Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith, Part 2

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Our trawl around the ghost cinemas of Leith seemed to do Fiona good — or else it coincided with a period when she was starting to feel better. It gave an added purpose to going for a walk other than exercise and fresh air, and allowed us to look at familiar places in a fresh way. So we did it again.

Leith Walk is a big hill a mile long leading into town. We’d looked at the defunct cinemas on its lower stretch, so we headed further up to see what we could find. According to Brendon Thomas’ The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, there were once several cinemas along here — we used the book as our Baedeker, but also freely pillaged from the indispensable website, the Scotland Cinemas and Theatres Project, which is where I found the image above.

The Petit Paris is one of the most mysterious of all these vanished picture houses. Thomas supplies no address, only an area, Shrub Hill, which is rarely referred to anymore, outside of a bus stop reading “Shrub Place”. The theatre, originally named The New Electric Cinema, opened on Hogmanay 1908 “with staff dressed in Napoleonic costume.” The first film advertised was BLUEBEARD, but I’m unable to be sure which version — maybe the date is wrong on this Charles Ogle version?. Children, who were apparently encouraged to see this bloody story, received a free stick of “New Electric Rock” (rock: a tube of hard candy with a logo printed all the way through the centre). The cinema was either closed within a year, or else it burned down in 1912.

Nothing remains, even of the building which replaced it.

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Further up, however, is the site of another cinema about which more is known, and the building still stands. Pringle’s Palace Roller Skating Rink was originally a veterinary college, then a cinema. It opened in that capacity in 1908, under the auspices of one Ralph Pringle, a Northerner who got bit by the movie bug while touring with his Animatograph (sample Animatograph titles: AN OPERATION IN A DENTIST’S CHAIR and AN AMERICAN LYNCHING SCENE. All very mondo).

atmospheric

Atmospheric interior.

At one point, it had what I consider the most beautiful of all Edinburgh cinema names — The Atmospheric Picture Palace. Later it was Millicent Ward’s Studio Theatre, The Repertory Theatre, The Festival Theatre, The Broadway and finally The Gateway, run by the Church of Scotland. They opened it in 1946 with OUR TOWN, supported by the Ken Annakin short WE OF THE WEST RIDING.

And then it was acquired by Scottish Television to use as a studio, then I think Queen Margaret’s college had the run of it, and now it’s been turned into apartments, still preserving the Gateway name. But think how much better if they had been called The Atmospheric Apartments! Still, those lucky tenants, passing through the carbon-charged air once stabbed by a smoky projector beam!

A side street on the right as you ascend Leith Walk, Annandale Street now contains no trace of the mighty Olympia, adapted from a roller rink in 1912. It sat 1,800 — a vast size even then, and proved unprofitable, switching to circus shows a few years later.

At the very top of the walk is Baxter’s Place, and this was home to what my Dad dubs “a flea-pit,” naturally known as The Salon (see top), now a burnt-out shell concealed within a woodchip box. I caught up with this one on  a separate outing, since it isn’t mentioned in Thomas’s book. Walking in the area, I bumped into my friend Graham Dey, and he pointed it out to me, reminiscing the while on an epic early seventies screening of THE LAST VALLEY which marked him for life. I believe it was the site of my parents’ disastrous second date — THE VIRGIN SPRING is not recommended to courting couples.

Diversion — a right turn onto Broughton Street immediately presents us with the site of the Theatre Royal, which ran summer season films shows until it closed in 1946. Demolition took place in 1960. Carrying further down would take us to Rodney Street, where another cinema formerly stood –

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The Ritz was all-talking from the start, opening in 1929 with THE SINGING FOOL. It closed in 1981, so why don’t I remember it? I don’t think I was ever there. It’s the true lost cinema of my life.

Back to Leith Walk, which ends in a big roundabout, and we get The Playhouse, a working theatre specialising in big musicals, and possibly still capable of showing movies. Edinburgh International Film Festival used it as a venue during the 80s and 90s, and Fiona and I attended a screening of the Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.

Currently screening: Ghost, from the Swayze/Moore movie. Fiona points out that nearly all the shows playing are based on movies.

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The Playhouse opened in 1929, having converted to sound as it was constructed — THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, starring Ruth Chatterton and based on a work by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, was the first film shown. By wild coincidence, today I randomly picked up a copy of Projections 2, the John Boorman/Walter Donohue movie publication, and here’s Sidney Gilliatt recalling that movie –

ds“Now it’s totally forgotten. I suppose it had little merit, but it completely fascinated me because it was a complete thing on its own. The lighting was different from what you got on silent films because of the incandescent lamps, which they used because of the soundtrack, and that gave it a different look. I still felt that talkies had nothing to do with art, but did have something very immediate. The audience felt a part of a whole new medium.”

I’d like to see THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, if anyone out there has a copy. It was directed by William C. DeMille, brother of the more celebrated Cecil, and featured sexy Jesus H.B. Warner.

Next to The Playhouse is The Vue, a modern multiplex, part of a mall, only a few screens, but one of them is a luxury cinema where you get served beer, like a PULP FICTION Dutchman. We saw THE NEW WORLD there, because it was the only cinema showing it. Very comfortable, but it still did little to change my view that a multiplex is not a cinema, it’s merely a place to see films.

This is no longer remotely Leith — Fiona and I walk on into the city centre, but that’s another story, for another day.

To Be Continued…

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14 Responses to “Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith, Part 2”

  1. Next week — Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh, Part 1. The city centre was surprisingly rich in screens…

  2. yes I think Saltire court may have had one plus the picture house… more bingo halls to be explored

  3. Oh, there’s a lot of history to those two. Poole’s Synod occupied the spot where the Saltire Court now stands.

  4. I think there was also a big suffragette meeting / indicident in Poole’s Synod

  5. you know the fact that the filmhoose our arts cinema is a converted church is pretty WEIRD with all these emply cinemas around…

  6. Graham Crowden! Whom I filmed in a former cinema in Portobello, twenty years ago…

  7. Used to go to the Salon, Ritz and Playhouse as a kid, a lot of my movie memories are of those three cinemas.
    The Salon was indeed a real flea pit that used to specialise in B-Z grade movie double bills. I vividly remember a Gordon Scott double bill of Tarzan the Magnificent and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure with Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery in supporting roles!
    The Ritz used to hold the good old Saturday ABC Minors; a host of CFF movies and cartoons for a nominal sum. Then as a teenager it used to be my brother’s and my go to cinema, one of the last movies I saw there was Animal House, I remember the cinema emptying when the other patrons mistakenly thought the film had ended, then all trooping back in for the final “where are they now” freeze frame scenes.
    The Playhouse was the one we went to for more family friendly outings, Ring of Bright Water springs to mind. Also the host of to a memorable run of Edinburgh Film Festival movies during one of my favourite cinema years: 1982, saw Blade Runner, E.T. and Conan the Barbarian all within the space of a few weeks. Great days!

  8. Was also at Blade Runner, and saw Company of Wolves and Once Upon a Time in America there too, I think.

    A friend via FaceBook says the Ritz scared him more than the Overlook Hotel. Sinister atmosphere, and they thought nothing of playing horror movie trailers in front of kids’ films.

  9. As I recall both the Ritz and the Salon were old school cinemas that plunged downwards in a long stair-less slope towards the screens. It always felt I was descending into some mythical lower realm, especially when the lights were down and the show had already begun. If you wandered round the Ritz once a film had begun you did get that isolated and spooky feeling.
    Same feeling with the old Central Hotel in Glasgow, stayed there on a number of occasions and wandering round their very long and deserted corridors at 3 am could be particularly unsettling.

  10. Sad to think of all these beautiful buildings gone. The Astoria was demolished, not there’s practically nothing attractive in Granton at all!

  11. I remember all those venues so well,havens of dreams and escape.For example the Caley on Lothian road where I saw so many films,the playhouse which beguiled and fascinated me,the Odeon where I saw Julie Andrews on the big screen running over a mountain as if she was going to end up in your lap.As a ballet student I spent and didn’t squander a years pocket money at the the Ritz in Rodney street watching every showing of Swan Lake with Nureyev and Fonteyn 53 times in all.

  12. Lovely! I think I still have a few cinemas to write about, actually.

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