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The first theatre in JHB called Theatre Royal was in Market Street (east) and erected on 17 June 1887 (some sources say 15th June) by J. Mipping. The portable and demountable structure came from Newcastle. The two stands on which the theatre was erected was purchased by Mipping via a sale on 8 December 1886. The theatre hosted the popular melodramas of Madame Pearmain’s Diplomacy Company; the legerdemain of Professor Boz; Herr Remenyi the Hungarian violinist; Bob Bolder’s Gilbert and Sullivan season; and a locally written pantomime – ‘Aladin [sic]: The Harlequinade’
Another theatre known as the second Theatre Royal was also a portable corrugated iron structure erected on the corner of Commissioner and Eloff Street in May 1888 by the leading impresario, Luscombe Searelle. The first season opened with a play called Maritana the Bohemian girl. Musicals by Gilbert & Sullivan were also popular. In December 1888, Searelle presented Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Most sources put Searelle’s theatre as the first. Mipping’s story is corroborated in Anna Smith’s ‘Johannesburg Firsts’ pg.199 via a quote from Volsktem 9/12/1886.
Next, the Globe Theatre was built (starting in April 1889) and opened on 24 June 1889 in 47/49 Fox Street on the corner of Ferreira Street. Leyds’ lists the architect as F. Goad. This was Johannesburg’s first brick theatre. It was opened by Capt. Von Brandis with Mr Thorne’s Dramatic Company, this being followed by a series of Gilbèrt and Sullivan Operas on the 23rd September, and a Shakespearean season from September to October. A fire destroyed the entire building in October of that year. It started when a paraffin lamp crashed and set the stage curtain alight, this before Johannesburg had a fire brigade.
In late 1891 or early 1892, the foundations were extended and the theatre was rebuilt with the frontage extended from Commissioner to Fox Street. The original facade was updated and made more ornate and included a canopy over the entrance to shelter visitors. The interior was also given a plush makeover compared to the first Globe. A highlight was the 40-light chandelier. The theatre could now hold 800 people.
The Globe Theatrical Syndicate leased the theatre in 1892, and the theatre was opened on the 8th June of that year, with the Lyric Opera Company, which presented shows until May 1894. The theatre then closed for a period, while negotiations were proceeding for a change in the ownership. In July 1894, the Empire Theatres Company (known as Empire Theatres S. A. Limited – managed by Edgar Hyman) entered into a lease of the Globe Theatre, which was renamed the Empire Palace of Varieties and was formally opened on 1 December 1894, with a programme of famous British variety artists, including W. C. Fields, Marie Lloyd, and Kate Harvey. Its bar also became an informal stock exchange.
The Empire was also the venue for the first projected motion picture in South Africa. On the 11th May 1896, Carl Hertz unveiled the ‘Cinematographe’ which he brought over from London. There were, for a year already, a handful of Edison’s penny-operated Kinetoscopes in Henwood Arcade, but Hertz’s machine projected the ‘animated photographs’ onto a screen, while the Kinetoscope was a device one looked into. Incidentally, Hertz purchased some old Kinetoscope film from the proprietor at Henwoods and modified the film so it could play on his machine. The films lasted around 30 seconds each.
The Empire remained continuously open from 1894 until October 1899, when it was closed by the Transvaal Government, due to the declaration of war.
It re-opened on 26 May 1902 and the bioscope was restored on 7th March 1903. Fire again destroyed the stage after the performance on 19th November 1903, but the auditorium was saved by the effectiveness of the fireproof curtain, which became an innovation in theatres of that period.
The last play at the Empire was on 12 May 1906 and the owners decided to build another Empire in a better position near present-day Carlton Centre (details further on). The old Globe building appears to have stood until the late 1940s (not as a running theatre) when it was eventually demolished.
On 11 September 1906, just four months after the second Empire ceased to be a theatre, it was the site of a historic mass meeting chaired by Gandhi. It was attended by over 3000 Indians and the launch of the passive resistance movement when the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance was rejected.
The Standard Theatre in Joubert Street (behind the Rissik Street Post Office) between President and Market Street was completed next and opened on 12 October 1891 by Capt. Von Brandis as the Standard Opera House. The architects were J. S. Donaldson and J. A. Moffat. Dan Godfrey then led the orchestra through De Volkslied, after which the curtain went up on La Cigale, the opening play produced by Arturo Bomamici. The Standard was leased by Ben Wheeler in 1892 who opened with a musical comedy and later put on six Shakespearean productions and twenty other plays. The owners were Emmanuel Mendelssohn and R.S. Scott who also owned the newspaper ‘Standard and Diggers’ news’. The Standard was also where Mark Twain delivered four of his five famous ‘At homes’ in 1896. Wheeler also brought the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to SA. Both the Zionist Dramatic Society and Jewish Musical Society put on biblical plays and serious dramas at The Standard.
The original theatre predated the current Risk Street Post Office by 6 years. On the site previously were the original government buildings which eventually demolished to make way for the new Post Office in 1897. At the time, rehearsals were interrupted by the ‘melodic chanting of a team of natives as they wielded their picks and struck the heard earth in unison,’ as they excavated the site.
In the late 1890s, the Georgian-styled theatre was encased on three sides by a three-storey block of shops, offices, and rooms in late Victorian style with ornate ironwork. On the roof, in iron-work lettering was the name STANDARD BUILDINGS. 27 tons of iron-work was removed when the building was demolished. This extension also included an arcade link from President to Market Streets. Some sources state 1911 for the addition-the same year the theatre was again remodeled, but the style doesn’t seem to fit. There was a huge amount of alterations and additions done in 1911 which confirms the remodeling.
A Johannesburg Guide c1906 states that ‘The proprietors have recently made very extensive alterations to the auditorium and stage, in fact, the whole of the interior was broken up and entirely rebuilt, at the cost of 10,000 Pounds.’ The capacity after this alteration was 600 seats.
Plans by Carter & Mcintosh from August 1895 indicate ‘Additions and alterations – including additional levels, rooms and business premises.’ This appears to be the three-storey Standard Building that encased the theatre.
From 1902 there were several additions and alterations to the theatre that included work on the stage, dressing rooms, drainage, and lavatories. In 1911 a bioscope box was added. In addition to theatre work, there was also much work on the buildings and individual shops that made up Standard Buildings with much of the design work done by J. A. Moffat and Mcintosh. Mentioned are Standard Diggers’ and News, Arcadia Tea Room, and Easy Eats. One of the demolition photos shows interior signage for Bolder’s Bar and Billiard Room.
In the early 1900s, the theatre was leased by Messrs. Sass & Nelson who held a sub-lease from the trustees of the state of F. De Jong.
The interior was Victorian with decorated ceilings, brass-railed orchestra pit, and steeply pitched galleries. The boxes featured gilded plaster mouldings that were picked up by rose-tinted glass lampshades. Although a director’s nightmare, the theatre was loved by actors as it had a real intimacy.
Old Johannesburgers recall sitting up in the ‘Gods’ at the Standard. These were the hard wooden cheap seats in the gallery accessed via a stone staircase at the back of the theatre. This was a later addition, possibly part of the late 1911 renovation. In 1936, it could hold 1046 people.
It was closed in September 1947 as a fire hazard and although money was raised by various stage personalities of the time to fix the fire hazards, the council was seemingly uninterested. It was finally demolished in 1959 to make way for a park or green lung area. The area is now known as the Ernest Oppenheimer Park and was revitalised and re-opened in 2010. This was the same park that once displayed the 1960 impala sculpture “Impala Stampede’ by Herman Wall which was relocated to the Anglo headquarters in 2002. There are carvings of the facade of both the Rissik Street Post Office and the Standard Theatre out of railway sleepers on display. The last production at the Standard was ‘Golden Boy’ by playwright Clifford Odets.
The Standard outlasted all of the original Johannesburg Theatres and its unfortunate demolition was felt by the public at the time. A letter to The Star on 4 January 1960 sums it up, ‘Sir, coming on holiday to Johannesburg after a year’s absence, I was confronted in Market Street with a huge void, where once stood the Standard Theatre, a long-familiar landmark which had been the home of entertainment and pleasure to the population for over half a century. As I stood and gazed sadly at the scene of desolation, it became peopled with ghosts of yester-year and many memories were aroused.’ Tess Futerman
The Gaiety Theatre 3/5 Kort Street between Market & Commissioner Streets was opened in 1893 in the Metropole Buildings and at first, devoted to musical comedy. The opening production starred well-known European actors WC Fields, Marie Lloyd, and Kate Harvey. In 1894 its lease was taken over by the Empire Theatres Company SA (Ltd) who changed the name to Empire Palace of Varieties. The first-ever Afrikaans theatrical performance staged in Johannesburg was on 2 January 1899 at The Gaiety. It was taken over by Leonard Rayne in 1902. The Gaiety was also known as “De Gaatjie”. The building was also linked to Gandhi who addressed several meetings there, notably the 1907 meeting of Transvaal Indians opposing the Asiatic Registration Act. He also addressed a meeting there on 13 July 1914, a few days after leaving Johannesburg for good. Prior to this, The Gaiety, after being abandoned for a few years became a cinema in June 1910 for some time. The building eventually became a grocery store and was demolished sometime in 1972 to be replaced by the Southern Life Centre. The well preserved Champion Buildings still stand across the road from where the Gaiety used to be.
In 1902, a Yiddish theatre company arrived that included two couples: Waxman and his wife from London, and Wallerstein and his wife from New York. They were great rivals and eventually split both vying for audiences at The Gaiety and Empire Palace of Varieties. Sunday performances at the Gaiety were almost exclusively in Yiddish.
Royal Theatre of Varieties in Commissioner street is listed in the Longman’s 1896 directory. This was William Luscombe Searelle’s Theatre Royal (Johannesburg’s second-ever theatre) that he converted and re-opened on 27 December 1892 after finding himself under pressure from the recently opened Standard Theatre. This theatre was described as a music hall where lots of drinking and smoking took place. It regularly hosted international performers and could accommodate any entertainment except for ballet due to the small stage. By all accounts, it was a rough place due to the excessive drinking where fights frequently broke out. Visitors complained about the ‘low brow’ performances which were dominated by women for the mostly male audience. The music hall was then acquired by Hyman and Alexander and had a grand re-opening on Monday, 23 December 1895, one week before the failed Jameson raid.
Although music halls are not strictly theatres, the following are listed as early examples:
Johannesburg’s first music hall was The Novelty which opened in Sauer Street in October 1887 followed by the Trocadero Concert Hall in President Street in January 1888. The United States Concert Hall on Market Square opened toward the end of March 1888 taking the performers from the failed Trocadero. This too was short-lived. Others that opened were Linton’s Music Hall in 1888 and the Pavilion Palace of Varieties in 1891 which was also in Commissioner Street. No photos have been found of any of these.
The second Empire Palace of Varieties was opened in 135/7 Commissioner Street corner of Kruis Street in 1906 by the owners of the first Empire. The site of the original theatre in what was originally Ferreira’s Camp and the old Globe Theatre was no longer being developed and thus unsuitable. Building commenced on 1 April 1906. The basement included a Billiards Room, while there were shops and a bar on the ground floor, and offices on the upper two floors. It appeared to be a very ordinary Edwardian office building. The only decorations were a few turrets and gables. The theatre lay beyond the offices, with the main entrance foyer in Commissioner Street, and ·the stage door, private box, and gallery entrances in Kruis Street.
It was described as “a spectacle of Edwardian luxury with 18 boxes, plush upholstery, and drapes in green and gold – the most handsome theatre in the subcontinent”. It was designed by McIntosh & J.A. Moffat with a capacity of 1200. It was built by building firm Gabriel & Ballantine at a cost of 70,000 Pounds.
The theatre was equipped with a sprinkler system and air-conditioning. Many of the world’s greatest artists appeared on the Empire stage, including Sir Harry Lauder, George Robey, England’s master of broad comedy, Sir Seymour Hicks and Ellaine Terris, Irene Vanbrugh, Anna Pavlova, and Sybil Thorndike.
The Empire Theatre ran into financial difficulties and was taken over in 1913 by I. W. Schlesinger. This was the start of the African Theatres Trust (later African Consolidated Theatres) which went on to own and manage an expanding chain of theatres and bioscopes. Offsprings of ATT led to the establishment of a motion picture company that set-up headquarters on Cook’s Farm on which Schlesinger later established Killarney. African Consolidated Theatres was later sold to 20th Century Fox in the 1950s after I. W’s death after his son, John, took over the company.
The Varieties was pulled down in 1935 to make way for the new Empire Theatre which opened in September 1936 featuring Nora Williams, an American songstress and blues singer, and a troupe of sixteen Empire Girls. It was Johannesburg’s answer to Broadway. The Star described its interior as ‘an aesthetic triumph in pastel shades of grey and blue, gold, white and black – an affair vastly different from the old days of red and green plush, brass rails, gildings…and painted and plaster cherubs and other mythological personages.’ Although opened as a theatre, it also served as a cinema.
The block it was situated on became too valuable (Carlton Centre is now across the road) and it closed in April 1971. In 1974, the 27 floor Kine Centre Plaza (with 3 movie theatres no longer in use) went up in its place.
Messrs. Ben and F. Wheeler opened their own theatre in 1903 called His Majesty’s. The site was originally the Goldreich building which was also used as a post office until the Rissik Street post office was completed. Architects Mclntosh & Moffat converted the site into an 1100 seater which became known as the first His Majesty’s. The plans date to 11 November 1902.
The theatre’s main entrance was in Commissioner Street, with the gallery entrance in Joubert Street, and the stage door in Fox Street. lt was a simple double-storey building, without a verandah when it first opened. A concrete verandah was added later in Commissioner Street. The walls of the entrance foyer and staircases were in Italian marble, and there were 14 exits in total. A contemporary record notes that ‘Four or five different coloured lights are at command, and, by the touch of a lever on the switchboard, the stage can be transformed from total darkness to a brilliancy at least five times greater than that of any other stage in South Africa.’ It also had a fire hydrant system as well as its own electric plant for power. Included was an air conditioning system using electric fans for summer and a heating system for winter powered by low-pressure radiators.
The stage measured 58 feet by 38 feet and was 62 feet high from floor to gridiron. There were 16 dressing rooms, and a Green Room.
The opening performance was on 11 July 1903, when the Royal Australian Comic
Opera Company, consisting of 75 performers, staged the spectacular extravaganza, ‘Djin-Djin’. All proceeds from the opening night went to various charities. In 1916, Ada Reeve presented ‘Floradora’, ‘The Duchess of Danzig’ and the ‘Merry Widow”, which had the longest run in South Africa of 11 weeks.
The second His Majesty’s was built in Commissioner street between Eloff and Joubert streets (and took up the entire block) and opened by General Jan Smuts on 23 December 1946. The designers were J. C. Cook and Maurice Cowen. The delay between demolition in 1937 and completion in 1947 is attributed to the outbreak of the Second World War.
The design of the building incorporated variable office towers around the central theatre. These towers stood eleven, fourteen, and eighteen storeys high and became the headquarters for Schlesinger’s organisation as well as chambers for several advocates including Joe Slovo. In 1956 it was also headquarters for the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce who had offices in the west section.
The opening show in 1946 was Phil Levard’s production of Robinson Crusoe. It was converted into a cinema in 1956 for The Ten Commandments. In 1969, African Consolidated Theatres (also founded by Schlesinger) sold the building to Anglo American. In 1978 it reverted back to a traditional theatre in the hope that it could be saved. The revival failed and in 1981, the theatre was converted into a retail store. The last show was a Brickhill-Burke production of Hello Dolly.
The poster above was found for sale at Limpopo Books in Parkview (R150), which coincidentally, is situated in the old converted Parkview cinema.
In 1915, the block comprised of the Goldreich Buildings with His Majesty’s, a rifle range, the Bioscope Theatre, Jooste & Bryant’s first bottle store, and the Albert Buildings (that faced Eloff Street). The Goad’s Map of 1937 shows a blank block suggesting that the site had already been demolished by then. The gap between the demolition and the opening was due to the onset of WW2. The basement was completed in 1939 and the rest by 1945.
After the Boer war other theatres were built like The Bijou which was designed by Kallenbach & Kennedy in Jeppe Street (165-7) in 1910. It was refurbished in 1919 and again in 1930 when it was updated to the ‘talkies’ era. It still retained its orchestra pit – a relic from the days of silent films when it was demolished in 1958. The Bijou is credited with showing the first sound musical under the African Theatres (Schlesinger) banner: The Singing Fool with Al Jolson on 30th November 1929. The Astoria in Noord Street showed the first talkie and first musical. The Bijou was also Johannesburg’s ‘super cinema’ before the Metro and Colosseum appeared in the 1930s.
Another first for the Bijou was that it was the first to show Silly Symphonies and other Walt Disney sound cartoons that supported ‘The Singing Fool’.
An 18-storey building called Rand Central took its place. Percy Tucker explains in his book ‘Just the ticket’ how his new ticket-selling company ‘Show Services’ came to acquiring their second offices on the ground floor of Rand Central. Show Services was a forerunner to Computicket.
An oddity is the plans below which are the original and alteration plans for the Bioscope Theatre also by Kallenbach & Kennedy. The dates and site match that of the Bijou Theatre, but comparing the above picture to the plans shows a vast difference. Goad’s map of 1910 also shows the Bioscope Theatre with the Y.W.C.A next door. According to Arnold Benjamin in Lost Johannesburg, there had been “two improvised predecessors of the same name built by the same owners in 1909”. Further research has uncovered what those two predecessors were: The second-ever permanent cinema in South Africa (the first was in Muizenberg in Cape Town) was the Bijou which opened on 2nd September 1909 in a converted building that belonged to Union Market on the corner of Small and President Streets. It was promoted by two Canadians, W. Bogue and G. K. Shepard who were later joined by H. V. Barnes who showed ‘Bioscopes’ at the Wanderers Hall. See Goads Map below.
Proving popular, the promotors opened the 2nd Bijou (or Bijou No.2 as it was known) in the Assembly Hall at Fordsburg market square on 16th December 1909. Barnes became the manager of this, Johannesburg’s second cinema. In February 1910 they converted the Empress Theatre in Pretoria into another ‘Bijou Bioscope’ and then went on to build the ‘palatial’ new Bijou next to the Temple Court Buildings in Jeppe Street between Eloff and Joubert Street. The plans were drawn up in May 1910 by Kallenbach and Kennedy and signed off on the 11 June 1910 by the council. It officially opened on the 30th of July 1910. In April 1911, further alterations and additions were done by the original architects. Notably, an extended balcony was added at the back with concrete stairs for access presumably to fit more patrons.
The ‘Bijou No.1’ in President Street became the Royalty but closed down soon afterward.
The bigger Bijou we know from the various photographs must have replaced the first building and included the adjacent stand that had the Y.W.C.A. as the facade doubled in size compared to the Bioscope Theatre plans. This could have happened around the 1919 refurbishment. In 1936 its capacity was listed as 1549. There was also a Bioscope Theatre in Commissioner Street next to the old His Majesty’s.
The Palladium from 1911 was originally the old stock exchange and tattersalls building and was situated on Commissioner Street bounded by Fraser and Simmonds Streets. The 1911 plan calls it ‘Coliseum Theatre’ which was a bioscope-vaudeville house opened by E. Hartfeil and P. Perriers in May 1910 and promoted by Americans, but from 1912 it’s referred to as ‘Palladium’. The original architects of this, the second stock exchange building were Lennox, Canning & Goad. A.H. Reid and Walter Reid were responsible for the Palladium conversion.
When the theatre was reconstructed in 1912 by owners Johannesburg Estate Company, telephones and loudspeakers were installed in each dressing-room, in order to give the players their cues. An early record of Johannesburg notes: “The exterior of this stately building is an eloquent testimony to the wealth and energy of the citizens of Johannesburg, who, in such a few years, have raised so grand an edifice. The interior is roomy, comfortable and elegantly adorned and in unison with the impression created by the outside of the building”. Ethel Irving appeared in the opening performance on 1st March 1913. The continuous bio-vaudeville theatre was managed by R. B. Young. By May of 1913, the theatre went into liquidation and was absorbed into Schlesinger’s African Theatres Trust along with Bijou and Carlton theatres in October 1913. Essentially, the costs of running the entertainment in these theatres which included the licensed or imported films, live stage actors and an orchestra (the films were still silent at this time) coupled with the increased competition and low admission meant that costs exceeded income. There was also an over-supply of venues catering to the then relatively stable demand.
In 1931, the Palladium was leased by Union Theatres which was formed to show Metro talkie films. On 30th November 1931, the first MGM talkie shown in South Africa was screened at the Palladium. The opening film was ‘Broadway Melody’ featuring Charles King. It was followed by ‘Madame X’ and ‘The Rogue Song’. In 1936 its capacity was listed as 1150.
The building was demolished around 1938/9
Vaudette Theatre appears on the Goads map c1912 in Pritchard Street between Joubert and Eloff Streets. This was known as the Vaudette Theatre and Lounge Tea Room that opened in December 1909 in a section of the Royal Arcade, which connected Pritchard and Kerk Streets. It was opened by the Union Bioscope Company which comprised of a printer, a plumber, and a chemist. Their first cinema was a wood and iron building in Human Street in Krugersdorp called the ‘Lyric Theatre’ which was later demolished and replaced by the ‘Vaudette Theatre’. They also opened cinemas in Kimberly and East London and along with the Bijou enterprise, were the first to exploit bioscopes in an organised way.
I found a few theatres noted on an insurance map I use for research and verification but have found no further information. Here are their positions on the map.
Another early theatre was the Oxford Theatre c1903 which was housed in Sanderson’s Building on the corner of President & Harrison Streets.
A short-lived independent cinema called Royal Cinema opened in Bree Street opposite the Jewish Guild Building on 23rd March 1923 by the ‘African, European, and Australian Film Co. Ltd’. Its managing director was M. S. Blumberg. It made a good start showing it’s first film ‘The Prince of lovers’, but by October, it had gone into liquidation. African Film Ltd purchased all moveable property like films and projectors. No photos could be found.
The Plaza was originally conceived in June 1927 by a new venture known as Kinemas Ltd, who would go on to rival Schlesinger’s organisation in an intense 4-years of competition in which they would bring the first ‘talkies’ to South Africa. The original drawing for the Plaza was done by Captain Harry Clayton, but never used. The site, on the corner Jeppe & Rissik Street was purchased for 27500 Pounds. The Plaza finally opened in October 1931, its design marking a new departure in cinema architecture and decoration with a capacity of 2000. The building was opened by the Mayor of Johannesburg Mr G. W. Nelson and the first film shown was ‘Cimarron’. In the 1950s, the Plaza was big with motorbike gangs and ducktails on Monday nights and popular for its ‘skiet-en-donder’ type films (shooting & fighting or action films). The late Deco building boasted the first cinema organ and also showed the first ‘three-dimensional’ film ever seen in South Africa. It was designed by Kallenbach, Kennedy & Furner (and Werner Wagner) and was demolished in the early 1960s.
In April 1931 MGM purchased a site in Bree Street for 50 000 Pounds to build its own super-cinema. The Metro on the corner of Bree and Hoek Streets (Von Brandis Street today) was opened on 4 November 1932 at the height of the depression. Designed by Thomas W. Lamb (MGM’s New York architect), it was the biggest of its time (and when demolished) with a capacity of just under 3000 (some sources say 2800). It was MGMs big gun against its rival Schlesinger’s African Theatre chain. It also had a massive Wurlitzer organ (played by Archie Parkhouse – one of the first cinema-organist personalities), air conditioning as well as excellent reproductions of French Impressionist and still-life paintings that were displayed. The air conditioning had a fault in that it wasn’t equipped to handle cigarette smoke (smoking wasn’t allowed in US theatres). It would recycle the smoke back into the auditorium causing it to get more smokey throughout the day making the final show almost unwatchable albeit in a cool environment. It was said that it had so many bare bulbs beneath its canopy that it warmed cinema queues in winter.
The first feature film shown was ‘The Passionate Plumber’ starring Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante.
The building was demolished in 1972 after a run of sixteen ‘oldies’ which relived some of Metro’s greatest moments. These included some Greta Garbo and Clarke Gable classics amongst others.
In April 1931 “Colosseum Buildings Ltd” with an authorised capital of 150 000 Pounds was resisted in Pretoria and tenders went out in August 1931 for a mammoth ‘atmospheric’ theatre in the ‘old Roman Style’. The director was I. W. Schlesinger and his associates.
The 2279-seater Colosseum in Commissioner Street opened on 4 October 1933 by General Jan Smuts and was the flagship of African Consolidated Theatres. It was designed by Percy Rogers-Cooke in conjunction with H. Wolseley Spicer.
William Timlin, a Kimberly artist, designed the interior with its lit castle turrets and Spanish renaissance architecture. The high ceiling with ‘atmospheric treatment’ gave the impression of the open sky, like the original Colosseum in Rome. The proscenium was 60 feet wide and 30 feet high while the stage itself was 70 feet high. The Colosseum also possessed a large orchestra of 30 members under Michael Dore. In 1936, the orchestra was taken over by Charles Manning and the orchestra became an attraction that sometimes rivaled the films.
There was a separate ladies’ cosmetic room on one side and a bar on the other side of the foyer for men.
Galli-Curci and Richard Tauber performed there. While it blended in with its office surroundings, it featured old Egyptian inspired sculptures of goddesses, falcons, and cobras on its facade with Art Deco ornamentation. These were inspired by the 1922 archeological finds in Egypt. It was closed and demolished in 1985 and a modern office block named Colosseum emerged in its place.
The theatre buildings in Commissioner Street in the 1930s – 1960s (Colosseum, His Majesty’s and Empire) gave name to the phrase ‘Great White Way’ and visually inspired by Broadway in illuminated signage use.
Keep in mind that both the Colosseum and The Metro were opened during the depression prior to South Africa going off the Gold Standard on 27th December 1932 which ultimately propelled the country into prosperity. The years of 1929-1932 saw film goers decrease and virtually killed of theatres, although there was a rise in local amateur productions during this time. Of interest are other ‘escapes’ that distracted audiences at this time and diverted spend away from cinemas: The cult of ‘nudism’, cigarette smoking especially among women, cosmetic make-up for women (reaction to the depressed conditions), and the Yo-Yo!
For additional information on the Colosseum, read this piece by Kathy Munro on the Heritage Portal where she writes about discovering a copy of the original opening programme.
20th Century on the corner of President and Von Brandis Street opened 5 March 1940 with a capacity of 2048 for Cinema Theatres Investments Ltd. It was opened by the Minister for the Interior, Mr Harry Lawrence with the first feature film being ‘Stanley and Livingstone’. The cinema was designed by Cowin & Ellis and Hanson, Tomkin & Finkelstein in a local interpretation of the International Style. The name of the building was incorporated as part of the design as well as narrow offices on the north side of the building. The design predated the Brazilian influence (seen in many Hillbrow buildings) by a decade. According to Clive Chipkin: ‘The 20th Century Cinema, the ultimate symbol of 1930s modernism…carried the imagery of twentieth-century architecture into the 1960s, when at last it began to look jaded. In a very real sense this was the first post-war building’.
It’s attractions equaled the other super-cinemas in the vicinity, but it did struggle early on as the likes of the Colosseum, Plaza and Metro had subscribers with pre-booked seats for openings on Friday nights.
It was closed in 1974 and converted into a shooting range before eventually being demolished. The building was replaced by a single-storey block of shops which seems a bit counter-productive since they demolished more to create less.
Cinerama was built on the corner of Claim and Noord Street and opened in April 1961. Cinerama was considered a ‘revolutionary cinema gimmick’ (possibly on par with the recent IMAX cinemas) but audiences loved ‘This is Cinerama’, ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, and ‘How the West was Won’. It closed on 27 February 1986 and was converted into a nightclub called ‘Thunderdome’. One of the owners was Chris Gelakis who now owns and runs Electromode, a music company. It was one of the first nightclubs I ever went to and at the time the sound and lighting were state-of-the-art. It was still used as a live venue in the 90s. UK death metal bands Napalm Death and Carcass both played there. It’s now used by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
Other movie theatres were Tivoli, The Grand, Pavilion Picture Palace 1911 in President corner Fraser Street, The Carlton 1912 (demolished 1933), Astoria, Savoy, Monte Carlo, Starlite, Mon Cine in Bree Street and Ster City (1969).
The Grand Theatre opened in September 1910 in Market Street was opened by Louis Blond and managed by Michael Chadwick. It was evidently a popular venue despite all the competition. In July 1912, it was bought out by the newly formed ‘Empire Theatres Company’ in a mutual deal consolidating all their theatres. The Empire in Kruis Street (among others) was struggling to keep up with ‘bioscopes’ hence the consolidation. The company also contracted with The Bijou, but this did not last. Empire Theatres Company would be taken over by Schlesinger’s ‘African Theatres Trust Ltd’ in 1913 and would also absorb ‘Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres’ and several smaller theatres thereby reorganising the bioscope industry. The Grand Theatre building was demolished in 1939.
Carlton Theatre opened in September 1912 in the same block as the original Carlton Hotel. It was successful enough to drain patrons from the Orpheum and Tivoli. It was absorbed into African Theatres Trust in 1913 and demolished in 1933 after falling out of favour with the public.
The Tivoli Theatre (Tivoli Pictures Palace as it was called on opening) in President Street between Joubert and Eloff Streets appears on Goads map. It was opened on the 5th February 1910 by the ‘Tivoli Theatres Company’. It was Johannesburg’s 5th cinema (the other four being Bijou in Jeppe Street, Bijou Fordsburg, Vaudette in the Royal Arcade Pritchard Street, and American Bioscope in Jeppestown). It held 600 people and had a few boxes. Vaudeville artists and an orchestra were added to the entertainment. The films were shown continuously (come when you like, leave when you like) and attracted 2000 people on the opening night. Other Tivoli cinemas opened in Boksburg, Germiston, and Pretoria. Rufe Naylor was the man behind Tivoli. He also opened and owned the Stadium in Main Street near City & Suburban and Jeppestown which hosted track and race contests. He opened the first ‘open-air Bioscope’ at the stadium which didn’t last long but may be the forerunner to the once-popular drive-ins. It was advertised that it could hold 3000 seated and 10 000 standing people and one just had to turn one’s head to watch any of the races on show (whippet, cycling and running…)
Savoy in the corner of Plein & Wanderers Street was opened by Jack Sneider on 17th August 1939 with ‘Stagecoach’ a 20th Century-Fox production. He showed some unusual films like ‘Moonlight Sonata’ with Paderewski and Marie Tempest. In 1940 the Savoy joined African Consolidated Theatres and ceased to be an independent entity.
One of Kinemas Ltd first sites, The Astoria in Noord Street was previously Eton Hall having being converted and opened on 23rd December 1927. Astoria will long be remembered as the venue of the first lengthy feature-film talkie shown in South Africa ‘Mr Smith wakes up’ which was shown on 6th July 1929. The experimental short British film featured Barbara Gott, Moore Marriott, and Elsa Lanchester doing Cockney sketches. Sound and overall quality were poor by today’s standards. The first feature-length talkie was also shown at the Astoria on 13th September 1929. This was ‘Syncopation’ a musical featuring Morton Downey, Leon Barte, Bert Glennon, Mackenzie Ward, and Babara Bennett. The Astoria later became a popular ballroom dancing venue and a precursor to Johannesburg’s nightclubs along with the old Afrikaaner club which was later converted into a cinema.
Ster City (or Ster Land) opened in 1969 on the corner of Claim and Plein Street and was Johannesburg’s first multi-cinema complex. It originally had 3 cinemas – Ster Cine 1000 with 886 seats, Ster Cine 700 with 659 seats, and Ster Cine 300 with 255 seats. There was also the Cine 100 which was apparently high upstairs and used to preview films to critics. In the 1980s, several small cinemas opened on the ground floor.
On the 30th of July 1987, a car bomb went off in Quartz Street between Drill Hall and Ster City. It injured 26 and damaged both buildings. ANC MK member Hein Grosskopf planted the bomb.
The complex closed sometime in the 1990s. It was also used for some time to show adult films, presumably under new ownership. At some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s it was abandoned. Vagrants took over and stripped anything of value from the building, down to the copper lining in the floors.
Today, the building is undergoing a transformation into flats. There are already shop owners operating on street level. The new owners let me in to take some pictures of what is left. Part building site and part untouched since the vagrant eviction, it’s dark and treacherous inside.
Thanks to Ray and Alexa from Boost Property Investments for the access.
The original Orpheum Theatre on the corner of Jeppe Street and Joubert Street opened on 1st December 1911. It was designed by Allan Monsborough. An article in African Architect dated November 1911 states, ‘The ironwork of the Orpheum Theatre, being erected form the designs of Messrs G. W. Nicolay and Alan G. Monsborough A.R.I.B.A. has been in position for several weeks, and the contractors are making every effort to get the building ready for the end of the year.”
Also known as Mammoth Theatre and Picture Palace, it was conceived and built by Rufe Naylor of the Tivoli and Stadium in Main Street near Jeppe) fame. It was an optimistic building that seated 1500 within a lavish interior and Naylor soon ran into financial difficulty. He joined forces with the Union Bioscope Company who started out on Krugersdorp and owned the Vaudette in the Royal Arcade in a new venue named ‘Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres Ltd’. This amalgamation also saved costs by combining their circuits and saving money on the importation and licensing of films which were expensive and forcing smaller independent bioscopes to close.
The Orpheum was a success due to its ‘classiness’ and selection which brought new patrons who had not visited ‘bioscopes’ before due to their poor reputation. They were also able to charge higher prices for the experience. It was described as ‘The most magnificent bioscope theatre in the world. 1500 beautiful upholstered armchairs, spring seats, footrests, etc. eleven pure marble statues imported from Rome at a cost of 800 Pounds, magnificent figures by the finest Italian sculptors.’ It was managed by W. H. Beail who previously managed the Vaudette. Although considered the first super cinema in the country, it was also remembered for its poor ventilation and also known as ‘Aw’fly Hum’. Despite this, it was well attended and its patrons often blocked Jeppe and Joubert Streets waiting for admission.
In 1919 it was converted into a double-story by architect J. A. Moffat. The first film with synchronised sound, Don Juan, was shown there. Percy Rogers Cooke is listed as the architect of the Orpheum Theatre in 1931, presumably for a re-vamp which increased the capacity to 1950. In 1934, African Theatres sold the Orpheum for 80 000 Pounds to Norman Ansteys. The last performance was on 1st January 1935 before being pulled down to make way for the still-standing Art Deco Anstey’s Building. The competition from the modern Colosseum, Metro, and Plaza was too much for the dated (by then) Orpheum.
The Library Theatre was opened in 1936 (closed in 1983) and after the Standard Theatre closed in 1949, it was the only theatre in operation until the Reps Theatre (Alexander Theatre of today) was opened. It appears to have been housed in the new library complex that was completed in 1936.
The Reps Theatre opened on the 7th of November 1951 in Stiemens Street in Braamfontein. It was designed by Manfred Hermer and was Johannesburg’s first custom-built 510-seater theatre for legitimate plays since the old Standard. Its inaugural production was ‘Much ado about nothing’ starring Margaret Inglis and Jack Ralphs and directed by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. On 10 March 1962, it was renamed Alexander Theatre after its founder and honorary lifelong president Muriel Alexander, who founded the Johannesburg Repertory Players on 15th of November 1927.
The old Assembly Hall of the Afrikaaner Nationalist Party or the National Party Club building in Loveday Street between Jeppe & Bree Streets went through several conversions over the years. Commissioned by Gen. Hertzog’s National Party, it was designed by J. C. Cook and officially opened in 1925. The neo-Cape Dutch design was in line with the party’s interests in promoting the Afrikaans-speaking community and interests. The white Cape Dutch gables (derived from Groot Constantia in the Cape) against the red-tiled double-pitch roof made a striking architectural statement in the city centre as there was nothing like it in the area at the time.
The building, or more specifically, the first floor, was converted in the early-1930s into the Palais-de-Danse, which was a popular ballroom dancing venue and early nightclub. The member’s rooms above were let out as accommodation. In October 1937, it was again converted by architects J. C. Cook & Cowan into the Cafe Bioscope. Before its demolition in 1973, it was known as Playhouse cafe-cinema and had a popular bar on the ground floor called Langham Deep. The 350-seater Playhouse came into existence in 1967 and was aimed at the teen market with four daily shows and a Friday midnight show. This is a different Playhouse to the Braamfontein and Main Street namesakes. In 1953 the building was rented by the German Club and in 1964 was home to New Moon Chinese Restaurant (among other tenants).
Windmill Theatre which was located at 277 Bree Street opened in 1955. It was originally a shop and basement. The 300-seater was used for experimental ‘off-Broadway’ type of shows and closed after a few years. Margaret Inglis and Ruth Oppenheim both put on productions in the theatre. Ipi Tombi also ran for two years from 1974. It was demolished in 1981. It may have been next to Mon Cine pictured further up.
Brooke Theatre in De Villiers Street opened on the 13th of September 1955 with the production “Deep Blue Sea’ directed by Michael Findlayson. The building was previously an Apostolic Faith Mission and was converted by Architect Felix Fels. The marble flight of stairs in the foyer was rescued from the Standard Theatre.
The following is from Brian Brooke’s autobiography ‘My own personal star’:
Meanwhile it was August 1955. We had a month to go before the opening night, which I had deliberately set for the 13th of September, thirteen being my lucky number. The cast began to arrive and rehearsals for The Deep Blue Sea began in the coffee bar downstairs.
I was playing a small part, fortunately, which enabled me to check on the hundred and one details that go into making a theatre run. Robert Langford had been a company manager for H.M. Tennents in the West End, so he knew his job and was a tower of strength. In Michael Findlayson I realised that we had found a first rate director.
The Blenheim candelabra standards duly arrived and were positioned on either side of the proscenium arch. And when the seating had been installed in the circle we cleared a portion of the auditorium floor and had a roof-wetting party. Here the press and the artistes met the men responsible for the creation of the building. The following Sunday I asked the Rev. Tugman to hold a service to bless the theatre. It was a moving occasion and his choir boys were the first performers to use the Brooke stage.
Some of the press comments are worth recording:
“A little bit of the West End is growing in Johannesburg . . . growing from the shell of what was once an Apostolic Church.
“It is the new Brian Brooke Theatre, bringing to the city the red plush and shimmering candelabra theatre atmosphere that died when the Standard Theatre was closed; . . . an intimate theatre about the size of the Duchess in London.
“The walls are tall, papered in maroon and gold; there is a broad sweep of gallery that brings even the farthest seats in close intimacy with the stage.
“And with it will go the most modern remote-controlled lighting system ever brought into the country.
“The result: not a church changed into a theatre, but a theatre in what few would ever guess was a church.” The Star 20/8/55
The YMCA Theatre, connected to the YMCA building in Rissik Street on the Braamfontein side, also opened in 1955. It was re-named Intimate Theatre in 1959.
Plastic Theatre in Northcliff started out as the Plastic Hall. It was built in the early to mid-1940s almost entirely from plastic, a new material at the time, and one restricted by the building controller due to material shortages because of WW2. The hall could seat 350 people and the opening concert was ‘The Amsterdam Quartette’ with Elsie Hall on piano. In 1949 it became a theatre which was run by Hugo Keleti, a well-known Johannesburg impresario, until 1953.
The hall/theatre was started by Fred Cohen, the father of Northcliff. On the plateau of the hill, he opened a tea room, dancehall, swimming pool, and roadhouse in addition to the theatre. By all accounts, it was a popular weekend entertainment venue. Fred sold the entire complex due to financial pressures sometime between 1953 and 1955.
It is recorded that during Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement in 1956, the Plastic Theatre where the services were held caught fire due to curtains blowing onto the burning candles (which could not be extinguished until the service was over). The whole complex burnt down, but fortunately, no one was in the building at the time of the fire. Townhouses now mark the spot. Thanks to Tandi Weinstein from the Northcliff Hebrew Congregation for the additional information as well as the memoir of Fred Cohen compiled by his daughter, Zelda Street.
In 1967 the Academy Theatre opened on the ground floor in a building on the corner of Rissik and Wolmarans Street in Braamfontein previously known as Happiness House. The theatre was soon renamed Academy Theatre of Laughter after a poor opening run (although was always known as The Academy). In 1984 after a management change it was renamed Siegfried Maynard Theatre but was damaged in a fire after a few shows. The Intimate dinner theatre La Parisienne opened in 1986 but burnt down in early 1988. A gay bar and meeting place called Champions opened thereafter that lasted into the early 1990s.
Colony at Hyde Park Hotel in Jan Smuts Avenue evidently also hosted some theatrical productions but appears to be better known as a nightclub (60s style dinner and dance variety). The shopping centre known as The Colony in Hyde Park today was once the site of the hotel. The existing bar, Colony Arms, was once also part of the hotel. Pictures below from the wonderful Soul Safari site.
Adam Leslie’s Theatre opened on 27 August 1967 at 96 End Street. The Herbert Baker designed building was built in 1906 (foundation stone laid on 27 January 1906) and was originally the College of Music. Up until Adam Leslie took it over it had also been used as a macaroni factory and previously a boot factory during the war. Adam restored it to its former glory down to the interior and furnishings. The chandelier was from an original randlords mansion and the brass railings from the demolished Standard Theatre. Percy Tucker describes it best when he says, “Restored to its former Edwardian glory and atmosphere, the building became a virtual museum of early Johannesburg…” The theatre opened with ‘Music Hall Revue’ starring Adam Leslie and Joan Blake and was directed by Anthony Farmer. After 8 successful years, Adam decided to sell. His poor health and the coming of television were some of the deciding factors. The closing night was 31 December 1975 after a gala performance. Adam tried to sell the building as a running theatre with all the fittings, but couldn’t find a buyer.
In the interim, the building was hired out and became a disco: Mandys Nightclub. In 1977, a fire broke out destroying much of the interior and the roof. Mandy’s re-opened as Mandys II followed by Idols in late 1985 and finally ESP in the 90s. All were groundbreaking and successful nightclubs in their time. At the time of writing, the building was in a state of disrepair but, I’m happy to report, that in 2017, the building is back in use as a daycare centre. I’ve written a more in-depth piece on this majestic and historical building here
The ‘Bantu Men’s Social Centre’ was established in 1924 at the southern end of Eloff Street to provide musical sessions and plays under the auspices of the Bantu Dramatic Society. The building was opened in 1924 and became a great centre of cultural activity, frequented by intellectuals, artists, writers, and emerging political leaders. Sporting events were held there, plays and concerts. In 1944, the Youth League of the African National Congress was founded there.
Dorkay House, next to the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, was also an important venue for black theatre and notably where the play King Kong was produced. From the Blue Plaque inscription: ‘Starting in 1954, Dorkay House became a haven for black performers and musicians, at a time when racial exclusion was the order of the day. This was the home of the Union of South African Artists, dedicated to protecting the rights of performers. A thriving centre of music and drama, Dorkay House produced King Kong and other hit shows. The Sunday jazz sessions were legendary, and a host of great musicians graduated from here’.
Ian Bernhardt’s Union of Southern African Artists was based at Dorkay House. After presenting the first all-black Shakespeare production ‘Comedy of Errors’ in 1953, the union was formed by over 300 black performers and entertainers. It functioned as an educator, promoter, and protector of black artists. Bernhardt was instrumental in connecting the people that would produce and perform King Kong although rehearsals and actual musical were held at other venues. Rehearsals were in an old warehouse in Loveday Street south and the show opened at WITS Great Hall on 2 February 1959 starring Miriam Makeba and Nathan Mdledle who was from the Manhattan Brothers.
In 1961 United Artists (producers of the 1959 black musical King Kong) opened their own theatre called the Rehearsal Room in Dorkay House to cater to the growing number of black plays.
The musical influence of Dorkay House during Apartheid is well documented. Lucille Davie writes ‘Originally a clothing factory and reborn as a cultural centre for blacks in the 1960s, Dorkay House is fondly remembered by many people. Musician Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse remembers going there for drumming lessons as a youngster, arranged by the African Music Drummers’ Association. There he met some of the old greats. “They inspired us to choose our careers,” he says. Dorkay House was the incubator of many talented South African musicians: Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Ntemi Piliso, the 10-member African Jazz Pioneers, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and actor John Kani’.
Club 58 in Pretoria Street in Hillbrow was a small theatre in an old two-storey block of flats called Millbro Court built in 1930 (that still stands) that was owned by Barbara Thompson. It became known as No.58 with an additional upstairs venue called No. 58 Too and was a popular late-night cabaret venue.
Below is a video shot there of Sam Marais and Natalie da Rocha in 1983. They were still performing there in 1990
The Civic Theatre in Braamfontein opened in 1962 and in 1976 part of the old Johannesburg Market building was converted into the Market Theatre.
The fruit market of the original Edwardian market buildings was converted into a theatre by the practice of architect Manfred Hermer (Reps/Alexander Theatre and later Ponte along with Rodney Grosskopf). The Market Theatre was a venue for alternative and protest theatre under the direction of Barney Simon and Manny Manim and played a massive part in South Africa’s transformation in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Athol Fugard plays started life at the Market.
In the early 1970s, Barney and Manny along with some actors formed ‘The Company’ and would put on plays in any place available: Old shop fronts, an abandoned restaurant and nightclub at the old Oxford Hotel, and the Nunnery and Arena Theatres. In 1974, Manny was asked to take a look at the flower section of the old fruit market in Newtown that was closing down. It was the perfect space to become a theatre. In 1976, it opened with Chekov’s ‘The Seagull’ featuring Sandra Prinsloo.
Other theatres of note are Alhambra (originally a cinema designed by S.V. Mann and completed in 1921) and the Apollo in Doornfontein (1938), Andre Huguenot (now known as Hillbrow Theatre in Kaptjein Street), Leonard Rayne (renamed The Rex Garner in 1994) & Richard Haines both of which were part of Alhambra in Doornfontein, Wits Theatre (or University Great Hall), Little Theatre (from 1973 that opened in Corner House and was later known as Barnato Theatre) and the Black Sun in Berea (and then Rockey Street Yeoville). Chelsea Theatre at the Chelsea Hotel in Hillbrow gave theatrical performances as well as a room at the Oxford Hotel called The Blue Fox. A disused shop in Orange Grove became The Village Theatre for a time. There was also a Sunday night only experimental theatre at 49 St. Patrick Road Houghton known as The Soiree Society and Johannesburg City Hall hosted concerts and Eisteddfods from time to time.
2017 update: The Alhambra is now also back in use as a theatre. Photos below are from Jo Buitendach (Past Experience) from the re-opening night.
2020 update: The Alhambra appears to have been sold again and is now owned by Kings & Queens funeral business. It also received a particularly horrible re-paint.
An old Doornfontein cottage was converted into an experimental theatre called Arena Theatre on the corner of St. Augustine (25) and Louisa Streets. It was run by PACT.
The old Windybrow Theatre was popular in the late 1980s and 1990s. It was originally one of the early mansions in Doornforntein built and owned by Theodore Reunert and one of the few surviving examples of pre-1900 buildings left in Johannesburg. It was restored by PACT in the 1980s and is still a theatre today after another restoration in 2017. Read a more detailed history of Windybrow HERE.
The first moving pictures based on Edison’s Kinetoscope were shown at the Grand National Hotel on April 4 1895. Henwood’s Arcade between Pritchard and President Street soon followed. The Apollo Theatre at 39 Pritchard Street showed moving pictures from December 1908.
Also worth mentioning is that many of the old theatres also began showing films – first silent and then from 1929 full length features with sound – as well as the new custom-built cinemas that sprang up all over the city and suburbs like Curzon in 1939 (later the Fine Arts which opened in 1965 with the Sound of Music) and Clarendon Cinema (1940 on the corner Twist & Pretoria streets), Highpoint and Mini Cine (upstairs at the Hillbrow flea market), Cinema International Pretoria Street in Hillbrow; Adelphi and Grand in Rosettenville; Kinema Complex or Grand Bioscope in Kenilworth designed by D.M. Sinclair in 1935; Grove Kinema (later called Victory Theatre), Astra and Royal (1939 which then became the Royal Cinerama in 1966) in Orange Grove; Piccadilly and ‘Bughouse’ bioscope in Yeoville designed by Stucke & Harrison and built in 1929 and first owned by Geo Reid; the Corlett near Bramley; Avenue (later re-named 7Arts and Rex) in Norwood; Avalon, Planet, Lyric, Tivoli (Mint Road) and Majestic in Fordsburg; Grand Kinema Forsdburg c1929; Odeon, Savoy, Parysia, Protea (Oxford Road) and Constantia (Tyrwhitt Ave) in Rosebank; Gem and Regal in Troyeville; Regent in Kensington; Valley Bioscope in Bertrams; Rex in Greenside; Ascot and Palace in Turffontein; Gala Cinelux in Randburg; Cine 303 opposite Library Gardens; Good Hope Cinema in Commissioner Street (originally known as the Uno and previously a Chinese court), Good Hope 2 (old Metro Market Street), Ster Elite 1 & 2 corner Mooi & Marshall Streets, Playhouse Cinema in Main Street; Avalon in Ferreira’s Town (now the Tin Town Theatre); Oscar in Plein Street; Albert, Pigalle in Jorrisen Street (later named Classic), Playhouse also in Jorrisen Street and Gaiety (1928 designed by Percy Rogers Cooke) in Braamfontein; Lyric in Braamfontein opened Jan 1928; Lake in Parkview; Jeppe Theatre (or Premeire?) and Alexandra Theatre in Marshall Str (designed by Bertam Avery in 1911) in Jeppe; Malvern Kinema in Malvern c1929; Star Bioscope in Denver; Metro 1 & 2 in Bedfordview; Century in Springs; Criterion in Benoni; Ritz and Roxy in Mayfair; Scala Kinema in Melville c1929; Taj Cinema in 17th Street, The Royal on 23rd Street and The Star on 20th Street in “Fietas” or Vrededorp; Grand Bioscope c1929 Verededorp; Mayfair Theatre in Mayfair (designed by Percy Rogers Cooke in 1931); Odin and Balansky’s in Sophiatown; Eyethu Theatre Molofo Soweto built in 1969; San Souci bioscope in Kliptown and the King’s Cinema in Alexandra Township.
The explosion of the suburban bioscopes between 1938 and 1940 was due to intense competition between the newly established 20th Century Fox S.A. (who were increasing their circuit), MGM, and African Consolidated Theatres (Schlesinger’s organisation).
This is the list (some duplicated above) of the 20th Century Fox cinemas opened in JHB:
Apollo Doornfontein (16 December 1938)
Astra Orange Grove (19 December 1938)
Ritz Mayfair (17 February 1939)
Odeon Rosebank (18 April 1939)
Albert Braamfontein (5 October 1939)
Adelphi Rosettenville (14 November 1939)
Royal Florida (7 December 1939)
Century Roodepoort (14 December 1939)
Clarendon Hillbrow (26 January 1940)
Rio Johannesburg non-European (22 July 1940)
It was already noted in 1940 that the countrywide cinema expansion had saturated the market, this also during wartime and with the growing popularity of radio. It was around this time that ‘2nd circuit cinemas’ started showing older or lower-grade films for reduced entrance fees. The Plaza in Rissik Street was notable for this.
Most of the old theatre and cinema buildings are long gone. With the introduction of television to South Africa in 1976 and home video in the early 1980s, the numbers dropped and many were demolished or converted. The ones I know of that are still standing but converted are Gem Theatre in Kensington (been to a few live gigs there), Valley Bioscope in Bertrams became a synagogue and is now a private home, Scala in Melville (used by Red Pepper TV Productions), Piccadilly in Yeoville, Ascot in Turffontein (now a church), Lake in Parkview (converted into a second-hand book and antique market), King Cinema in Alexandra and Majestic, Avalon and Lyric in Fordsburg (Majestic is still in the use but the other two have been converted) and the Good Hope 2 in town. Eyethu Theatre in Soweto is now a lifestyle and conference centre. Jeppe Theatre building is still there as is the Alhambra which became a theatre again for a short time but is now part of a funeral company. The buildings that housed Cinema International in Hillbrow, Mon Cine in Bree Street, and Savoy in Plein Street are also still standing.
The Royal Cinerama in Orange Grove (which still stands) became a TV studio in the 80s run by Trillion. I remember being in the audience of a primary school TV quiz show in 84 or 85 (where I met Julia Jade Aston of Cafe Society fame when she was still with the group Working Girls). Sometime in the late 90s I played at a Le Club reunion there when it was known as Warhols (see scathing review below. That’s me behind the decks in the Glastonbury t-shirt )
The Civic and Wits Theatre are still going as is the Alexander Theatre (which is also used for non-theatrical events). Victory Theatre (built just before WWI and known as Grove Kinema until after WW2) closed in the early 1980s although it still hosted a few productions before it was rebuilt in the 2000s by new owner Joe Theron. Italo Bernicchi ran the theatre for 35 years before it closed.
Curzon in Kotze Street closed in 1965 to become Fine Arts. Curzon was a predecessor of the ‘art cinemas’ of Mini cine and Rosebank as it was one of the few places one could watch international language films and left-of-centre films.
No connection between the old Avalon Theatre on the corner of Marshall and Wolhunter (Now Margaret Mcingana Street) and the Fordsburg Avalon Cinema has been established. The Avalon in Marshall Street is the Tin Town Theatre today. Although no information exists for this theatre, the building looks Edwardian in design. It is currently run independently under the new and current administration.
The early history is not known, but it was known as Avalon Theatre in the 1950s. It’s also been a prayer mosque and a fishing equipment store. The Gauteng Opera company converted it back to a theatre and used it up to 2017 before current management took over in 2019. Prior to lockdown, the theatre hosted plays and musical recitals which will hopefully continue once rules are relaxed. More here
Of interest is a recent find from an April 1973 tourism guide showing the cinema and theatre shows at the time complete with addresses and phone numbers of the venues.
Tea Room Cinemas
I discovered that there were also Tea Room Cinemas in Johannesburg and will post pictures as I find them.
Before any theatres, the first professional entertainment in the growing town was that of the Frank Fillis Circus which staged its first show of a fortnight run on 24 August 1887 on Marshall Square. ‘Payable gold’ states the first recorded professional performance given by Fillis’ circus was the middle of September 1886 in Ferreira’s Camp. Magnates & Mansions states the circus arrived on 22 July 1888. Fillis also presented ‘Dick Turpin’s ride to New York’ the following day. The circus proved so popular they erected a more permanent structure around 1889/90 – a tent-shaped wood and corrugated iron structure seating 800 that stood 15 metres high in Jeppe Street between Harrison and Loveday Streets (two other sources put it in Bree Street and another in Simmond’s street) that cost 8000 Pounds. Bell Rose was the mistress of the ring
In 1975 Andre & Philo Pieterse built a 3000-seater entertainment tent at Bruma called the Film Trust Arena. Its first show was the imported ice show ‘Disney on Parade’. It may have also been used as a circus venue.
It’s also worth noting that the original Wanderers Hall at the sports ground in Braamfontein also hosted many theatrical and musical performances. Its hall was all used to showcase ‘bioscopes’. In 1909, both H. V. Barnes Bioscope and Wolfram’s Bioscope made regular appearances in the hall. Most showed silent images covering documentaries, current news items, humorous skits, and dramas. Other halls in Johannesburg were also used for theatre and cinema promotions like the Town Hall (later City Hall), Temperance Hall, and various Masonic Halls.
Benjamin, A, 1979. Lost Johannesburg. Johannesburg: Macmillan
Gutsche, T, 1972. The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940. Howard Timmins. Capetown
Fraser, M, 1985. Johannesburg Pioneer Journals No.16. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society
Van Rensburg, C, 1986. Johannesburg – One Hundred Years. Johannesburg: Chris Van Rensburg Publications
Van Der Waal, G-M, 1986. From Mining Camp to Metropolis. Pretoria: Chris Van Rensburg Publications
Carrim, N, 1990. Fietas-A social history of Page view: 1948-1998. Johannesburg: Save Pageview Association
Bawcombe, P, 1973. Johannesburg. Johannesburg: Village Publishing
Robertson, C, 1986. Remembering Old Johannesburg. Johannesburg: AD Donker
Stoloff, C, 1947. Old Theatres of Johannesburg. South African Architectural Record
Smith, A, 1976. Johannesburg Firsts. Johannesburg: Africana Museum (unpublished)
Itzkin, E, 2000. Gandhi’s Johannesburg. Witwatersrand University Press. Johannesburg
Cohen, F. The Man Who Tamed the Mountain. Private Press. Zelda Street.
Musiker, N & R, 2000. A Concise Historical Dictionary of Greater Johannesburg. Capetown: Francolin Publishers
Chipkin, C. M, 1993. Johannesburg Style-Architecture & society 1880s-1960s. Cape Town: David Philip
Johannesburg Guide c1904 (no publishing info available)
Holloway, M, 2001. Music Halls in Johannesburg 1886-1896. Unisa
Jewish Affairs Vol.61, Number 4, Chanukah 2006. South African Jews in the theatre. Articles by Belling, Englander, Knight, Tucker, Baneshik, Swerdlow, Slier, Robinson, Musiker and edited by David Saks.
The site Cinema Souvenirs was invaluable, especially for info and pictures on the lesser-known theatres and cinemas in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, it appears to have been taken down.
Cinema Treasures provided useful additional information.
The recent update in November 2014 was thanks to Percy Tucker’s out-of-print memoir ‘Just the Ticket’. It’s an amazing and detailed book covering Percy’s 50 year love affair with theatre and his involvement with an early manual incarnation of Computicket and his part in implementing and running Computicket when it launched in South Africa in the 1970s.
Thelma Gutsche’s History of Motion pictures in SA 1895-1940 filled in many gaps, especially around the transition from theatre to the first ‘talkies’ and film (Dec 2020).
Additional old photos and information on Brooke, Reps, 20th Century, Empire and His Majesty Theatres came from Howard at http://www.busvannah.co.za
Thanks to http://cinematreasures.org and those that commented on the site for the Ster City information.
Bruwers heritage assessment of Anstey’s Building confirmed the Orpheum connection.
January 2021: Updated various sections of both theatres and cinemas. Added info on 20th Century Fox cinemas expansion from 1939/40 as well as Jewish influence on the theatre. Facts on first shows and talkies also added.
Corrected an error I made regarding the Cinerama in Claim Street. I initially thought it was on the same stand as the old St. George’s Presbyterian Church, but it turns out St. George’s was actually across the road where the BP garage is today on the other corner of Claim and Noord Streets.