Edinburgh’s lost picture houses remembered

Pooles Roxy Cinema, Gorgie Road, was a favourite haunt of a young John Lennon. Picture taken in the 1940s. Picture: TSPL
Pooles Roxy Cinema, Gorgie Road, was a favourite haunt of a young John Lennon. Picture taken in the 1940s. Picture: TSPL
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Edinburgh now has about ten cinemas, but many more have flickered out of existence. Hannah Robinson, author of Secret Edinburgh: An Unusual Guide winds back the reel to take a closer look.

Over 120 cinemas are listed in George Baird’s Edinburgh Theatres, Cinemas and Circuses: 1820-1963.

Exterior of the Jacey Cinema, April 1973. The cinema opened as the Princes Cinema in 1912. Picture: TSPL

Exterior of the Jacey Cinema, April 1973. The cinema opened as the Princes Cinema in 1912. Picture: TSPL

Many of them opened in 1913, the boom year for cinema. Most have long since been demolished; even the ones that became bingo halls are starting to be replaced by luxury flats.

But a few buildings still retain some afterglow of their cinematic origins...

The Plaster Screen, 12 Casselbank Street

Before the advent of the talkies (which demanded that the speakers be hidden behind the screen), silent movies were often projected on to plaster screens. The only one remaining in Scotland is in what is now the Destiny Church in Leith. It was built in 1885 as a Turkish bath - spot the Moorish clues like the onion-domed windows. It was converted into a cinema in 1920, though only for about ten years. Amazingly, the plaster screen remains intact, behind the makeshift stage.

Fire at the Scotia Cinema in 1962. Picture: TSPL

Fire at the Scotia Cinema in 1962. Picture: TSPL

The Waverley, 9 Infirmary Street

The single-storey stone outhouse of the former Lady Yester’s Kirk was run until the early 1920s as as flea-ridden “penny scratcher” by a rag and bone man, who would also accept jam jars as payment from kids. Tickets often came with a free orange. In his excellent cinefile blog, “Shadow Play”, David Cairns describes how “Happy young patrons could suck their orange while scratching themselves, making for a truly immersive and interactive experience”.

The Haymarket Cinema, 90 Dalry Road

Until recently, you could still see the arched ceiling of Edinburgh’s first purpose-built cinema, the Haymarket (later renamed the Scotia), which opened in 1912 and was run by John Maxwell. He went on to purchase Elstree Studios in London and to set up British International Pictures, for which he recruited little-known director Alfred Hitchcock. Together they made ten films, kicking off with The Ring; hitting success with one of the first British talkies, Blackmail; and drawing to a finale with Number Seventeen. The Scotia would draw in crowds to Hitchcock’s movies until it closed in 1964.

The Tivoli, 52 Gorgie Road

Further down Dalry, you will see two art deco buildings that were built as cinemas. The Destiny Church occupies what was once the 1913-built Tivoli cinema. It was rebuilt in 1933 as the neon-fronted New Tivoli, which ranuntil 1973, having peaked with the ever-popular Carry On films. Inside, the Tiv had mood lighting, which could be matched to the movie. Smokey green for Carry on Screaming? Bathing-suit yellow for Carry on Camping?

Poole’s Roxy, 392 Gorgie Road

At the far end of the same road is the glamorously-housed Bensons for Beds, originally the Roxy. Built in 1937, it attempted to outstrip the Tiv’s lighting prowess with an iridescent neon tube bonanza worthy of Vegas. One of its patrons was the young John Lennon, accompanied by his Edinburgh cousin. The Poole family owners ran a chain of cinemas, including the Synod Hall on Castle Terrace (now the site of Saltire Court), where they screened their Myrioamas and Edinburgh’s first talkie. Jim Poole went on to set up Edinburgh’s first art house cinema, the Cameo.

The Princes Cinema, 131 Princes Street

If you stand with your back to the James Young Simpson statue and look up, you’ll see wavy herringbone window frames of what seems to be an ornate conservatory plonked on top of the shops. This was the smoking lounge of the Princes Cinema, which opened in 1912, one of three cinemas on the street. The Princes screened shorts accompanied by a live orchestra, and you could walk in at any time. Perhaps due to orchestral exhaustion, in 1935 it became a news theatre, the Monseigneur, where they screened British Movietone and Pathé newsreels. In 1964 it regenerated as the Jacey, a “specialist” cinema, screening Chabrol’s Lesbian romp, Les Biches, and closing in 1973 with a confused billing of I am Sexy and Do You Want To Remain a Virgin Forever?

Hannah Robinson’s Secret Edinburgh: An Unusual Guide is available in all good local book stores and online.