In the evening of Monday 19th August 1929 Brixton was in a state of excitable chaos. Despite the special parking that had been arranged for guests arriving by private motor car, Stockwell Road had become completely impassable. (I like to imagine laconic 1920s road rage, flappers gesticulating with cigarette holders etc).
The first to arrive had been a group of schoolboys, who took up residence on the steps at 8.45am. Through the course of the day they were joined by as many as 10,000 others in a queue that wound around the block and beyond. Some waited with the hope of securing one of the limited tickets to the gala opening night. Others just wanted to see the celebrities due to appear. But despite the crowds and the inevitable disappointment for some, the South London Press cheerfully reported that, ‘the greatest good humour prevailed’.
The management of the self-proclaimed ‘new wonder cinema theatre’ had been expecting, and no doubt hoping for this reaction from the locals. The Astoria had taken two years and £250,000 to build, and would be in competition with around nine other nearby cinemas. But Wall Street hadn’t yet crashed, the twenties were still roaring and the people of this popular South London shopping area were ready for a bit of West End glamour: 2.3 million tickets were sold in the Astoria’s first year.
When those who had been queuing all day were finally admitted they can’t have been disappointed. In the centre of the marble-floored foyer, flanked by huge bouquets of flowers, water flowed from a mosaic fountain into an engraved glass trough. The glamorous celebrity guests ascended staircases that climbed the foyer walls to reach their seats in the circle, passing an elegant tea terrace furnished with low wicker chairs. It was all thrillingly modern.
The previous Friday the Brixton Free Press had printed a special (no doubt paid for) supplement that listed every last detail of the new cinema. ‘It can safely be said that the directors of the Brixton Astoria have left no stone unturned in their endeavour to produce the cinema du luxe’ they gasped. But even four pages of gushing 1920s advertorial weren’t equal to the splendid auditorium in to which the first night crowd now flowed.
Trees and vines climbed the elaborate façade of the huge proscenium arch. Mock-Renaissance statues stood importantly in alcoves, among columns and urns, beneath a mini Rialto-style bridge from which singers would perform. The auditorium itself was crowned with huge copper dome, (large enough to cover the centre of Leicester Square! – the management jovially declared) on which lighting produced a ‘morning, noon and night’ effect. In her memoir of growing up in 1930s Brixton, Dora Tack remembers a ‘moon’ in the night sky that moved across the dome over the course of the picture. Even the carpet was designed to look a bit like a lawn, complete with crazy paving. It was the start of Hollywood’s romantic golden age, and a replica of a classical Italian garden probably seemed an entirely suitable setting for watching its films.
The enormous safety curtain was raised at 7.15pm (it weighed 8 tons! – some murmured) to the South London Music Club singing the national anthem. Conservative MP Nigel Coleman took the stage to a fanfare, something I’m sure many modern Tories would love to see reinstated. He thanked owner Arthur Segal for choosing Brixton for the first of his Astoria cinemas (four more would follow in Streatham, Finsbury Park and on the Old Kent Road; all beautiful, but none so grand) and praised nominatively determined cinema architect Edward Stone for his remarkable design.
The main picture was Al Jolson in The Singing Fool. The film was a year old, why had they not shown a premier? – the South London Press wondered. Perhaps it was chosen as a guaranteed hit, or maybe the Astoria didn’t want to be upstaged by something new on opening night. As the follow up to The Jazz Singer, the first real ‘talkie’, The Singing Fool was actually quite an appropriate choice for an era perched between silent film and synchronised sound.
The gala night concluded with dancing by the Brixton Astoria’s Hudson Girls and music from the Astoria’s own in-house orchestra. ‘It is probable that no orchestra in the world has ever enjoyed playing to an audience in so magnificent a stage setting’ sighed the Brixton Free Press, a little ridiculously. The last 45 minutes of the performances were transmitted on the wireless by the BBC, the first time a broadcast had ever come live from a cinema, which was quite a coup for manager Charles Penley.
For the first few years of its life the Astoria would continue to show both silent films and talkies, alongside a variety programme. Odeon stopped most of these live performances after taking over in 1939, preferring to concentrate on the more lucrative business of showing films. The building survived both German bombers (nearby Quin and Axtens department store was almost completely destroyed in 1941) and the 1950s trend for ‘modernising’ that led to the ABC (now the Electric, formerly the Fridge) and the Classic (happily restored as The Ritzy) losing much of their original features.
But, of course, the Astoria was too big to go on as a cinema forever. It was closed by its owners, the Rank organisation, in 1972, by which time only the circle was open anyway. There was talk of demolishing it, but fortunately it was awarded listed status. Various doomed projects came and went – mainly based around live music and nightclubs, with even talk of an indoor skatepark at one point in the early eighties.
In 1983 the Astoria opened once again as the Brixton Academy. Rather than dancing girls and black and white movies, the entertainment on this occasion was reggae band Eek A Mouse. Live music had always been a part of the Astoria, even in its cinema days. It has seen performances from Shirley Bassey, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among many, many others. Carling’s sponsorship in 2000 led to the brand’s name being affixed, then replaced by O2 in 2006.
There’s still often queues along Astoria Walk, alongside the right hand side of the Academy, where those Brixton cinema goers waited to see get a glimpse of the first ‘landscape cinema’ and watch their favourite Hollywood stars on the big screen. About which I’m sure Mssrs Segal, Stone and Penley would be pleased, even if a little unsure about the musical style of the entertainment, and probably the lager in plastic cups.
Many thanks to the Minet Library Lambeth Archives, and particularly to Clive and Rachael at the Cinema Theatre Association who are brilliant. Any errors very much my own.