Cinema in the East End

For the past few years, Tower Hamlets has been a movie-free zone, but it wasn’t always that way.
When the Mile End Coronet closed in 1988 it brought an end to nearly a century of film-going in the East End.
Now, twin exhibitions at Bancroft Road Library mark not just a century of cinema, but the part East End picture houses played in that history.
The British Film Institute (BFI) promotes films and film-making in Britain – the BFI runs the National Film Theatre, the Museum of the Moving Image and the National Film and TV archive. And its touring exhibition, Cinema Memories, takes you through 100 years of British cinema, decade by decade. Posters, books and magazines lead you from the flickering world of the silent movies through to the high-tech world of British film in the 90s.
And running side by side with Cinema Memories is Going To The Pictures In Tower Hamlets.
As you see the development of the British cinema you can also trace the history of cinema-going in the borough, as the old music halls transformed themselves into picture houses and the movies became the big night out for East Enders.

The Wonderland in Whitechapel Road had opened in 1880 as a music hall, followed by the Mile End Road Paragon in 1885, the Foresters Music Hall in Cambridge Heath Road in 1891 and the Marlow Palace of Varieties in 1892.
All became cinemas, the Wonderland as the Rivoli (1921-41), the Paragon as the Empire, ABC and then the Coronet (between 1939 and 1988).
The Foresters Cinema ran from 1925 to 1960, and the Marlow opened as the Bow Regal between 1935 and 1958.
As well as the converted theatres, numerous new venues – often converted shops, warehouses or assembly halls – sprung up to tap the massive demand for films by East Enders.
Commercial Road alone boasted the Kings Hall Electric Theatre, the new Electric Theatre, the Imperial Picture Palace and the Grand Eastern Central.
By the late 1930s, these makeshift movie-houses with grand names had given way to modern, purpose-built cinemas
– and they were huge. The Whitechapel Rivoli seated 2268, the Mile End Odeon 2304.
But the king of them all was the Commercial Road Troxy, with an amazing 3250 seats. As film-goer John Hector well remembers, the Troxy was the place to go.
“If you wanted somewhere special to go it was the Troxy,” remembers John.
“It was luxurious, it had the best films and a super floodlit organ which rose from the orchestra pit during the interval, playing all the latest tunes. People loved the atmosphere.”
The management even sprayed the cinema with perfume to make the punters feel good!
Less flashy was The Ideal, in Kings Street, off Poplar High Street, with a corrugated tin roof and long benches bolted to the floor.
Whether you wanted your night out be luxurious or cheap and cheerful, the East End had a cinema for you.
Of course it didn’t last. By the 50s and 60s, the advent of TV was closing movie-theatres by the score – the closure of the Coronet sounded the end of an era.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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