Archive for Brendon Thomas

Phantom Electric Theatres of Portobello

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2013 by dcairns

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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.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh Interlude: Dalry, Gorgie, and Beyond the Infinite

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2013 by dcairns

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.”

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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.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2013 by dcairns

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The Central, interior detail.

Ghost cinemas surround us. Normally, as we go about our business in whichever modern metropolis we inhabit, we have no way of knowing that innocent-seeming supermarkets, pubs or parking lots were once cinema palaces, long demolished or redesigned out of all recognition.

My Dad handed me a copy of Brendon Thomas’ book, The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, which started falling apart as soon as I opened it. Attempting to scan pictures for this post completed the disintegration of the binding, and the book is now essentially a loose folder. BUT it’s also an essential guide to the buried skeletons of Edinburgh’s cinemas. Fiona and I went walking around our own neighbourhood, Leith (actually a small town conurbated by the expanding capital) and explored the phantasmal relics of a city which once boasted more cinema screens than any other city in Europe (and now boasts more ghosts).

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The Raj, our local Indian restaurant, just two minutes down the street, was once The Cinema House. According to Thomas, it opened in 1913, and its foyer of potted plants earned it the nickname “The Cosy House.” The auditorium sat 600, which was considered quite small for the day, and the first séance consisted of A TALE OF TWO CITIES (presumably this version, featuring Maurice Costello [father of Dolores], Florence “the Vitagraph Girl” Turner, John Bunny, Norma Talmadge, Ralph Ince and, surprisingly, Mabel Normand) double-billed with FOR THE KING, about which I can discover nothing.

In 1917 the cinema became the Empire Picture Palace, screening TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE with Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand again (she had now risen to stardom).

As recently as ten or so years ago, the Raj kept a back room cinema which you could hire for party screenings, and billed itself as Edinburgh’s oldest surviving cinema. The screen had never been converted for sound and the cinema obviously stood vacant for many years before the (splendid) restaurant moved in.

Just a short distance from the Raj is Parliament Street, which was home to a tent show run by William Codona of Portobello. This was upgraded to an iron shed in 1912, seating 200, and became known as The Magnet. No trace of it remains.

Our local modern shopping centre, the New Kirkgate, a dismal concrete hole, was once the old Kirkgate, though the people of those times, in their ignorance, did not think of it as old. And it had a cinema, The Gaiety, now long vanished. Once a church, damaged by fire, converted to a 1,000-seat theatre, and then to a cinematograph. How many times, while buying my frozen ready-meals, have I been lightly dusted by photons once attached to Peter Lorre? I’m no physicist, but I think I’m right in asserting that’s what happens when you walk through a space once occupied by a cinema.

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The Foot of the Walk is an enormous pub where Fiona and I have upon occasion dined — the only argument against the establishment is the dimness of the lighting, which rather makes a cavern of it. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the place was once The Palace, opening in 1913 with A RACE FOR INHERITANCE (this one?). The cinema had its own cafe and smoking rooms. In 1955, the local branch of Woolworths bought the site, and the last film screened was Ida Lupino’s THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS.

Glory days —

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Just down Constitution Street a short way was the Laurie Street Cinema, now gone. It opened in 1911, under the management of Willie Salvona. “Mr. Salvona came from a family of acrobats and this form of entertainment featured in the Christmas show at the new cinema.” The cinema closed in 1947 with THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (John Wayne, directed by Henry Hathaway) and POWER DIVE with Richard Arlen and Jean Parker. Where this cinema stood is now the loading bay of a large charity shop. Nobody there knew of the former building.

Moving a short distance up Leith Walk, which leads eventually to the city centre, we come to Casselbank Street, home to the Destiny Church, an exotic-looking building which always intrigued me —

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A church with minarets? Mr Thomas helpfully informs us that the building was originally a Turkish baths, run by J.W. Hodgson, “masseur and medical rubber.” In 1920, it became a cinema, The Central, opening with A MAN’S FIGHT AGAINST TREMENDOUS ODDS (of which the IMDb has never heard) and part one of BARABBAS (ditto). The building became a church in 1936, probably never having made the change-over to sound.

Thomas claims the interior still retains a plaster screen and some semblance of its original form, so we rang the doorbell. The people inside were very nice indeed, and allowed us to look around. They even switched on the stage lighting for us —

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The interior perches in a happy medium space between a cinema and a church!

One street up is Jane Street, home of Falconer’s Picture House, a tent erected in 1899. We saw no traces of it, but it began to rain quite heavily, so we stopped for coffee/hot chocolate at the Punjab’n de Rasoi, where you can also buy haggis pakoras. It’s true!

Across the road, more or less, is Manderston Street, site of Mecca Bingo. Bingo, a sport I have never cared for (too violent), must be credited with preserving many of our historic cinemas and dance halls. In this case, The Capitol, seen here receiving an elaborate front-of-house display — a set of missiles to advertise ROCKETS GALORE!, the belated and inferior sequel to the classic WHISKY GALORE!

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The Capitol was rather unusual, being situated directly under a railway line, which led from Leith Central Railway Station. (Correction: it was a freight line unconnected with the station, according to Shadowplayer Stuart Brown.) I explored this derelict site as a kid, finding it romantic and menacing, not realizing it was known to local junkies as “the shooting gallery” — it features prominently in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, and gives the book its title. Patrons at The Capitol could hear the trains rumbling overhead above the sound of the twelve-man orchestra and organ. It opened in 1928 and closed in 1961, coming full circle with a screening of DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER, a compendium film of silent comedies and adventures.

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The Capitol today. No organ, no screen, no trains rumbling overhead. But the staff inside were friendly and knew all about the building’s history.

An intriguing item in Thomas’s book is The Imperial Picture House, Storries Alley, off Leith Walk. Not only has the Imperial disappeared, but so has Storries Alley itself. All that remains is the name, attached to a cake shop, Storries Home Baking, a sort of phantasmal reminder.

I’m going to look at the various cinemas further up Leith Walk another time — I need the exercise anyway — but for now I’ll stop at the Alhambra. This is also remembered in name only, since a pub opposite the old site still bears the name —

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But the mighty cinema, formerly a theatre of varieties, is long vanished, a wine shop now standing on the site. A Mr. Alf Beckett managed the place for forty years, reluctantly closing in 1958, blaming the Entertainment Tax for causing a decline in attendance. FRONTIER SCOUT and DANCE WITH ME HENRY closed the cinema. “Permission to demolish,” writes Thomas, “was granted in 1960, but the demolition did not take place until 1974 — lasting a dramatic five weeks from January 9th to February 13th.” He doesn’t say why they were dramatic. Did the shades of Tom Mix and William S. Hart torment the demolition team with phantom ricochets? Thomas remains silent on the matter, so I assume they did.

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We didn’t mean to walk all the way up Easter Road — a dreary street, I must say — but we did, and it was kind of worth it. A sign dates the theatre to 1869, but it became the Picturedrome in 1912. 600 seats, electric fans, the works. In 1943 it was renamed The Eastway (above), opening with I MARRIED AN ANGEL starring the ever-popular Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It closed in 1961 with an early evening of KONGA (newly released on DVD!) and THE HELLFIRE CLUB with Peter Cushing. That’s the last picture show I’d most like to travel back in time and see.

Here it is today —

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Apparently the former theatre has provided frozen foods specialist Iceland with its very own underground passageways, structurally unsound perhaps but conceivably useful in the event of zombie holocaust.

I’ve saved the best for last. The State was a super-cinema, built in the finest art deco style and opened in 1938. If I were going to own a cinema, this is the one I’d want. I shouldn’t imagine it’d cost more than a million quid, if that —

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It opened, Thomas tells us, with BLOCKADE (the only American film on which its director is credited as Wilhelm Dieterle). It closed with WHERE EAGLES DARE in 1972, as if war were the perpetual state of civilisation, or something. It’s been a bingo hall and seen service as a church. I’ve never been inside it, but it must have been wonderful once —

“…the cinema even had a Scottish-produced sound system (Shearer-Horn), though the Holophane lighting system was an import. Part of a complex including four shops, two billiard saloons and a skittle alley, the State had a local architect, Sir James Miller, who put a variety of shapes into this cinema. The pillars are flattened ovals in cross-section, the splendid entrance hall (walnut panelled and once gold) looks as if it should have twelve sides, but five are taken up with the curve of the doorway. Stairs plunge and bend towards the auditorium, which the visitor should imagine in its original green, silver and ivory. The roof contains a kind of pagoda structure and the cinema’s dramatic position over the Water of Leith makes the kind of building the imagination hastens to find a use for. Solidly built, its stanchions go down twenty feet to get below the level of the river’s bed.”

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Thanks to Brendon Thomas for his lovely book, and to my Dad for giving it to me.