Archive for phantom electric theatres

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.