Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 2

For this exploration of vanished cinema sites, empty shells and transmogrified theatres, we started by getting the bus to South Clerk Street, where alas the first movie house on our itinerary, The Salisbury, is long demolished, with modern apartments slapped on top. Here’s a still from the excellent Scottish Cinemas site, showing the auditorium as demolition got underway ~


The Salisbury opened in 1925 with the silent THE SEA HAWK, but was damaged by fires in 1939 and 1943 after which it was used as a store.


A short distance down Clerk Street is the cinema of my childhood. I knew it as The Odeon, and its auditorium (originally one screen with upper stalls, later partitioned into three) was let by constellations of stars in the ceiling. When those lights finally dimmed after the ads, for the main show, the feeling was magical.

Films seen: the original KING KONG — and the De Laurentiis remake — STAR WARS — Godzilla and James Bond double bills — and the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA restoration. Probably this was where I was taken to see my first movie, DR DOLITTLE on rerelease, and started to cry because nobody had warned me it would be dark.

That’s me, above, standing in line.


Found this online — the cinema is showing NUNS ON THE RUN, which I *saw* there, I’m embarrassed to say. As a fan of some of Handmade Films’ output, I wanted to give it a chance. A mistake. But one which raises the possibility that I might be IN that photo. The figure bottom right — is that me? I don’t think so — but I did own a grey coat like that…


Here’s the cinema when it opened, as The New Victoria. It’s showing GLORIFYNG THE SHOWGIRL, a movie which doesn’t exist on the IMDb — I’m thinking it’s GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL (1929), retitled for the UK. But the very first movie screened here was ROOKERY NOOK, an “Aldwych farce” — basically a photographed play, the British film industry’s first response to talking pictures.

The cinema closed in 2003 — among the films showing was TOMB RAIDER, which is appropriate when we come to this gallery of images taken by an urban explorer within the deserted kino-mausoleum.


Cinema 8

Cinema 28

No, I didn’t take those pictures. I would soil myself with terror in a place like that.

But we have barely begun! Moving down onto Clerk Street, we come to the Festival Theatre, used for live productions but also venue for the opening and closing galas of Edinburgh International Film Festival. Before it was constructed, there was the Empire Palace Theatre, site of Edinburgh’s first ever cinematograph showing. Here’s the programme screened ~

Dinner Hour at The Factory
Children Playing
A Landing Stage
Arrival of The Paris Express
A Practical Joke on The Gardner
Trewey’s Hat
Champs Elysee, Paris
The Fall of The Wall
Bathing in The Mediterranean

The Empire burned down in 1911, in a fire which killed stage magician the Great Lafayette.

Across the road stands a Bingo Hall, originally known as La Scala — a real fleapit in its day. In my day it was The Classic, and it showed naughty films. I was too young to go, but I can remember giggling at the marquee — CONFESSIONS OF A LESBOS HONEY was shown, as was THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE. The only defining trait uniting the varied programme seemed to be that everything shown had to be crap. The only movie I ever saw listed there that had been reviewed on TV was Tinto Brass’s THE KEY with sugar daddy Frank Finlay.

So I never got to see inside — which makes this image all the more enticing!


You can just feel that sticky carpet, can’t you? Just keep telling yourself, “It’s only Kia Ora.”

Nicholson Square, former home of Burke & Hare’s patron, Dr Knox, later housed a picture house, The Lyric, later the The Silver Kinema House, which opened in 1913 (an annus mirabilis when countless theatres threw open their doors for the first time), showing THE RIVAL AIRMEN and THE NIAGARA FALLS. It also ran, at that time, Edison’s kinetophone — talking pictures! A year later it was re-named THE LYRIC, which nobody could pronounce. Ironically, the advent of true talkies killed The Lyric, and it closed in 1931 with MARRIED IN HASTE and THE HELLCAT.

Now all that’s left is a bank, supposedly utilising some of the lobby space, and a vacant lot, utilising the rest.

The Lumiere, attached to the National Museum of Scotland, was a lecture theatre awkwardly adapted to serve as a cinema — the wide centre aisle meant that the exact spot you would sit for the best view was occupied by steps, and the seats were steeply raked as if the show were going to be an anatomy lesson. But the programming was great, during the three and a half years it was open (1998-2002) — I saw PLAYTIME for the first time here.

cine3 050

This little shed, appended to a church, seems to be The Waverley, Infirmary Street. It was known in its day (pre-WWI) as a “penny scratcher,” a literal fleapit, where kids could buy entry upon presentation of an empty jelly jar. Classy. Sometimes, your ticket came with a free orange, in those distant pre-Kia Ora days. Happy young patrons could suck their orange while scratching themselves, making for a truly immersive and interactive experience. A Charlie Chaplin short viewed under such conditions would be the HOBBIT of its day.

The Cinema House stood for a long time, an incongruous low building next to the imposing Grecian frontage of the Surgeon’s Hall. Opened in 1903, it used to provide a fee cup of tea with every ticket, and was the first Edinburgh cinema to provide “continuous” programmes from 2.30 to 10pm. Hard work for the poor pianist! The Cinema House closed as a cinema in 1930 (with Mildred Harris in SEA FURY, supported by THE LOVE OF THE ATLANTIC), was used by the Salvation Army, then fell into dereliction — finally it was knocked down in 2004.

cine3 058

The Roxburgh doesn’t look much like a cinema today, but it opened as such in 1919 with THE SILVER KING starring Barbara Castleton. As the cinema did not advertise regularly, Thomas is unable to provide a closure date, but reckons it did not survive the coming of talkies. The triangular top to the facade is the only hint of the Roxburgh’s theatrical origins.

Ignominy! The Tron Cinema (no relation to the Disney movie) is now a bar/restaurant. As a cinema, it opened in 1914 with screenings of A VISION OF THE WORLD and FROM SKY BLUE TO PURPLE DEEP, neither of which merits an IMDb entry. “Take the tram to the Tron!” was the cry. Talkies killed the Tron, it seems.

We nipped along Chamber Street, once home of the Operetta House, now totally demolished. Originally a theatre, then a music hall, it began showing film subjects in the early twentieth century, with titles such as THE DIAMOND THIEVES and HOW THE POOR CLOWN’S PRAYER WAS ANSWERED. This theatre did make it into talkies, but seems to have closed in 1939.

On Forrest Road, the first address I lived at after leaving home, there is a building called Oddfellows Hall, which apparently screened movies at one time — things of a religious nature designed to improve. No more of that.

cine3 082

The New Palace on the High Street opened in 1929 with HER NEW CHAUFFEUR, a talkie. It wasn’t one of my Dad’s regular haunts, but he does recall being taken there to see SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON when he was ten. You can still see the stone-carved letters declaring “PICTURES”. But the narrowness of the building prevented modernisation, and the introduction of Todd-AO reduced seating from 1050 to 950.

The doors closed in 1959 with CAPTAIN KIDD, SMART BOYS and EAST SIDE KIDS. Thomas quotes Bernard McGowan’s account of the last picture show: “youthful audiences tried singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the usherette cried ‘Stop that racket! You’re barred the lot of you. You’ll no’ get in next week!'”

The Star on St Mary’s Street is a great old building, but totally unrecognizable as a former cinema. It opened in 1914 and closed in the twenties. It was known locally as “The Starry,” but nothing else is recorded about it.

cine3 099

Still not quite exhausted, we trudged down to the Calton Studios, still open as a music venue. Once this was a base for the Edinburgh Film Festival, after having been a TV studio. It opened in 1977 with THE FRONT, under the management of Bill Landale and Steve Clark-Hall (now a successful film producer) but phased out cinema operations as the Filmhouse took over as Edinburgh’s main art cinema.

The building has great cyborg sculptures sticking out of it, which we admired.


And that was enough for one day. Nodding in the direction of the Regent, Abbeymount, of which no trace remains, we headed home. Last films screened at The Regent: CARRY ON AGAIN DOCTOR and THE TRAP, with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham.

15 Responses to “Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 2”

  1. judydean Says:

    This is great stuff.

    I’m emailing you separately the results of some research I did in The Scotsman archive on the screening of Buster Keaton films in Edinburgh.

  2. From Judy’s research, re The Odeon: ‘The New Victoria exemplifies the tremendous advance there has been in the luxurious appointment of cinemas since the days when a hard board was thought to be good enough for patrons.’

  3. Is the Regent commemorated by the bar of the same name?

    When you do porty call me and stuart we can combine it with ice cream on the prom….

  4. That pic at the top reminds me of Duras’ Son nom du Venise dans Calcutta desert

  5. Mary — yes, the Regent bar and cinema certainly seem to have been neighbours, so probably the bar took its name from the cinema, as with the Alhambra in Leith.

    We already trekked to Portobello, alas, though we might do it again. I’ll publish the results next week.

    I’m starting to think a movie set in a deserted old cinema might have possibilities…

  6. Are we sure that’s actually Abbeymount? No traffic lights at the top of the road and trees where the school should be. No hint of Easter Rd over the junction and a church-like structure on the right of the frame which isn’t there either. the tenements that occupy this site have been there for at least a hundred years. Just saying

  7. Here’s another image. I couldn’t really tell you more, because we didn’t actually VISIT the site. Hope this helps —

  8. yes, thanks. I just found that one myself. It’s not at the TOP of Abbeymount. It’s half way down where the garage/car showroom carpark is now.

  9. More info: I believe the site of The Regent may be downhill from the bar of the same name, and now occupied by the pleasingly-named Chatham Clutch Centre. Would welcome confirmation from anyone who knew the place.

  10. DBenson Says:

    CARRY ON CAMPING opens with the exterior and interior of a funky little cinema screening a mild nudism film. My first thought, as a smug yank, was that this looked exactly like the kind of place that would show Carry Ons. Then I wondered if this cinema was a gag, as unreal to the audience as a Rowland Emmet steam engine.

    Is it?

    Old enough to remember when the downtown (San Jose) movie palaces were previously live theaters, and the neighborhood / small town places had a similar sense of age despite being built for much more recently for movies. The last standing palace in San Jose reverted, spectacularly, to an opera house that occasionally screens films. A few old neighborhood houses are devoted to art/foreign films or Bollywood pictures; a few more have converted to retail/office space while keeping the old theater facade and marquee.

    Nearly all our mainstream cinemas are multiplexes, with the ambiance of an airport — sometimes a luxurious airport, but still. Instead of entering a temple of entertainment or a filmic cabaret you’re seeking your boarding gate for a two-hour flight, maybe passing a satellite snack bar as you hurry down the long corridor in search of #7.

  11. A good friend once managed the musical instrument shop in Clerk St opposite the Queens Hall and up from the Festival Theatre. While visiting him one day I saw Evelyn Glennie peek her head in the door followed later by Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. Pretty sure the cinema was still open then too.

  12. Carry On films played everywhere, partly because they were made by Rank who also distributed and exhibited, so one could see them in fleapits or in the Odeon Leicester Square.

    I wonder if by 1969 the nudie film was a dated gag — but I’m not sure it was. They began in 1961, and no more concentrated form of eroticism was available to the poor Brits.

    Working in the Cinema Shop in Filmhouse, I once sold some postcards to Terence Stamp.

  13. Went to see Planet of the Apes in the La Scala when it was still a real, if somewhat shoddy, cinema back in the late 60’s. Then snuck in as a teenager in the 70’s to see a naughty double bill when it was the Classic. Not sure what we were hoping to see but I remember that we were very disappointed. It was indeed very tacky and quite sordid all round by then.
    The Regent on the other hand was a much nicer cinema, I remember seeing on of the Thunderbirds movies there as a nipper, Thunderbird 6 I think. It really was an amazing experience when you remember that we were used to watching the series on tiny b&w TVs at home

  14. I quite like those movies in small doses — even stranger than the TV show. I remember a Cliff Richard Jnr puppet, and actors’ hands for insert shots, wearing plastic gloves so they wouldn’t spoil the illusion by looking too real!

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