The Rio – a ‘moderne’ cinema
There was great excitement on the Kingsland High Street on 18th December 1937. A “super cinema in miniature” was to be opened with the fanfare that was typical of cinema openings in the 1930s. This particular opening, of the Dalston Classic, was announced by a literal fanfare from buglers of the 5th (Hackney) Battalion, the Royal Berkshire Regiment. The Mayor and Mayoress of Hackney were present, along with the film star Garry Marsh and much-loved starlet Evelyn Ankers. Every one of the nearly 600 people present received a celebratory gift: watches for the men and powder compacts for the women. With its stylish Art Deco interior and the latest projection, sound and ventilation systems, the Classic was an immediate audience hit.
This ‘moderne’ cinema, with only a few alterations, is the Rio Cinema as it is today – and it is Hackney’s only remaining cinema.
However, the history of cinema on the site of the present Rio stretches back to before 1937. The canny owner of an auctioneer’s shop, Clara Ludski, recognised the business potential in the growing popularity of moving pictures and decided to convert her premises into a 175-seat picture house in 1909. It was called the Kingsland Palace and was one of London’s first full-time cinemas.
The Kingsland Palace was so successful that the adjacent properties were bought and the Palace became the Kingsland Empire in 1915. This was a much grander affair, with noted cinema architects Percy Adams and George Coles making the most of the exuberent Edwardian style. The new-fangled cinemas were in direct competition with the theatres, so audiences had to be enticed with elaborate external architectural features and interior splendour. The Kingsland Empire cinema had a high hexagonal corner tower and an impressive Diocletian arch overlooking Kingsland High Street. Inside, a tearoom with a gallery was a key feature, and the auditorium itself boasted lavish balcony fronts, Ionic columns and elaborate doorcases. Grecian friezes and mouldings added to the theatrical experience. A pipe organ was installed and, with the coming of the ‘talkies’, sound equipment was added to the projection box. There were now seats for 956 people in the stalls and circle, with another 174 standing.
By 1936 the cinema was becoming cramped: poor ventilation and insufficient waiting room led to a refurbishment. The Empire was bought by the Classic Cinema group and was re-opened as the Classic, in “a modern style with sweeping lines”. Gone were the excesses of Edwardian decoration – simpler curves and pared-back mouldings reflected the Art Deco style of the times. The auditorium seats were pared back too: 561 could now sit comfortably and 110 could stand. A huge neon sign on the side of the building proclaimed the cinema’s new name, lighting up the street and bringing a touch of Hollywood dreaming to Dalston. The architect was Frederick Bromige, and today’s Rio is still faithful to his design.
The Classic survived WWII and the local population sheltered from air raids in its basement – originally designed as a safe shelter from WWI Zeppelin raids. But with the advent of television came falling cinema audiences and the Classic went through a variety of reincarnations in an attempt to cope. It became the Classic Cartoon Cinema, the Classic Continental Cinema and, following the relaxation of censorship laws in 1968, found itself being renamed the Tatler Cinema Club in 1970, providing blue movies and horror films. Live strip shows were presented between 1970-71.
The name ‘Rio’ was first used for the cinema by film programmer Paul Theodorou. He re-opened the cinema in 1976 after the Classic Cinema group decided to close it. Although unsuccessful in making it financially viable, he sub-leased it to a group of local people with ambitions for a community arts centre. A Management Committee, selected from members, was established which eventually gained backing from the GLC and Hackney Council. The Rio became a not-for-profit company, limited by guarantee and a registered charity. Elected Committee members were not only company directors but also trustees of the charity. This management structure continues today, now renamed the Board of Directors, and its embedded understanding of local interests and the need for local participation is one of many reasons why the cinema continues to be relevant and popular.
By 1995 the Rio was facing a bleak future. However, a Lottery grant led to extensive refurbishment and the cinema opened once again in August 1999. The refurbishment included an enlarged foyer, improved acoustics, and new seats and carpeting. Soon after, the Rio gained Grade II listed status: English Heritage approved the sensitive improvements which had stayed true to Bromige’s modern design ideals.
With thanks to Diane Thackray and the Rio Cinema
Photographs courtesy of the Rio Cinema