space between a cinema and a church!

One street up is Jane Street, home of Falconer’s Picture House, a tent erected in 1899. We saw no traces of it, but it began to rain quite heavily, so we stopped for coffee/hot chocolate at the Punjab’n de Rasoi, where you can also buy haggis pakoras. It’s true!

Across the road, more or less, is Manderston Street, site of Mecca Bingo. Bingo, a sport I have never cared for (too violent), must be credited with preserving many of our historic cinemas and dance halls. In this case, The Capitol, seen here receiving an elaborate front-of-house display — a set of missiles to advertise ROCKETS GALORE!, the belated and inferior sequel to the classic WHISKY GALORE!

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The Capitol was rather unusual, being situated directly under a railway line, which led from Leith Central Railway Station. (Correction: it was a freight line unconnected with the station, according to Shadowplayer Stuart Brown.) I explored this derelict site as a kid, finding it romantic and menacing, not realizing it was known to local junkies as “the shooting gallery” — it features prominently in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, and gives the book its title. Patrons at The Capitol could hear the trains rumbling overhead above the sound of the twelve-man orchestra and organ. It opened in 1928 and closed in 1961, coming full circle with a screening of DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER, a compendium film of silent comedies and adventures.

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The Capitol today. No organ, no screen, no trains rumbling overhead. But the staff inside were friendly and knew all about the building’s history.

An intriguing item in Thomas’s book is The Imperial Picture House, Storries Alley, off Leith Walk. Not only has the Imperial disappeared, but so has Storries Alley itself. All that remains is the name, attached to a cake shop, Storries Home Baking, a sort of phantasmal reminder.

I’m going to look at the various cinemas further up Leith Walk another time — I need the exercise anyway — but for now I’ll stop at the Alhambra. This is also remembered in name only, since a pub opposite the old site still bears the name –

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But the mighty cinema, formerly a theatre of varieties, is long vanished, a wine shop now standing on the site. A Mr. Alf Beckett managed the place for forty years, reluctantly closing in 1958, blaming the Entertainment Tax for causing a decline in attendance. FRONTIER SCOUT and DANCE WITH ME HENRY closed the cinema. “Permission to demolish,” writes Thomas, “was granted in 1960, but the demolition did not take place until 1974 — lasting a dramatic five weeks from January 9th to February 13th.” He doesn’t say why they were dramatic. Did the shades of Tom Mix and William S. Hart torment the demolition team with phantom ricochets? Thomas remains silent on the matter, so I assume they did.

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We didn’t mean to walk all the way up Easter Road — a dreary street, I must say — but we did, and it was kind of worth it. A sign dates the theatre to 1869, but it became the Picturedrome in 1912. 600 seats, electric fans, the works. In 1943 it was renamed The Eastway (above), opening with I MARRIED AN ANGEL starring the ever-popular Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It closed in 1961 with an early evening of KONGA (newly released on DVD!) and THE HELLFIRE CLUB with Peter Cushing. That’s the last picture show I’d most like to travel back in time and see.

Here it is today –

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Apparently the former theatre has provided frozen foods specialist Iceland with its very own underground passageways, structurally unsound perhaps but conceivably useful in the event of zombie holocaust.

I’ve saved the best for last. The State was a super-cinema, built in the finest art deco style and opened in 1938. If I were going to own a cinema, this is the one I’d want. I shouldn’t imagine it’d cost more than a million quid, if that –

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It opened, Thomas tells us, with BLOCKADE (the only American film on which its director is credited as Wilhelm Dieterle). It closed with WHERE EAGLES DARE in 1972, as if war were the perpetual state of civilisation, or something. It’s been a bingo hall and seen service as a church. I’ve never been inside it, but it must have been wonderful once –

“…the cinema even had a Scottish-produced sound system (Shearer-Horn), though the Holophane lighting system was an import. Part of a complex including four shops, two billiard saloons and a skittle alley, the State had a local architect, Sir James Miller, who put a variety of shapes into this cinema. The pillars are flattened ovals in cross-section, the splendid entrance hall (walnut panelled and once gold) looks as if it should have twelve sides, but five are taken up with the curve of the doorway. Stairs plunge and bend towards the auditorium, which the visitor should imagine in its original green, silver and ivory. The roof contains a kind of pagoda structure and the cinema’s dramatic position over the Water of Leith makes the kind of building the imagination hastens to find a use for. Solidly built, its stanchions go down twenty feet to get below the level of the river’s bed.”

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Thanks to Brendon Thomas for his lovely book, and to my Dad for giving it to me.

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20 Responses to “Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith”

  1. Matt Lloyd Says:

    Lovely post David. Part of me clings on to the futile belief that all the bingo halls and churches will become cinemas again one day.

    Apparently Bill Douglas’ father (or grandfather?) worked at the Picturedrome, possibly as an organist… I need to check my facts on this one…

  2. And Douglas came from Newcraighall, close to where the late, unlamented multiplex the UGC would be built.I worked at that shed for a week in 1991.

    Thanks!

  3. Nice! Although when the lights go down it doesn’t much matter where you are if the sound and projection are good and the audience considerate, I would always much rather see movies in an OLD movie theatre.

  4. I spent more hours in “The New Yorker” than in my own home. Great old theater. Now long gone. Huge screen. Perfect for watching such delights as Demy’s Lola

  5. My Gran took me to the Grand to see a reissue of The Wizard of Oz, when I was a nipper back in the early 60’s, one of my happiest memories. Can’t remember much about the décor, was too entranced by what was going on on screen, though I do remember the lady with the tray of Kia-ora and orange lollies!

  6. The Grand somehow escaped Mr Thomas’s book, but we shall visit the site when we do Stockbridge and environs. There were a few cinemas there. Not much trace left now.

    Kia Ora is central to movie memories of our generation.

  7. judydean Says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I don’t know the book at all but I have used this website, and you might find it of interest:

    http://www.scottishcinemas.org.uk/index.html

  8. oh yes ! so Wetherspoons is the cinema nearest to. Me I spoke to a ladyon the bus who talked about going to the cinema with her Dad in Duke St and I thought it might be the odd churchy building past the bus stop. I am with Matt I envision some kind of Rapture where and the cinemas rise up and live again.

  9. god I must appologise for the extremly ODD construction in the last comment. I’ve been chasing a Robin out of the kitchen bought in by serial killer Frida and the exertions must have made me tireder than I though.

  10. For confused readers: Frida is Fatblackcatjournal’s fat black cat.

    I discovered the Scottish cinemas site and will be sure to credit it in my next post on this subject — they spot a few places Thomas missed out on, such as The Grand.

  11. Christopher Says:

    according to peggy Ashcroft,its GLASGOW on a sat. night you should see,with its lights and its Trams and its Cinema Palaces!..:o))…Pretty cool stuff..I’m a little amazed here in my city,how many neighborhood theaters there once were,most of them evident in structure ,others you have to look for old numbers or lettering on the building.I suppose if we built an individual theater around every screen in the multiplexes around town..it might add up to the amount of cinemas in the day.

  12. To be fair to Glasgow, they have the Panopticon, a very cool theatre which was also a cinema. It’s where Stan Laurel made his stage debut.

    I think the multiplexes do make up the number of screens, but at what a cost in architectural splendour!

  13. Edinburgh has a camera obscura too — Donald Cammell was born under it.

  14. I read Trevor Griffiths’ recently-published The Cinema and Cinema-Going in Scotland a couple of weeks back, and there are mentions of a great many long-gone movie houses there. I like the idea of the big city as a series of villages that he explores in the introduction — the whole idea of the geography of the filmgoer is fascinating to me. Annette Kuhn’s work in An Everyday Magic is related — and she makes much use of Scottish filmgoer surveys from the 1930s.

  15. Edinburgh really is a series of villages, some of which maintain their distinct character, despite being surrounded by modern streets rather than countryside. The next of these I’ll explore will probably be Stockbridge (I have a piece almost ready about the city centre and its defunct screens).

  16. My father was an inveterate movie-goer in the 1950s/1960s in Dublin and his account of his adventures suggests he was very unusual in venturing several “villages” over to seek out an enticing title. I’m quite an afficionado of the city’s old venues; at the end of my parents’ street the former Astoria/Ritz/Oscar (known by many as “The Shack”) is now a Sikh temple.

  17. A few Edinburgh cinemas have become churches, and one church has become a cinema (the Filmhouse). We were hoping to find a movie house turned mosque, but haven’t yet.

  18. My mum writes: “The State was one of our favourite cinemas. Where I discovered the joys of a hot dog and a film, bliss. Our first night out after Sean was born was to The Tivoli to see Dr No. Granny babysat as ever and we had a great night. Hope Fiona continues to have good days.”

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