Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith, Part 2
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.
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).
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 —
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.
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 —
“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…