6 June 2008
By Jill Wilson
THE GLITZ and glamour of the 1930s picture house went down in history at the Elephant and Castle this week, with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on the site of a former cinema.
The palatial Trocadero cinema, or ‘Troc’, on New Kent Road was first opened in 1930 to great acclaim and has been described as a ‘spectacular cathedral to the movies’.
The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA), an organisation founded in 1967 to promote interest in all aspects of cinema, unveiled the plaque with Denis Norden, the Mayor of Southwark, Sir Gerald Kaufman MP and about 100 guests yesterday. Mr Norden began his career at the cinema as assistant manager in the early 1940s.
The cinema was opened on December 22, 1930, and was designed by the architect George Coles. He worked with the Hyams brothers to create the most impressive cinema in the country, with an Italian renaissance designed interior and art deco decorations.
One of the features at the time was the absence of pillars in the circle and because of this, audience members got an uninterrupted view of the stage. There were nearly 3,400 seats in the auditorium and an impressive Wurlitzer organ.
The Hyams brothers built a number of cinemas in London, including the Astoria in Kilburn, which was the largest cinema in the country with over four thousand seats. The brothers wanted to bring the glamour of the west end south of the river and priced the shows to allow the working class to attend.
Going ‘west’ would have been a special treat but the brothers made it affordable for the working classes to attend the Troc weekly or even more frequently. In Victorian times, the Elephant and Castle was promoted as the ‘Piccadilly of the south’, reflecting its commercial potential.
The opening night was not without hitches and at the time the cinema was thought to have gone down in history as ‘the theatre that opened in a fog’. Opening on a Monday night, there were huge crowds who had waited since the early afternoon for seats and adding to the crowd were people waiting for trams which had been at a standstill because of the fog.
The performance was due to start at 8.15pm but the crowds were told at 6.30pm that most seats were sold out. At 8pm ‘House Full’ signs were placed outside. 25,000 people had viewed the interior over the weekend before opening as guests of the directors.
The theatre was used to show films including a popular Saturday morning matinee performance for children, for musical performances and for stage shows with dancing girls. Between films stage shows were performed to keep the audience entertained.
Buddy Holly and The Crickets appeared at the Troc for the first night of their 25 date, twice nightly tour of the UK in 1958. Other famous names such as Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Gracie Fields, Paul Robeson and Cliff Richard performed at the venue.
Cliff Richard’s performances at the Troc caused riots among fans. After one performance he had to be smuggled out of the theatre through the foyer into a waiting police car, because the stage door was completely blocked by a screaming mob of fans that were desperate to get a glimpse of their hero and an autograph.
The theatre closed its doors for the last time on October 19, 1963, as television became more popular and audience figures dropped. The building was demolished a year later and a smaller Odeon cinema was built on the site in 1966 but closed in 1988.
The building on the site is known as the Metro Central Heights. It is residential and was designed by Ernö Goldfinger. The Wurlitzer organ was preserved by the Cinema Organ Society and is now in the Edric Hall of South Bank University.
Richard Norman, CTA event co-coordinator, said: “The Trocadero was truly a spectacular cathedral to the movies. It was built in an era when super-cinemas were the king of entertainment venues. The plaque will not be a typical blue circle but instead will include illustrations and text with information about the theatre.”
Mr Norman gave an illustrated talk for the Community Film club at the Tate Modern in May about entertainment venues in Elephant and Castle. The club is aimed at residents of Lambeth and Southwark and people who wish to join the club can phone 02074015176, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Community Film Club, Community Initiatives, Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG.
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