‘Quirky’ history of Dalston’s Rio cinema is stashed away in the attic

Publicity stunt in 1950 on a roof top opposite the Rio, possibly to promote Mark Of The Gorilla

Publicity stunt in 1950 on a roof top opposite the Rio, possibly to promote Mark Of The Gorilla - Credit: Rio

The Rio is launching a campaign this year to restore the Art Deco picture palace to its former glory. Emma Bartholomew looks back at its past century.

The RIO as the Classic Cinema in 1950

The RIO as the Classic Cinema in 1950 - Credit: Rio

The attic at the Rio Cinema contains a treasure trove of history - with pictures, photos, posters and press clippings “stuffed away” in endless rooms of filing cabinets.

Andrew Woodyatt, marketing and development manager at the Kingsland High Street cinema credits that to the management “never having thrown anything away”.

“It’s totally disorganised and more of a case of when I have a spare hour “Let’s open up another filings cabinet”. You come across the most amazing stuff - it’s totally and utterly random what you come across. “

One of the more quirky stories he has uncovered - documented in the cinema’s monthly newsletter from February 1991 - was that of Queenie, the cinema’s cat – who was formerly the feline for the Ace Cinema (now Efes snooker club).

The RIO in its first incarnation as the Kingsland Empire Cinema in 1915

The RIO in its first incarnation as the Kingsland Empire Cinema in 1915 - Credit: Rio

“When that shut in 1984 she was carried down the pavement with her bowl and her favourite cushion,” Mr Woodyatt told the Gazette.

“She moved in at the Rio where she was happy for the reminder of her life. The regulars knew she loved sitting in people’s laps, so they would bring in titbits of food in the hope of luring her to sleep in their laps during the film. The old heating boiler wasn’t very reliable back then and she would keep them warm.”

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Going back to the turn of the 20th century the Rio building was an auctioneer’s shop owned by Clara Ludski.

Silent cinema arrived as the latest entertainment craze on Kingsland High Street in 1908, with the opening of a small 50-seat shop conversion called Fairyland. It was joined by a much grander permanent building next door called The Amhurst Cinema Theatre designed by Frank Matcham - who also designed the Hackney Empire.

The RIO as the Classic cartoon Cinema in 1959

The RIO as the Classic cartoon Cinema in 1959 - Credit: Rio

There was so much interest that Clara decided to convert her auctioneers business into a cinema in 1909, and called it The Kingsland Palace of Animated Pictures.

The venture was so successful she bought both properties on either side, demolished the entire site and commissioned the architect George Coles to design what was to be the grandest cinema in Hackney.

Called the Kingsland Empire, it opened in 1915, and was a lot more theatrical than most cinemas of its day with a two-level tea room, a domed tower, and an elaborate auditorium with five side arches and a double-columned proscenium arch.

Other new cinemas quickly followed and at one point there were 13 cinemas between Haggerston and Stoke Newington.

The auditorium in 1998

The auditorium in 1998 - Credit: Rio

With the arrival of sound in the 1930s, the cinema changed hands and was bought by London and Southern Cinemas Ltd in 1933, then three years later Capital and Provincial News Theatres took over.

With the opening of two new luxury super cinemas - the ABC Savoy (now Efes) and the Odeon (demolished in 1984) the Kingsland Empire began to feel very dated.

The cult architect FE Bromige was commissioned to refurbish the Rio in Art Deco style and it reopened in 1937 as the Classic Cinema.

Mr Woodyatt explained: “At the Bromige he created a new auditorium within the shell of the earlier cinema – which English Heritage say is highly unusual. Through a secret door on the Rio’s roof, we can still peer into the “void” and see the ceiling and upper walls of the old 1915 auditorium.”

Since then the parapet was reduced in height in 1944 - but apart from that Bromige’s exterior design remains almost unchanged.

In the 1950s and 1960s the building was run under the Classic chain, and became the Classic Cartoon Cinema in 1959 showing news and family animation, then a year later it changed to the Classic Continental showing foreign art house films.

In 1970 was turned into the Tatler Cinema Club when a relaxation in censorship laws allowed cinemas to show “adult entertainment”, and strippers performed in between films on stage.

In 1976 the Rio as we know it today was born, when an independent cooperative with links to the Centreprise book shop opposite took over. They began running it as a not-for-profit registered charity in 1979 with an elected board of local people who act as volunteer trustees.

In 1999 the building was Grade II listed by English Heritage, and four years ago a petition led Transport for London to recognise the cinema as a major local landmark, and changed the name of the bus stop outside to ‘Rio Cinema’.