Archive for The Last Picture Shows Edinburgh

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.

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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, Part 2

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Our trawl around the ghost cinemas of Leith seemed to do Fiona good — or else it coincided with a period when she was starting to feel better. It gave an added purpose to going for a walk other than exercise and fresh air, and allowed us to look at familiar places in a fresh way. So we did it again.

Leith Walk is a big hill a mile long leading into town. We’d looked at the defunct cinemas on its lower stretch, so we headed further up to see what we could find. According to Brendon Thomas’ The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, there were once several cinemas along here — we used the book as our Baedeker, but also freely pillaged from the indispensable website, the Scotland Cinemas and Theatres Project, which is where I found the image above.

The Petit Paris is one of the most mysterious of all these vanished picture houses. Thomas supplies no address, only an area, Shrub Hill, which is rarely referred to anymore, outside of a bus stop reading “Shrub Place”. The theatre, originally named The New Electric Cinema, opened on Hogmanay 1908 “with staff dressed in Napoleonic costume.” The first film advertised was BLUEBEARD, but I’m unable to be sure which version — maybe the date is wrong on this Charles Ogle version?. Children, who were apparently encouraged to see this bloody story, received a free stick of “New Electric Rock” (rock: a tube of hard candy with a logo printed all the way through the centre). The cinema was either closed within a year, or else it burned down in 1912.

Nothing remains, even of the building which replaced it.

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Further up, however, is the site of another cinema about which more is known, and the building still stands. Pringle’s Palace Roller Skating Rink was originally a veterinary college, then a cinema. It opened in that capacity in 1908, under the auspices of one Ralph Pringle, a Northerner who got bit by the movie bug while touring with his Animatograph (sample Animatograph titles: AN OPERATION IN A DENTIST’S CHAIR and AN AMERICAN LYNCHING SCENE. All very mondo).

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Atmospheric interior.

At one point, it had what I consider the most beautiful of all Edinburgh cinema names — The Atmospheric Picture Palace. Later it was Millicent Ward’s Studio Theatre, The Repertory Theatre, The Festival Theatre, The Broadway and finally The Gateway, run by the Church of Scotland. They opened it in 1946 with OUR TOWN, supported by the Ken Annakin short WE OF THE WEST RIDING.

And then it was acquired by Scottish Television to use as a studio, then I think Queen Margaret’s college had the run of it, and now it’s been turned into apartments, still preserving the Gateway name. But think how much better if they had been called The Atmospheric Apartments! Still, those lucky tenants, passing through the carbon-charged air once stabbed by a smoky projector beam!

A side street on the right as you ascend Leith Walk, Annandale Street now contains no trace of the mighty Olympia, adapted from a roller rink in 1912. It sat 1,800 — a vast size even then, and proved unprofitable, switching to circus shows a few years later.

At the very top of the walk is Baxter’s Place, and this was home to what my Dad dubs “a flea-pit,” naturally known as The Salon (see top), now a burnt-out shell concealed within a woodchip box. I caught up with this one on  a separate outing, since it isn’t mentioned in Thomas’s book. Walking in the area, I bumped into my friend Graham Dey, and he pointed it out to me, reminiscing the while on an epic early seventies screening of THE LAST VALLEY which marked him for life. I believe it was the site of my parents’ disastrous second date — THE VIRGIN SPRING is not recommended to courting couples.

Diversion — a right turn onto Broughton Street immediately presents us with the site of the Theatre Royal, which ran summer season films shows until it closed in 1946. Demolition took place in 1960. Carrying further down would take us to Rodney Street, where another cinema formerly stood —

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The Ritz was all-talking from the start, opening in 1929 with THE SINGING FOOL. It closed in 1981, so why don’t I remember it? I don’t think I was ever there. It’s the true lost cinema of my life.

Back to Leith Walk, which ends in a big roundabout, and we get The Playhouse, a working theatre specialising in big musicals, and possibly still capable of showing movies. Edinburgh International Film Festival used it as a venue during the 80s and 90s, and Fiona and I attended a screening of the Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.

Currently screening: Ghost, from the Swayze/Moore movie. Fiona points out that nearly all the shows playing are based on movies.

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The Playhouse opened in 1929, having converted to sound as it was constructed — THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, starring Ruth Chatterton and based on a work by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, was the first film shown. By wild coincidence, today I randomly picked up a copy of Projections 2, the John Boorman/Walter Donohue movie publication, and here’s Sidney Gilliatt recalling that movie —

ds“Now it’s totally forgotten. I suppose it had little merit, but it completely fascinated me because it was a complete thing on its own. The lighting was different from what you got on silent films because of the incandescent lamps, which they used because of the soundtrack, and that gave it a different look. I still felt that talkies had nothing to do with art, but did have something very immediate. The audience felt a part of a whole new medium.”

I’d like to see THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, if anyone out there has a copy. It was directed by William C. DeMille, brother of the more celebrated Cecil, and featured sexy Jesus H.B. Warner.

Next to The Playhouse is The Vue, a modern multiplex, part of a mall, only a few screens, but one of them is a luxury cinema where you get served beer, like a PULP FICTION Dutchman. We saw THE NEW WORLD there, because it was the only cinema showing it. Very comfortable, but it still did little to change my view that a multiplex is not a cinema, it’s merely a place to see films.

This is no longer remotely Leith — Fiona and I walk on into the city centre, but that’s another story, for another day.

To Be Continued…