Phantom Electric Theatres of Portobello

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Interior, The George, Portobello.

Portobello is a seaside town swallowed up by the swelling body of Edinburgh — just along the coast is Musselburgh, which isn’t technically part of Edinburgh and so won’t be appearing in this series, especially since I never had much of a relationship with that distant municipality. Curious Shadowplayers (is there any other kind?) can investigate it here.

But Portobello is where I lived with my folks from the age of 12 until I was really far too old to be living at home. So I passed its cinema sites a thousand times, though in most cases I had no idea I was doing so.

Fiona and I strolled to Portobello from Leith on a moderately sunny day — that’s quite a walk, so you can see I’m taking my fitness regime seriously (unfortunately I’m still taking my cake-eating seriously) — with Brendon Thomas’ The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh in hand, to revisit the places of my dim youth, and uncover their cinematic past.

Next to the Cat & Dog Home, a sprawling, barking concentration camp, is the bus depot, and in this area was apparently a mighty leisure complex, Marine Gardens, which in 1910 boasted a cinema, called variously Hibbert’s Pictures or The Marine Cinema Theatre.

Evening News, Friday, 16 May 1913. “Marine Gardens In the Marine Cinema Theatre. A continuous Programme of Star Films will be shown. These include: The Unwritten Law, 3,000 feet.” Was this the 1907 film with Evelyn Nesbit?

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Strolling along the prom on one of the first summery days of the year, we approached Tower Amusements, from which a mock-medieval Victorian (Georgian, according to Shadowplayer Mary Gordon) folly protrudes. When I filmed up Portobello Tower in 1993, it was seriously run down — we had a health & safety inspector check it out, and he said it would probably be OK so long as we didn’t lean against any walls. Since then the building has been nicely restored. Anyway, the point is that movie shows were held here in 1907 — seasonal shows, so no advertising survives to tell us specifically what screened. But Mr. Harry Marvello apparently presented the “Latest Animated Pictures.”

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Turning off the prom and heading up Bath Street, we find an empty lot which once contained a cinema known variously as The Bungalow Electric Theatre, The Electric Theatre and The Victory. According to Brendon Thomas’s book, the building in 1902 was listed as “a hall with lavatories.” Nobody knows when it became a cinema, but it was apparently a photo studio and a roller rink first. By 1912, the movies held sway, and an ad exists for a 1913 screening of Albert Capellani’s LES MISERABLES.

The cinema closed in 1956 after screening JOHN AND JULIE with Moira Lister and Constance Cummings. It was used as a furniture store for a while, but eventually demolished in 2005. Image below from the Scottish Cinemas website.

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Further up Bath Street is a real beauty, The George, originally The County. It’s now a bingo hall (sic transit…), and not quite as beautiful as it once was — the glass “advertising column” removed from the front added character — in its heyday it lit up with an every-changing light show.

There’s another family connection here — my maternal grandfather worked as an usher at The George.

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Built on the site of a variety hall, this opened in 1939 with SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and AIR DEVILS. A perfect deco treat for such premises. Thomas writes, “The present building is the most widely-known work of the firm of T. Bowhill Gibson, architects of so many Edinburgh supercinemas, and in fact The County was the last supercinema to be built in the city. It was also the last word in “mood engineering”. The lighting was all controlled by panels fitted to each projector, the panels all consisting of twelve self-cancelling keys labelled “romance, tragedy, comedy” and so on.”

In 1954 it became the first of the city’s cinemas to fit four-track stereophonic sound.

The George closed after screening SHAFT IN AFRICA and CATLOW. No wonder.

cine3 022Onto Portobello High Street, where the Old Town Hall at one point housed The Star Cinema, AKA The Portobello Cinema Theatre. Thomas notes, “This site is understood to have been where the town’s first resident, George Hamilton [not that one -- DC], built his house, which he named after the naval siege of Puerto Bello, in which he had served. Perhaps the adventure films pleased his ghost.” I like the cut of your whimsy, Mr Thomas!

Now the building is split between a church on one side and a pub on the other, a very Scottish schism.

From the Evening News,  Tuesday, 11 March 1913. “An attractive programme is being submitted at the Portobello Cinema Theatre this week, and it brought together a good attendance last night. A strong drama was Yvonne the Spy, telling the story of high political life. A Lesson in Courtship proved a laughter-maker of the first order. Others were: Carmen of the Isles; Tweedledum, Anarchist and The Leopard and the Burglars.”

The last Portobello cinema is one I passed every day on my way to school, but I don’t know if I ever identified it positively as a cinema, though it was shaped like one then, with a big marquee arcing out in front. It was a night club, going through an endless succession of names and managements. Since I’d generally rather have amputated my own torso than enter a night club, I never went in.

Now there are people living there!

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A 1915 Kinematograph Year Book makes mention of The Picture Theatre at Harbour Green, but both the theatre and Harbour Green have vanished off the maps.

For this piece, I have drawn upon Thomas’s The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, the Scottish Cinemas website, and their reprinting of George Baird’s Places of Entertainment in Edinburgh.

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8 Responses to “Phantom Electric Theatres of Portobello”

  1. Actually the ‘Victorian’ Folly is a Georgian one.. around the side there is a plaque 17 something. It actually has bit of medieval stonework built into it. On my list of to do’s is to experience Bingo – perhaps at the George….

  2. The Capellani version of Les Miserables has special Shadowplay significance, since our researcher on the Natan film, Christine Leteux, is also author of the new book on this rediscovered master filmmaker. Capellani’s Hugo adaptation is even longer, and maybe even better, than the epic Pathe-Natan version, which it seems to have influenced.

  3. Though gaudily painted, the interior of the George seems to feature numerous original features from its days as a cinema. That, or the Mecca/Capital in Leith would seem a good place to attempt this taxing blood sport.

  4. when winter comes… the bingo calls

  5. Thanks for mentioning my biography of Capellani. Actually, Capellani’s version is only 2h30, still a great achievement for the time. In 1925, Henri Fescourt made a new adaptation of Hugo’s novel (again for Pathé) and this one clocks about 8h (it was released in 4 parts). There is no doubt in my mind that Raymond Bernard was inspired by the Fescourt version.

  6. Thanks for the correction, Christine! You keep me honest.

    Some exciting news on Natan soon!

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