If you have tears Hackney, prepare to shed them now, as we visit some movie houses where the end credits rolled long ago.
One of the earliest movie viewing opportunities in the borough was provided by Mrs Clara Ludski’s Kingsland Palace of Animated Pictures, opened in 1909 in her auction rooms where the Rio cinema now stands.
By 1912, Hackney was home to seventeen cinemas, some of which could hold as many as three thousand people. Many had grand exteriors designed to pull in the punters, and barrel-vaulted ceilings with ornate plasterwork. The screenings themselves – shorts, travelogues and newsreels – lasted around ninety minutes, until the arrival of longer features in 1914.
Movies were projected onto a white plaster screen, with a pianist or small orchestra providing music and sound effects; a member of the audience often read the titles out loud for those unable to read.
The cinema building boom continued into the 1920s and 30s, with film-going at its highest during and immediately after World War Two. Then cultural shifts – and the rise of TV – took their toll, and many picture palaces succumbed to the wrecker’s ball in the 1960s and 70s.
Hackney’s hidden cinemas
Perhaps the greatest loss was the Hackney Pavilion, a ‘super-cinema’ opposite the Hackney Empire. This purpose-built beauty opened in 1914 and seated 1500 people; it was decorated in flamboyant Edwardian Baroque style, with a dramatic recessed arched entrance. The cinema was replaced in the 1970s by the feeble attempt at Brutalism that is Barclays bank.
Many of these grand old buildings survive, though transformed long ago for other uses. Stand back from Efes Snooker Club at 17b Kingsland Road, and you can still see the bold lines of the Deco ABC cinema.
Next time you stumble out of the Clapton Hart, look behind the hoardings next door and you’ll spot the little 1910 Clapton Cinematograph, which saw another incarnation as the notorious Palace Pavilion nightclub and is now owned by the St Mary of Zion Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Shoppers in the upmarket Spar at 64–66 Brooksby’s Walk are inside the former Deco Electric cinema: ‘Electric’ was a common name for movie houses at a time when the technology was still a novelty.
The classic Vogue sign from the vanished Majestic cinema – built in 1919 and renamed Vogue in 1940 – survives above Testis Turkish restaurant at 38 Stoke Newington High Street.
The movies remodeled
A more intact survival is the nearby Azizye Mosque, built in 1913 as the Apollo Picture House. The imposing facade and twin towers topped with cupolas were pseudo-Moorish in conception, and the addition of umpteen Turkish tiles when the building was converted into a mosque in the 1980s made it an even more attractive adornment to the streetscape.
To truly relive the glory days of cinema though, take in a movie at the Rio. Built as the theatrical Kingsland Palace in 1915 in a lavish upgrade of the Palace of Animated Pictures, it was remodelled in the 30s, and the curvy two-floor auditorium with its Deco blue and pink colour scheme is a wonderful remnant of Hackney’s cinematic past.