Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 1
Last we saw, Fiona and I had trudged up Leith Walk, observing the many defunct cinemas along its length. Just after the top of the Walk, we come to the city centre, home to numerous bygone screens. Here’s one site ~
Just before Princes Street, we entered the city’s Georgian New Town — well, technically we stopped for a scrambled egg roll, a latte and a scone the size of George Wendt, but we entered the Georgian New Town immediately after that, albeit walking slightly slower. The Queen’s Hall on Queen Street was until recently the home of the BBC’s Edinburgh offices, but in 1897 T.J. West’s Modern Marvel Company held sway with their Analyticon, projecting stereoscopic transparencies on a ten foot screen. Some kind of movie show was common there until 1915.
Where the St Andrew’s Square bus station now stands, there was once The St Andrew’s Square Cinema, seating 1,500. It opened in 1923 with Harold Lloyd in A SAILOR-MADE MAN, and converted to talkies in 1929 with KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES. In 1952, after screening Basil Dearden’s THE GENTLE GUNMAN with Dirk Bogarde (never seen it, but I must!), the cinema burned to the ground.
Princes Street (“the most beautiful street in the world” ~ William Goldman) is the capital’s main shopping street, with the Gardens and the Castle on one side and a steadily growing number of empty retail facilities on the other. Apart from shops, the street was once home to three big screens. Leading from east to west, they were —
The Palace (a popular name) was at number 15, in a Georgian-fronted building which still stands, the North British Hotel building. It opened on Christmas Eve 1913, with a cafe and smoking rooms following a few months later. One of the owners also owned the Powderhall dog track, and a film of the Powderhall Sprint was shown in 1914. The cinema delayed converting to sound until late in 1930, when it reopened with the Janet Gaynor musical SUNNY SIDE UP. (Click for musical interlude: play eerie warbles in background as you read on.)
During WWII, the cinema was a garrison-Sunday cinema, according to Thomas, but he doesn’t seem inclined to explain what that was. Movie shows for the troops? It closed in 1955 with ON THE WATERFRONT and THE MATING OF MILLIE starring Glenn Ford.
At number 56 stood The New Picture House, yet another cinema that opened a hundred years ago — 1913 was obviously a huge year for cinematic expansion. It aimed at refinement and gentility, with marble walls and pillars and elegant tea rooms. It sat nearly 1,000. Now the whole building is gone. An ugly Marks and Spenser’s store stands in its place.
The first movie screened was HAMLET with Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, a film so popular the star remade it just two years later.
In 1929 the New screened Edinburgh’s first talkie, Al Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL, which didn’t impress Sidney Gilliatt but did clinch the success of talkies overall. The cinema closed in 1951 with PAGAN LOVE SONG and Tay Garnett’s exhausting thriller CAUSE FOR ALARM.
The New lobby.
The Princes Cinema opened at number 131 in September 1912, with a continuous programme of shorts which patrons could walk into at any time. It came with a tea room and smoking room, could seat around 600, and had a six-piece orchestra to provide live accompaniment.
The Princes closed in 1935 with British comedies starring Stanley Holloway and Jack Hulbert, but then reopened as The Monseigneur, a “news theatre” dealing exclusively in newsreels. It acquired a wide screen in 1953 to show the film of the Queen’s coronation, but apparently nobody on the staff understood about aspect ratios, and audience’s complained that the top and bottom of the films was being cropped out.
The Monseigneur became The Jacey around 1964, becoming what one manager termed “a specialist kinky film cinema,” with mainly European product. Chabrol’s LES BICHES was translated as THE BITCHES. The last movie shown was the bluntly titled I AM SEXY.
The facade of this, the last of Princes Street’s cinemas, remains largely unaltered, I’m pleased to report.
Shandwick Place, at the end of Princes Street, contains the former Albert Institute of Fine Arts, conceived as Scotland’s answer to the V&A Museum. The building quickly became moribund, and in the early 20th century cinema shows were one of the ways it was used. BB Pictures used it for films on a religious theme, but in 1913 it reopened with DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (with James Cruze) and WILD BEASTS AT LARGE (a Vitagraph comedy). It converted to sound but the cost eventually bankrupted the business in 1932, when VENGEANCE with Jack Holt became the last feature to play there. The building is now largely converted to flats.
The Caley is the first of Lothian Road’s many cinemas. The building still has a lot of retro style (see top). In opened in 1923 with THE GAME OF LIFE, starring Lillian Hall-Davis and directed by G.B. Samuelson, whose son Sydney found the UK’s top movie lighting company. In the fifties, the cinema installed CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, and treated locals to THE ROBE. Edinburgh-set THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE played there for six weeks. This was also the base of the Edinburgh Film Guild, the world’s longest-running film society, which now operates out of Filmhouse across the road. At the time of Thomas’s book (1984) The Caley was still showing films as well as concerts, but it turned into a horrible disco shortly after that — it’s now an attractive music venue entitled, aptly, The Picture House.
Up Castle Terrace is the Saltire Court, a big space age building — when it was new and unoccupied, me and my pal Morag McKinnon shot part of a film in there with Stratford Johns. What we didn’t realize was that it was previously the site of a legendary Edinburgh cinema, Poole’s Synod Hall. Originally a theatre, then a church, it was cursed with sixteen entrances, which made it easy for schoolkids to sneak each other in to the popular horror shows of the fifties and sixties (“good, wholesome, creaking door entertainment”). My pal Lawrie told me that Poole complained to the local headmaster about this practice, and the head responded by placing the cinema entirely off-limits. Not the result Poole had hoped for.
Edinburgh Council forced the Synod to close in 1965, but it went out on a high, with Losey’s THE DAMNED doubled with Polanski’s REPULSION.
A little further up Lothian Road we have The Usher Hall, which shows a movie every Halloween, using the mighty organ as accompaniment, and the Traverse Theatre and the Royal Lyceum which, according to the Scottish cinemas website, have shown movies at some point.
But over the road we have a proper, working cinema, Filmhouse, converted from a church (whereas several Edinburgh cinemas have become churches) and rumoured to be haunted. Well, Diane Ladd sensed something strange when she visited with WILD AT HEART at the Film Festival.
Further up is The Odeon, formerly The ABC, The Cannon, originally The Regal. The frontage is more or less original, but the contents of the building have been ripped out, with one screen making way for three, then five. The ABC chain of cinemas was for years one of only two major exhibitors in the country, and it may have begun in Scotland. John Maxwell, a significant figure in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, may have started his movie career with the Scotia in Dalry Road, according to Thomas. More on this later.
The Regal opened in 1938 with Charles Laughton in VESSEL OF WRATH, and visitors over the years have included the Beatles and Laurel & Hardy. The three-screen complex opened in 1969, and it’s this incarnation I remember — we were weirded out as kids by LOGAN’S RUN, but screamed with joy at the verboten bosoms of Victoria Vetri in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. I remember the big, dark foyer, 1970s decor and colours, and the little windows through which you could peek at the screening you were waiting to end. I remember screen one with its curving, cinerama-type screen.
Carrying on up the road to Tollcross, we find a cluster of cinemas in various stages of existence/non-existence. The Cameo is a beautiful bijou indie/arthouse with a noble history. It’s also a tale of hope — the cinema was closed when Thomas’s book was written, but re-opened a few years later and has been with us ever since. In my student days, this was a favourite for its late-night double-bills: a grindhouse-level scratchiness marred THE DEVILS, but the chance to see LISZTOMANIA projected was not to be sniffed at. The persistent pairing of BETTY BLUE and BLUE VELVET puzzled me at the time — they seemed very different movies. As I acquired a more questioning attitude to sexual politics in the movies, I could see that BETTY BLUE was the kind of “romance” Frank Booth might have made.
Across the road is the King’s Theatre, a variety theatre still specialising in popular fare — we recently saw a fairly wretched Agatha Christie piece there, as guests of the delightful Lysette Anthony, who was appearing in it.
And here’s the only picture I could find of the long-vanished Tollcross Cinema, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1947 with one of those looong programmes auld folks still remember — the remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS with Emlyn Williams in yellowface, MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT with, um Lyle Talbot (oh, and a reliable Hollywood Scot, Alec Craig), a supporting western, and Popeye.
Also in Tollcross stand the Methodist Central Halls — apparently the site of occasional film shows in years gone by.
Up on Lauriston Street, near my workplace (Edinburgh College of Art) The Beverley, or Blue Rooms, hung on as a crumbling warehouse for decades. I used to pass it daily and wonder what it was. And yet — maybe I’m misremembering, because Thomas has the building demolished for a pub much earlier than my memory of it. Maybe what I saw really was the ghost of a cinema? I never thought to ask anyone else, “That building there: do you see it too?”
The Blue Halls opened in 1930 with WHITE CARGO, a part-talkie converted to sound alongside Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL, and as The Beverley it closed in 1959 with CAROUSEL and YACHT ON THE HIGH SEAS, a TV play starring Nina Foch (and written by Lenore Coffee) which evidently got a cinema release over here as a B-picture.
We finish our jaunt with Fountainbridge, site of Sean Connery’s milk round, and present home of the CineWorld multiplex. My only interaction with that place is when it’s used for the Film Festival. It’s metallic chill is a bit of a buzz-killer, but I’ve had some good times there, usually with the onstage interviews with stars or technicians.
The Palladium, a circus that slowly morphed into a cinema between 1908 and 1911, no longer remains. Though it converted to sound using the unusual Edibell Talkie System, it didn’t survive for long, and a 1931 double bill of MISCHIEF (a Jack Lynn comedy) and SKY SPIDER (thriller directed by Richard Thorpe) closed its doors. It became a Bingo Hall, then became derelict, then got knocked down.
Closer to Lothian Road, The Coliseum looks to be going the same way. It opened as a skating rink, was converted in 1911, but closed in 1942 with NAVY BLUES (Jack Oakie) and ADVENTURE IN THE SAHARA (story by Sam Fuller). I actually visited the building during its subsequent incarnation as a Bingo Hall, as some of my students were making a short documentary about the place. It was vast — in its heyday it sat 1,800. Such auditoria didn’t do well in the sound era. Though kept clean and shiny for bingo, the place had a palpable aura of sadness, either because it was full of pensioners filling their last hours with pointless (but pleasantly sociable) activity, or because it had once reverberated with the sounds of youth. Look at it now —
Part 2 of this epic piece will take us from the old Odeon Clerk Street, haunt of my youth, down to the Bridges and then down the High Street to the Calton Studios. After that — Portobello, Stockbridge, and beyond the infinite…