Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh Interlude: Dalry, Gorgie, and Beyond the Infinite
A cinema full of cars, but it’s not a drive-in cinema. Photo via Scottish Cinemas.
The big Part 2 I’ve got planned may have to wait until after the Film Fest, but I thought I could tick off some outliers which Fiona and I visited earlier in June.
We didn’t go to Corstorphine. It’s miles away, and there’s nothing there. But it was once home to the mighty 1228-seater, The Astoria, demolished for a supermarket in 1974. Sic Transit Gloria Swanson.
We started at Haymarket, which feels isolated from the rest of Edinburgh by the tramworks, Edinburgh’s huge, dizzyingly expensive and Sisyphean public works project. I swear I passed a bus stop with a two-year-old movie poster on it — that’s how long streets have been closed. Haymarket is home to The Scotia, AKA The Haymarket, which is long closed — the front of house is now a pub and a tattoo parlour. The back, which would have been the auditorium, is a car hire company, now seemingly closed. So the building has been subdivided into movement, pictures and refreshments. The interior of the pub and tattooist’s are very similar in style, suggesting that may have been the original look.
Turning to Brendon Thomas’s The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, we learn that The little Scotia (675 seats) was once run by John Maxwell, later Hitchcock’s producer in the twenties, and Bernard Natan’s business partner. This was Edinburgh’s oldest purpose-built cinema. It opened in December 1912, and stayed open for more than fifty years, despite most “bijou” cinemas closing when sound came in.
It closed in 1946 with THE WINGS OF EAGLES (Maureen O’Hara) and GUN GLORY (Rhonda Fleming). A red-headed finish.
A long walk in a straight line brings us to Gorgie Road and the New Tivoli, now a church owned by the same group as the former Central in Leith. We weren’t able to get inside this one on the day but were invited to come back and try again. The Tiv was and is an impressive, slightly brutalist deco construction, now robbed of the neon which beautified it.
The first cinema on the site was built in 1913. A correspondent in the Evening News recalled the Tiv’s audiences as noisy, requiring regular intervention by the “chucker-out.” Edinburgh’s chuckers-out were busy men. Often unable to identify specific miscreants at children’s matinees, they would eject the first three rows to be safe. My Mum got kicked out in this fashion.
In 1933 they knocked down the old Tivoli and built The New Tivoli, which opened with Buster Crabbe as KING OF THE JUNGLE, showcasing Paramount’s zoom lens and more wildcats than you can shake a stick at (never shake a stick at a wildcat). The cinema had mood lighting controlled by the projectionist (“for DRACULA, it was always dark blue”). The cinema struggled on into the sixties, rescued from bingofication by a children’s petition on one occasion. It closed in 1973 with PLANET OF THE APES and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. “Ma-ma!”
Another long walk brings us to a bed shop. But this was once Poole’s Roxy, run by the great cinema-owning family. Built in the art deco style, it opened with James Stewart in SEVENTH HEAVEN and Dick Foran in SUNDAY ROUNDUP. It was 1937. The local branch of the Mickey Mouse Club, formerly based at the Tivoli, moved here and was a huge success. The doors closed in 1963 with Val Guest’s 80,000 SUSPECTS and Rock Hudson in THIS EARTH IS MINE.
My Dad has a personal connection to the Roxy, because as a young electrician he was part of the team that maintained and repaired the neon. As he tells it, the job was to switch it off, fix it, and switch it on to see if it worked. “But it takes 5,000 volts so you want to be standing well away from it when it comes on.”
The team was at work on their ladders when the foreman signaled to the boy on the ground to get the coffee — a raising the wrist gesture. But to his puzzlement, the boy did not head for the van to fetch the thermos, but went into the cinema. Suspecting what had happened — the boy had mistaken the wrist-raising gesture for a switch-flicking gesture, he told his men to move away from the neon. And just then the sign came on. The boy caught hell from his workmates that day.
So my father narrowly avoided being assassinated by a cinema fifty years ago.
Horribly, last week his bicycle tried to finish the job, throwing him and breaking his arm. So he’s laid up at the moment, not very comfortable, and unable to make it to the Film Festival or get out on his bike. Please send him healing thoughts. It won’t help him — he has a broken arm. But it will make you feel virtuous.