Tag Archives: Brixton History

The Opening of the Astoria – Brixton’s ‘wonder cinema theatre’

1 Nov

ImageIn 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.

ImageThe 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.

ImageThe 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.

ImageThe 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.

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A trolley clatters past in 1950

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.

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The Astoria in the 1960s

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.

Brixton’s Titanic Victims

14 Apr

In April 1912 two men left Brixton to travel to New York via Southampton on RMS Titanic. One was a working class Englishman, the other was a wealthy American, who had been travelling in Europe on his honeymoon. Both lost their lives at around 2.20am on 15th April, when Titanic disappeared bow first into the freezing Atlantic.

W H Egg, aged 34, packed a small suitcase and left the small flat that he shared with his wife on Trent Road, Brixton for Southampton. He had successfully applied to be third class steward on board the Titanic, receiving a monthly wage of £3 15s, and had been ordered to report for duty at 6am on 10th April, the morning the Titanic set sail. An experienced steward, his previous ship was the White Star Line’s RMS Majestic, been retired from service the year before. At one point this ship had been captained by a rising star in the merchant navy, John Edward Smith, who would be Egg’s new captain on board the Titanic.

Daniel Marvin and his new wife Mary would have left the house in which they had been staying in leafy and upmarket Acre Lane in a flurry of activity. They had been honeymooning in Europe for four weeks, and probably had plenty of luggage to take back to their native New York. Travelling first class they had paid £52 2s for their passage, more than a steward would earn in a year, and no doubt arrived at the docks at a far more leisurely hour.

Daniel was 18 years old and the son of early filmmaker Henry Norton Marvin. After Daniel and Mary married in front of their family, they repeated the ceremony so it could be filmed, making it possibly the first wedding ever to be committed to celluloid.

When Daniel realised that the Titanic was sinking he helped his wife into lifeboat 10. She said afterwards that his last words to her had been, ‘It’s all right, little girl. You go. I will stay.’ She described him throwing her a kiss. But that was the last she saw of him.

In the October following the sinking, Mary gave birth to his daughter. She married again the following year, but almost never spoke of her experiences. One story has her, much later in her life, throwing the films that Daniel made of the Titanic and their honeymoon in the river.

58 Acre Lane and 1a Trent Road

58 Acre Lane, where Daniel and Mary had been staying, and the home of W H Egg at 1a Trent Road now

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