Theatres and cinemas

This is part of a report on a talk given Richard Norman at the Goose Green Centre on Sunday 18 October 2009. It was the third in his trilogy of illustrated talks on places of entertainment in Southwark and covered the Old Kent Road.

He chose to proceed north-west up the road made famous by the music hall entertainer Albert Chevelier – “wot cher! knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road”. We followed the historic route of Watling Street, the Roman road from Dover. Richard stated that out of the eleven cinemas and theatres only five survived the transition from silent to talkie films.

Leo Picture Palace (830a Old Kent Road)

Starting at its southern end, close to the railway bridge (bordering New Cross), he commenced with the Leo Picture Palace, later renamed the Leo Electric Cinema, on the corner of Leo Street. It opened in 1912, had 121 seats using wooden benches and was an excellent early example of a shop converted into a cinema. It showed a 45 minute continuous programme for an entry fee of 1d (one old penny). lt closed in 1926 and reverted to its use as a furniture shop and remained as such until the late 1960s, when it was boarded up. The adjacent row of shops was demolished some years later.

Regal (810 Old Kent Road)

A little further along the OKR was the new Regal at the corner of Gervase Street. Part of the site was a former tram depot for horse-drawn and later electric trams that closed in 1905. In 1936 it was demolished to make way for the Regal. Designed by ABC’s house architect William Glen, it seated 2,474 people in stalls and a circle. It opened in January 1937 was the second largest cinema to be built by ABC in the London area. It was very modern looking with an art deco and streamlined frontage highlighted in red and green neon tubing, used to striking effect. It had a Compton theatre organ opened by a famous organist, Charles Smart, at the console. Later in 1959 it featured Tommy the Toreador with the Bermondsey boy Tommy Steele appearing in person. The film was noted for its theme tune Little White Horse. The cinema was renamed ABC in 1963, converted to a bingo hall in 1974, and demolished in the mid-1980s. The site ended up as a Mercedes-Benz truck centre.

Astoria (593-613 Old Kent Road)

About half a mile further along the OKR we reached the Astoria which opened in February 1930; it was perhaps the jewel in the crown with seating for nearly 3,000. It was a scheme that Paramount was initially involved in together with three other London Astorias at Brixton, Streatham and Finsbury Park (the Rainbow). Originally it had a café/restaurant with Lloyd-Loom furnishings. It was described in Bioscope, the movie trade magazine, as having a simple interior decoration (it was not so lavish compared to the three other Astorias), and a Compton organ. At its opening, the milling crowd had to be controlled by the police. It had a large stage and dressing rooms to provide stage shows and ran cine/variety films. ln November 1939 it was taken over by Oscar Deutsch’s Odeon circuit, and to show its superiority it was renamed Odeon-Astoria. Deutsch was a prudent businessman and ceased the high cost stage shows. After Oscar Deutsch’s death in 1941, the circuit was taken over by J. Arthur Rank. lt continued showing films, lingering on until final closure in June 1968. It became a sad and decaying building; it had a reprieve and reopened for a brief lease of life as an indoor skating arena called Mad Dog Bowl. However, the craze soon ended and it closed by the end of 1978. This was followed by the Astoria Sports Club in 1979 with squash courts built across the former stage area, as well as a gym, sauna, solarium and function room in the old cafe area. This folded in 1984 and the building stood empty until it was demolished in November 1984. After it had closed down it was vandalised and the graffiti “George Davis is innocent” could be seen high up on the brick work. It was replaced by an MFI showroom that has since been superseded by a Magnet superstore.

King’s Cinema Palace (593 Old Kent Road)

Further along, close to the bridge of the Grand Surrey Canal, was the King’s Cinema Palace, built 1913, with 660 seats. Early in its short life it went into receivership and was acquired by a new proprietor who renamed it Palasino. In 1928 it was bought by the prominent cinema developer D.J. James who had plans for improvement. These were on a grander scale for a replacement cinema which would have acquired adjacent premises to become Kent Bridge Kinema. It appears that Mr James had even greater aspirations and sold the plot to Paramount who obtained even more adjacent land and turned the whole scheme into the vast Astoria super cinema (as previously described). The Palasino was demolished when the Astoria was built in 1929.

North Peckham Civic Centre (600-608 Old Kent Road)

The North Peckham Civic Centre, built in 1966, had facilities for a public library, assembly hall with stage facilities and meeting rooms. lt filled a void in the local community by providing entertainment. It has its eye-catching external ceramic tile frieze by Adam Kossowski illustrating the Canterbury pilgrims. It was the only venue for the performing arts in Peckham for many years. lt hosted Any Questions in the late 1980s when PEARL and NARL, the local campaigning groups against the Channel Tunnel fast rail link were able to have some of their questions answered by the radio panel. By the 1990s it was known as “The Civic”. It was taken over by one of the local evangelical churches (The Everlasting Arms Ministries) in 2003 who have given the building a new lease of life.

It was interesting to see that the theme of the development was similar to the other parts of Richard’s trilogy, with the cinemas trying to compete initially with the incoming talkies, and later with the advent of the strong film circuits, television and changing social patterns of how the public spent their leisure time.

Peter Frost

Reprinted from Peckham Society News, Issue 118 (Winter 2009)