Picture Palace Project

On the weekend of 21-22 September, the Cinema Museum, based in the old Lambeth Workhouse, is opening its doors for free between 10am and 5pm. The occasion is Open House London 2013. But the event will also showcase a new exhibition put together as part of the Picture Palace Project.

The Picture Palace Project is a community heritage scheme organised by Abigail Tripp and Cinema Museum volunteers, with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I’ve been involved with the project through a tie-in scheme at UCL (you can see a piece I wrote about an earlier stage of the project for the UCL ‘Dig Where We Stand’ blog).

The project has been going for the best part of a year now. The initial idea was to explore the history of cinema around Kennington and Elephant and Castle – an area of London with a long tradition of popular entertainment, which has been home to dozens of cinemas over the years. Sadly, most of these are no longer around, so volunteers have been collecting memories from Lambeth residents, and trying to find out what going to the pictures meant to local audiences.

Visitors to the Cinema Museum on Saturday, 21 September will be able to see (and hear) some of the results of the Picture Palace Project for themselves, including extracts from oral history interviews, maps, archive material, and scrapbooks. There will also be a cinema history walking tour led by local historian Chris Everett, plus a screening of We Are All One, a new film about neighbouring Bermondsey made by members of the Downside Fisher Youth Club. On both Saturday and Sunday, there will also be a chance to get a free tour of the Cinema Museum’s huge collection of film equipment and memorabilia.

You can find out more about the Open House weekend on the Cinema Museum website. In honour of the exhibition, I’ve also written about a venue that evoked a lot of vivid memories for Picture Palace participants – the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle.

The Cinema Museum, Lambeth
The Cinema Museum, Lambeth

Image credit above: Picture Palace Project logo, designed by Andrew Roberts

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Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle

The Trocadero, known locally as the ‘Troc’, opened on the New Kent Road on 22 December 1930. It was a ‘super cinema’, providing seats for more than 3,000 patrons, a large stage for variety acts and space for what was then Europe’s largest Wurlitzer organ.

Named after the famous restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, the aim was to recreate West End luxury for South London audiences – a feat the venue’s original owners, Hyams and Gale, described as ‘Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle’.

Souvenir programme from the Trocadero's opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk
Souvenir programme from the Trocadero’s opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk

The inside of the Trocadero, designed by the architect George Coles, was decorated in Renaissance style, with a vast balcony and curved ceiling. The mirrored waiting rooms were also a selling point, offering shelter from the traffic of what was one of London’s busiest junctions.

‘The Trocadero was famous, it was a beautiful palace. It was a dream palace. People worked hard and there wasn’t a lot of leisure, but you went to the cinema to see a western, gangster, musical comedy … the cinema was part of that magic. You went in and you were transported with chandeliers, gold staircases … looking back it was sheer escapism…’

Bobby Dow, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in Southwark News, 29 August 2013

Trocadero-Interior
The interior of the Trocadero, from the Cinema Museum website

The cinema became part of the Gaumont chain in 1935. It suffered some bomb damage and temporary closures during the war, but survived more or less intact, although there was much devastation to the surrounding area.

In the postwar years, the threat of destruction was more likely to came not from bombs but from audiences. By the end of the 1950s, the Trocadero had become a hang-out for Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls from the area, who were notoriously critical, and occasionally violent, towards visiting live acts (Cliff Richard was apparently pelted with coins when he visited).

Trocadero audiences made national news in September 1956, when screenings of the Bill Haley film Rock Around the Clock sparked riots in the auditorium. This followed a spate of similar incidents in cinemas around London and other parts of the country. On one of the worst nights of what the press dubbed the ‘rock’n’roll’ riots, audiences at the Trocadero slashed seats, while people outside the cinema threw fireworks and bottles at the police.

Poster for Rock Around the Clock (1956), from Wikipedia

‘There was dancing in the aisle to Rock Around the Clock and trying to get out of your seats, and the usherette used to smack you on the head, “sit down”! Outside the older boys and us used to be rocking the cars, to try to tip them over. It really kicked off at the Elephant over that film!’

Bill Leigh, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in the Southwark News, 29 August 2013

Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, 16 September 1956
Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, ‘Teddy Boys Riot When the Clock Strikes One’, 16 September 1956

In 1963, the cinema was demolished, along with much of the Elephant and Castle, in a large-scale redevelopment of the area. It was replaced by a smaller Odeon cinema, designed by Erno Goldfinger, which stood until 1988. There is now a block of flats on the site. The spot’s cinema history is marked by a plaque (unveiled by Denis Norden, who worked in the Trocadero in the 1940s) produced by the Cinema Theatre Association.

Manor Central Heights in 2008, from the SE1 community website
Metro Central Heights in 2008, built on the site of the Trocadero, from the SE1 community website

If you are in London, you can listen to more memories of cinemagoing at the Trocadero and other South London cinemas at the Cinema Museum’s Picture Palace exhibition, 21-22 September 2013.

There’s also more information about the Trocadero in these sources: