- Original design
- George Coles, 1915
- F E Bromige, 1937
- Burrell Foley Fischer, 1998
In 1909, Clara Ludski, the owner of an auctioneer's shop at 105 Kingsland High Street, recognised the growing potential of moving pictures and employed W E Trent, later to become a cinema architect of considerable repute, to plan the conversion of her shop into a 175-seat electric picture house, with a screen behind the on-street paybox and a projection box reached by a ladder from the outside yard. The cinema was entered from the left of the screen and exited from the right. It was called the Kingsland Palace and it was among the first full-time cinemas in London.
Such was the success of the Palace that the adjacent premises on either side were acquired to build a proper cinema. In July 1913 the cinema architects Adams and Coles of Hackney submitted plans for a building so elaborate and tall for its site, it more closely resembled a theatre than a cinema. The height was taken up with a very high and steep balcony, under and to the side of which was a double-height tearoom with a gallery whose windows were set in a high Diocletian arch overlooking Kingsland High Street.
The auditorium was elaborately appointed with blind arcading, lavish balcony fronts and paired Ionic columns either side of the proscenium arch – over which were draped neo-Grecian lovelies supported on heavy swags. Elaborate doorcases and a frieze of similar swags continued the Grecian theme. The cinema itself was large but not ambitiously so for the date, seating 956 in fair discomfort and allowing another 174 to stand. The upper parts of this grandiose scheme survive intact above the present auditorium. Most sumptuous of all was the high hexagonal tower above the corner entrance, whose form is retained in the present foyer, but whose former height cannot be imagined from the present structure.
The building opened in 1915 as the Kingsland Empire. In 1920, a pipe organ was installed, and in 1929 sound equipment was put into the projection box, which was situated under the circle.
Despite successes, the Empire changed hands a number of times over the next two decades and by the mid-1930s it belonged to London and Southern Super Cinemas, who were eventually bought out by the Classic Cinema group. In 1936, the London County Council inspected the building and thought it insufficiently ventilated and that the tearoom was inadequate as a waiting area.
On 12 July 1937, F E Bromige of Kingly Street, Westminster made an application that solved the ventilation problem by drastic means:
"It is proposed to retain the existing external walls and roof and to reconstruct the balcony and cinematograph enclosures to comply with the Home Secretary's requirements. The external walls will only be altered as found necessary in connection with the rearrangements of exit doors. The existing ceiling is intended to be retained and a new ceiling provided at a lower level. The platform will also be reconstructed and provision is made for a boiler house and plenum room."
The new auditorium was to seat just 561 people, with another 110 permitted to stand. This, with almost no alteration is the Rio as it is today. It opened on 18 December 1937, as the Classic. The Ideal Kinema records that the exterior was streamlined into a fluted curved corner over the entrance with a massive 33 foot high metal sign lit by neon tubes advertising the building to Kingsland High Street. The interior was decorated "in a modern style with sweeping lines, and the colouring is in a grey-blue and warm brown, and the seating a dark red, which is set off by red festoon tabs".
Constricted as he was by the existing shell, Bromige nevertheless achieves the same series of sweeping curves at the Rio, the cash-register shape of the proscenium wall complementing the sweep of the deeply curved circle. A little moulding on the side walls is all such curves need for further amplification. The exterior is less successful, particularly since a reduction in the parapets in 1944 for safety reasons meant that Bromige's sequence of flying ribs round the corner of the street frontage went too [these were partially reconstructed at a slightly lower level in the 1995 exterior renovation (ed's note)].
The drum over the foyer that remains the chief interest of the building has some ridged effects; but it must be recognised that most of the decoration on the outside was achieved by lettering and neon lighting, and these have now gone. There is no doubt that the Rio is a fine cinema building, and that it exhibits the two chief phases of cinema design in Britain with extraordinary clarity."
It looked like a new cinema and was advertised as a super-cinema in miniature. At the time luxury super-cinemas were very popular and large ones were springing up in the area: the Savoy, a few hundred yards up the road and the Regal Stamford Hill.
The Adams and Coles plans had made provision for an air raid shelter against Zeppelin raids, and in 1940 the basement was finally put to such a use – though apparently only after the evening performance was over.
Elain Harwood of English Heritage and the Cinematograph Theatre Association wrote (in 1994 prior to the exterior renovation):
"It remains a remarkable work by F E Bromige, and the only one of his four surviving interiors in undivided cinema use. Bromige is an important if obscure cinema architect best known for his work in north west London for the Hammond Dawes circuit. There he designed a number of bizarrely curvaceous cinemas, which may be considered a bridging point where the extremes of art deco and moderne styles meet. His buildings are simple, but make effective use of good proportions that expunge the need for superficial decoration. The best survivor is the Grosvenor, Rayner's Lane, listed Grade II* and now a themed bar and restaurant. Of the two other survivors, one has been gutted and subdivided into several uses and the other is a bingo hall.
The advent of television in the 1950s led to a decline in cinema audiences across the country. In an attempt to restore enthusiasm the Dalston Classic became the Classic Cartoon Cinema, the Classic Continental Cinema and back to the plain old Classic again within the year. Following the relaxation of censorship laws in 1968, the Dalston Classic re-launched as the Tatler Cinema Club in May 1970. It offered a steady stream of blue movies with just a quick breather for horror films on Friday nights. Audiences were not convinced, however, and four months later the grand tradition of the cinema variety was revived in the form of live strip shows. In 1971, the Tatler returned to showing general release films at weekends and survived in this dual role until 1975, when it became the Dalston Classic once again. But only briefly, as Classic decided to close down the cinema in 1976.
Paul Theodorou, who had been running occasional late night Greek language and martial arts films and wanted to try his hand at full time programming, approached Classic with a proposal to take over the cinema. Theodorou re-opened the cinema in April 1976 with a new name – the Rio. Unfortunately, he was unable to make a financial success of the venture and soon agreed to sell the sub-lease to a group of local people who wanted to open the building as a community arts centre.
In March 1977, the Rio Cinema Working Party approached the Arts Council, the Greater London Council, the British Film Institute and Hackney Borough Council to apply for funds to buy the building. They planned to develop the Rio into a centre for dance, drama, music hall, poetry and music, with film, video and photography workshops in the basement.
The GLC and Hackney Council agreed to finance the purchase of the sub-lease, and made the Working Party managers of the building in March 1979. The plans for a multi-purpose arts centre were found to be over-ambitious. The Working Party was replaced by a new Management Committee, elected from the membership, who decided to concentrate the Rio's activities on the visual media of film, video and photography. The Rio became a not for profit company, limited by guarantee and a registered charity. Elected Committee members were not only directors of the company but also trustees of the charity. This management structure continues today, although the Management Committee has been renamed the Board of Directors to fully reflect its responsibilities.
By 1995, the Rio was badly in need of extensive refurbishment and an application was made to the Arts Council of England for a Lottery grant. This was eventually approved in 1998 and architects Burrell, Foley, Fischer, whose previous projects included the Stratford Picture House, were commissioned to undertake the redesign. Great pains were taken to retain Bromige's original Art Deco design in the auditorium, down to the paint colours and lighting features.
The work began in early 1999 and the cinema reopened in August of that year. During the refurbishment English Heritage stepped in over their concerns about the extent of the work being done but they eventually approved the changes and the building was awarded Grade II listed status. The major structural work involved changing the rake of the auditorium, reducing the size of the auditorium slightly to accommodate an enlarged foyer, improved acoustics and the redesign of the café. Among the many other improvements were new seats, custom-designed carpeting throughout, air conditioning and the installation of a Dolby Digital™ sound system.
The Rio has developed into a cinema that is responsive to the interests of sections of the community often ignored by mainstream commercial cinema. Examples of this are the annual Turkish and Kurdish film festivals, the Saturday morning Children's Picture Club, midweek Classic Matinées, the recently introduced Parent and Baby matinées and participation in Spanish and Gay and Lesbian film festivals. While all the other cinemas in Hackney have disappeared or become snooker halls and car auction rooms, the Rio continues to adapt and flourish.