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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). 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.
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This is what I needed somebody with in depth knowledge about The City. I also do abit of my own research since I stay right in the cbd but Thank you for this abundance of information.
I was amazed at your website and theatre/movie house history. I can say proudly that I visited and performed at the Brooke Theatre (sadly I don’t have a photograph – bow brownie B&W in those days – was built on a church and graveyard) almost all the movie and theatre venues depicted after 1951 till now over the years. I was looking for the history of then the Sound of Music musical production started in South Africa: Brian Brooke was the 1st, then how many other productions have since been performed and where in South Africa to date?
Well done on your brilliant research – BRAVO!
Thanks for the great comment! I’m no expert on the actual productions so have no idea…
Percy Tucker says I have written in my autobiography ‘Just the Ticket” extensively on the Brooke Theatre and I even have a copy of Brian Brooke’s autobiography ‘My Own Personal Star’. ‘The Sound of Music’ was presented at the Brooke Theatre starring Heather Lloyd-Jones in 1964. I have also recorded the history of SA entertainment from 1935 to 2003 which I have on CD and which was broadcast in 2003 and 2004.
This is so interesting. I am researching family history. My great grand parents ran two “bio-scope cafes” , the Elite in Pritchard Str and and Town Hall in President.
Their Company was registered in 1919 but they may have been trading earlier.
Also in 1912 they were living in Moseley Buildings in President Str – Do you have any pics or info about any of this this?
THanks for reading. I do have something on Moseley Building which I’ll mail to you as well as some reference to the bioscope cafes.
There was a cinema in Braamfontein named the Pigalle which incidentally in its last days was managed by the great actor/manage/director Andre Huguenet. It was sad to see such a great figure of SA Theatre in evening dress standing outside the cinema waiting for the few customers to come in. After such an illustrious career he died penniless.
“Sound of Music” opened at the Brooke in August 1963. There was a premiere on 9 August with proceeds going towards the Actors Benevolent Fund. Well known theatrical folk dressed in Austrian costumes acted as programme sellers. I have a cutting of Bill Brewer, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, suitably clad, advertising the event.
Thanks Jean! I’ve just finished another update on the piece
Just picked up and noted this your site again after a long break today.
Will respond in the coming days. Yup that’s me below FYI.
Michael de Beer
076 766 5040 : Cape Town
THEATRE SCENARIO INDEX – YEAR-TO-YEAR
MUSICAL RAGAMUFFIN “OLIVER! 1962
MUSICAL KURT “SOUND OF MUSIC” 1963
Great history!! I wonder if you have more info on Ben and Frank Wheeler who was involved? I am researching the WHEELER families in South Africa. Regards Richard Wheeler
Thanks for checking it it out. I will check for you but recall it being mentioned only in one book.
This is a great site. It is always useful for history to be documented.
The Alexander Theatre mentioned above was never legally a ‘theatre’; it was never zoned as such and thus operated illegally.
It is now used, again, illegally, to host ‘non-theatrical’ events which is another term for night-club/concerts or general noise polluting.
It was never granted permission to undertake these events because has flats and offices at all sides.
I think your information is incorrect.The whole history of the Reps Theatre ( its original name) is in a book called ‘They Built a Theatre’ by Arthur and Anna-Romain Hoffman published by Ad Donker in 1980. The theatre opened in 1952.
Hi Percy, I got the opening date of the Reps theatre on 7 November 1951 from your book. I’ll keep an eye out for ‘They built a theatre’
Re The Reps Theatre. The date is my book is correct It was 7th November 1951.
Why I wrote 1952 is stupid because I only went to the theatre in March 1952 after I returned from my theatre trip overseas and I apologise for the error.
Please don’t apologise! You’ve given the piece a massive endorsement and taken the time to look at the details. I appreciate that immensely.
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This is a marvellous article about theatres in early Johannesburg. I am sure it will be of interest to the many people who have followed my post on “life in Kensington and Johannesburg fifty years ago”.
I enjoyed reading about your life in Kensington fifty years ago as I lived in Cyrildene in the 1950’s which was a wonderful suburb. I would love to see some pictures of that once beautiful city and also some pictures of Hillbrow in the 1960’s if anyone has any of these treasures?
Thanks in advance.
Thank you for your comment about my article on life in Kensington, Marcia. As you know, Cyrildene is the adjoining suburb to ours. It has changed character over the years and is now inhabited largely by the Chinese community these days. I would also be interested in seeing photos of Hillbrow in days gone by. My husband and I lived in a flat there in the seventies when we were first married and have happy memories of our life there. We returned to Kensington in 1974 and have remained here ever since.
I have found a number of pictures of Hillbrow from the 60s and 70s as well as a few from the really early days. Interestingly, Hillbrow has the least amount of early pictures of the suburbs I’ve been focusing on. I’ll show all when I get to the post (which will be after Braamfontein is complete)
I am delighted to have discovered your post which gives such a comprehensive overview of theatres and cinemas in Johannesburg from the very early days. What a shame that so many of these buildings have been demolished.
It is a shame but it’s interesting to see how many are still around (although re-purposed for other uses with their history waiting to be uncovered). I’ve been following your blog for a while after reading the Kensington post. I grew up there from 79-87.
Thank you for your reply. How interesting that you grew up in Kensington. I look forward to reading more of your blog now that I’ve discovered it.
I’ll look forward to reading your next post, Marc. You are certainly doing the history and suburbs of Johannesburg proud with your fascinating blog.
What a great article. I have a fb group called Kensington Kids, and would to link the group up to your site.
I remember going to some of these old cinema’s in Johannesburg on Saturday afternoons, particularly the Monte Carlo, it was a long walk from the bus terminus, and not a good idea in winter, there was hardly any sunlight in the city in the late afternoons.
Thanks for stirring up these long forgotten memories
Thank you! I’ll check out your page of fb
Do you have any info on the Andre Huguenet Theatre in Hillbrow…now called the Hillbrow Theatre. Thanks
I’ve come across the name but no information. I often add new pictures and update as I find missing pieces and will keep a look out for this one. Do you know the address or street it is in?
The Andre Huguenet Theatre was opened in 1977 by Pieter Toerien in Kapteijn Streeet Hillbrow.It was named after the famous Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet. It was incorporated into a space in a building housing a German old-Age Home. Later when Pieter opened his own theatre The Alhambra, Tim & Cathy Plewman took it over. The theatre was unused for a few years and then re-opened as The Hillbrow Theatre.
I have written in my auto-biography the history of SA Theatre from 1935 to 1997. I also recorded this on CD which was broadcast with interviews by every known theatrical personality on Radio Today in 2003/2004
Thanks for the info. Would you mind if I used it on this blog and can you tell me where can I purchase a copy of your auto-biography?
My reply to your question is written in full. I have no idea why it didn’t fit in to your reply column.
Thank you so much for your response and information on the former Andre Huguenet Theatre. I work at the theatre running the Hillbrow Theatre Project. I should have contacted you years ago. I have tried to make contact with Pieter Torien this year to find out some of the history and to get archive material. I have found the old Andre Huguenet sign which I have hung in the foyer.
I will look for a copy of your auto-biography and would love to get a copy of CD of interviews.
Creative Director – Hillbrow Theatre Project
Manager – Hillbrow Theatre Community Centre
Tel: 011 720 7011
Facebook: Hillbrow Theatre Project (Community Page)
Thanks for the info. I’ll be in contact soon as I would love to see the theatre and take a few pictures for the blog.
Absolutely amazing research. Well done. I wish we could distill the heritage and use the essence to reinvigorate the theatre in Jozi.
Thanks for the comment!
Regular movie houses are in danger of closing due to poor attendance. It appears to be a combination of not-so-great-films, price, access to digital TV with on demand services and streaming. Why go out when one can stay at home? I suppose much like how the introduction of TV in 1976 was to have an effect on traditional theatre over time. Records have made a small comeback. Like theatre, they never really went away, they were just hiding. Could there be a niche revival of traditional theatre? I think so, so long as the content is compelling and exciting/good enough for people to want to go and experience it.
So many of the theatres and cinemas bring back memories. No mention of The Adam Leslie Theatre where I was in “Mr Skinflint” and “They Sing Cole Porter” in the early 1970s.
Adam`s shows were so topical, incorporating news of the day, and he and Joan Blake were a formidable combination. All a very interesting read.
I wrote the whole history of the Adam Leslie Theatre in my autobiography ‘Just the Ticket!’ published by Jonathan Ball in 1997 and which however is now out of print. There are also pictures of the theatre in the book. I also wrote Adam’s whole history in ‘Jewish Contibution to SA Theatre’ which was published in the magazine Jewish Affairs in 2006. In fact all the biographies of Jews in SA Theatre are in this magazine. Percy Tucker
Thanks for reading it! Good point on the Adam Leslie Theatre…I did a whole piece on it as part of the Doornfontein history here: https://johannesburg1912.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/doornfontein-part2/
I will add it to the theatre piece.
My autobiography published by Jonathan Ball is unfortunately out of print and all the records were burnt in a fire at JB. I am trying to find a method of putting over 600 pages of the history of theatre in SA and 150 pictures onto the internet but haven’t found a solution yet !!!!
I can reply to you but not to Percy. Maybe you could suggest to him he use wordpress.com for his records. I find it excellent.
Wow, such detailed facts, such precious historical information and archives. Thank you! As a theatre performer I salute you!
Thank you Diani!
Wonderful. I am writing up Namibia’s theatre history and know what a daunting task it is!
Thanks Suzette! Good luck
Thankyou so much for this! I was going to ask if you spoke to Percy Tucker, but of course he is in touch. Jewish geography aces Boere geography! And also glad he mentions the wonderful Jewish Affairs issue which highlights the Jewish involvement in SA theatre. I never knew The Gem in Kensington was anything other than a moviehouse. I lived in Belgravia in 1973 and remember climbing the stairs up to Kensington to go to movies. Later on the Classic Motorcycle Club used to meet over the road at the Oribi Hotel
I’ve been in touch with Percy and am trying to track down his book to read all about it. I did some work on the history of Belgravia in some earlier posts on this site and would like to hear thoughts on what it was like living there back in the 1970s.
What a wonderful site and lots of memories brought back. I grew up in Johannesburg,use to go into downtown on a Saturday with my Dad who went off to work, and I’d go to a movie in the morning and then another in the afternoon.Remember all the interiors, magical places…the splendour of the night sky in the Colosseum, the mermaids recessed on the walls of the Monte Carlo…remember seeing Elvis Presley up on the screen at the Metro, and many audience members swooning every time he sang…Ben Hur at His Majesty’s.And before that the manager of the Astra in Orange Grove was a family friend….with my sister when we were small all through the 50’s we’d sit in the last row and watch Saturday afternoon matinees.So many wonderful memories
Thanks Nigel! It’s great to read the stories of people who were actually went to some of those old theatres.
Marc, thank you for this wonderful site. I stumbled across it while looking for information on Heather Lloyd-Jones, whom I knew. In the early 1960’s, when I was still in primary school, a group of us little girls used to catch the bus and go and see matinees at the Colosseum, Empire, Metro and His Majesty’s. A movie ticket cost one shilling, and it was safe enough for children that young to make the journey, without adult supervision, and go and see a movie. It was a magical, wonderful world. I went to high school in Kensington, and we frequently went to the Gem. As a young adult I patronised the Royal Theatre in Orange Grove, the Piccadilly in Yeoville, Cinerama, Ster City and the Carlton Cinema. I had an enjoyable stroll through old Johannesburg, the beautiful, inspiring city of my youth. I am going to share on Facebook, people need to know about this. It would make a superb book.
Hi Anne Marie, thanks for sharing your memories of the old theatres and cinemas! There is a really good book on the old theatres that I’m reading at the moment (hoping to find a few extra facts for the post). It’s called ‘Just the ticket’ By Percy Tucker. I’ve only just started it but he appears to be the person who started Computicket and it’s full of detailed information of theatres from the 1940s right up to the 1990s. It is out of print but managed to track a copy down via Bookdealers.
I believe Percy is still alive and living in Sea Point. We corresponded by email 2 or so yrs ago. Excellent book ,anyway.
Also check out JEWISH AFFAIRS.In 2006 they published an issue on theatre in
Jewish SA,edited by Percy
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Johannesburg 1912 – Suburb by suburb research wrote:
Marc Latilla commented: “Hi Anne Marie, thanks for sharing your memories of the old theatres and cinemas! There is a really good book on the old theatres that I’m reading at the moment (hoping to find a few extra facts for the post). It’s called ‘Just the ticket’ By Percy Tucker.”
I am still very much alive and living in Sea Point. Am still very involved in the performing arts and I sit on the Board of the Cape Town City Ballet. I hopefully can answer any questions about theatre in Johannesburg in the 20th Century.
Thank you so very much for the incredible pictures and wonderful memories of a special time in my life. I was fortunate enough to have spent many wonderful hours enjoying films at The Metro, 20th Century, Colosseum, Empire, Plaza, His Majesty’s etc up until 1964 when I left South Africa. It is sad to know that these beautiful buildings have been demolished as they gave us so much pleasure and joy as we all dressed up in our best outfits on a Saturday evening to go downtown and see a movie. Thank you again for this site which I was lucky enough to find. Would love to see more pictures of the once beautiful Johannesburg.
Thanks Marcia! I’ll continue adding so please check back from time to time
Thanks again for all this wonderful information……..Please don’t stop!
I’d like to know when the Brooke Theatre closed.
It appears to have closed around July 1980. According to Percy’s book, the last play staged was Pyjama Tops which ended it’s run on 19th of July 1980. The theatre was demolished to make way for an office block
The Brooke Theatre closed on July 19th,1980 with a production by Pieter Toerien of ‘Pyjama Tops’.
‘Old Johannesburg’. Interesting, we are up to the Brooke Theatre closing in 1980. I suppose that is old, we have an older Datsun in daily use, and I have just sold my 1964 motorbike
Klip in die bos; can anyone contribute about African/Bantu/Black theatres in early Jozi? I drove past the old Dorkay House last week, and at least the façade and lettering still is up. And did they not have theatre at the Bantu Mens’ recreation Center a few doors up?
The Brooke Theatre in Johannesburg closed on July 19th 1980 with a production of ‘Pajama Tops’ by Pieter Toerien.
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What wonderful memories. I was Lorna du Preez who lived in Kensington – went to Jeppe Girls – Of course all these “bioscopes” and theatres were the fabric of our lives. Thanks for interesting comments – those were good days – too long ago (born 1935)
but it is so nice to hold on to the memories. If you recognise my name – I send my love – I remember you well! Maybe you were a date of mine at the Regent Cinema on a Saturday night or a bought me chocolates at the Colosseum or Empire – glorious times and theater and movies. Where is Kathy Phillips that lovely soprano that worked with me at JCI?
Thanks for the comment Lorna! It will be interesting to see if anyone reading remembers you…
My name is Eric Cohen I lived in Orange Grove Joburg in Orange Grove we had the Royal ,the Astra and the Victory Cinema in the 60s the Astra was turned into a Ster Cinema and the Royal into Cinerama does anyone rember
I remember them all as the company which I founded ‘Computicket’ used to do all their advance bookings. I was a director of the first ‘Cinerama’ opposite Ster City. The Royal Cinerama was the 2nd to open but eventually they ran out of product.
Percy, Do you remember what was previously on the site of Cinerama in Claim street? My research indicates either a Presbyterian or Dutch Reform Church. Thanks, Marc
Sorry I don’t know the answer. I was born in Benoni and only came to live in JHB after I opened my first business called ”Show Service’ in Eloff street. After school I studied at Wits and was an accountant before I decided that I really belonged to the show business world.
Hi there, Thank you for this post! I am researching burlesque and cabaret in the country.
Do you perhaps know of the history of Burlesque dancing in South Africa?
Kind Regards, Miss Oh!
Hi, I’ve sent you a mail with what I know
No mention of the old “Yeoville Bioscope” known also as the “Bughouse” in Bedford Road ,just of Ralegh street ,Yeoville ,I used to pay 6 pence for the Saturday Matinee,Used to swop comics before the show and at interval.Remember at one time the manager was Uncle Harry , Used to wear a dress suit even inthe afternoon (Matinee )shows
Thanks David! It’s the first time I’ve heard of that one. I’ll add it shortly.
Yes it was the Picadilly in Yeoville. Saw many great movies in this little theatre or as we used to say the “Bioscope” in the mid to late 50’s………Thanks for the memories!!
I remember a cinema in Yeoville – I think it was called the Piccadilly. It often showed films which were not seen on the usual cinema circuit.
I remember the Bughouse well, they had two shows some nights, a morning show on Saturdays and a matinee on Wednesday and Saturdays. It was possible to see four shows on a Saturday, I think I once did.
The seats were wooden and the floor uncarpeted. As kids at the Saturday morning show we would stamp our feet at the exciting parts especially during skiet and donner parts.
I remember admission to matinees was a zack (sixpence).
Thanks for the memories Julian! I’ve learned something new:’zack’
An article on the College of Music, which became the Adam Leslie’s Theatre in 1967, appears in “Between the Chains”, the Journal of the Johannesburg Historical Foundation, volume 12, 1991, pp. 22-23.
The Doornfontein History Project has a well-researched article on the Alhambra Theatre if you’re interested.
In c. 1956 I went to the Apollo Bioscope in Beit Street, Doornfontein, to watch a Tarzan film. Although apartheid was in place then, only the coloured community frequented the bioscope as Doornfontein was then inhabited by that community.
You do not seem to have anything on the Astra Biscope on the south-eastern corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 17th Street, Orange Grove. As with the Royal Cinema a little further away, we used to swop comics while waiting in the queue to buy tickets that cost sixpence.
In 1961 I attended Damelin College in Plein Street. Next door was a, I forget the correct term, “tea-room bioscope”. The college principal, Dr Kriel, warned all pupils that anyone caught attending the bioscope would “summarily be expelled”!
Another well-known cinema, extant until recently, was the Victory in Louis Botha Avenue, owned by Mr Bernicchi.
The Fine Arts Theatre in Grant Avenue, Norwood, was where I saw the most angelically beautiful girl selling tickets; her aunt acted as policeman right behind her, c. 1971. By some good fortune she became my wife in 1977 (not the aunt!). Bernicchi also owned this cinema.
Thanks for sharing your memories Alkis! That’s a lovely story about how you met your wife
Hi Alkis, If I may share some memories regarding the Astra Biscope. 1965 / 66/ 67 on Wednesday afternoons matinee’s were provided for and attended mainly by the school kids from the area. Orange Grove School ( mine ) and H A Jack. Highlands Boys High and Northview if they managed to get out of school in time. If my memory serves me correct the entrance fee was 15 or 20 cents and this was the perfect place for all the eleven, twelve and thriteen year old’s to smoke. In fact the bioscope was filled with so much smoke the film could not be viewed. Saturday morning shows we preceded was a local band on the minute stage for approximately twenty minutes. Cigarettes and sweets were purchased across the road from the Astra Cafe. Around 1970 the Astra became a Ster Cinema, upgraded projectors and sound system.
Having only now gone through all the comments above, the term is “cafe bioscope”. The only one I attended in the late 1950s was next to Stuttafords in Pritchard Street, where I was served a fizzy drink during the show, when it was dark and could not see the state of cleanliness of the glass it was served in, which felt grubby and sticky,
I particularly liked the Piccadilly in Yeoville as it showed cases that the Scotland Yard had solved before the main features.
I too enjoyed the Piccadilly! Had relatives who lived on the corner of Hopkins street just up the road. My favorite was the Metro downtown on Bree street where we always visited the Gaggia coffee bar for a cuppuccino after a show.
Does anyone have pictures of Hillbrow in the 1960’s?
Thanks for the memories Marcia! Hillbrow is but two posts away and I’ll share everything I have. I have pictures from 50s – 80s (but not nearly enough) and a few from the early 1900s
Thank you Marc………Looking forward!!
Thank you for all the history about cinemas and theatres in Johannesburg and surrounding suburbs. I did not notice anything about The Apollo, Beit Street, Doornfontein, I used to go there in the 1950s. There used to be a cinema in Jorrisson Street, Braamfontein, could not see in your history what it was called. I seem to remember that it closed in the late 1960s.
Thanks For reading Marisa! I only mention the Apollo once in the piece just above the Alhambra picture. There is very little info available on some the older theatres and cinemas, so when I find something new I add it. I will over time try and post pictures and/or more info on all the buildings. On the Braamfontein cinema, could it have been either the Albert or the Gaiety?
majestic theartre fordsburg miss8ng here
Hi, it is mentioned but I don’t have any further info on it.
My youth was defined by going to the movies in joburg. Watching Vanishing Point at the Cinerama; Close Encounters of the Third kind at kine centre 1; Enter The Dragon at Highpoint. To name a few. Thanks for this extensive research.
Thanks for sharing your memories Basil!
I enjoyed your original posting about the Theatres of Johannesburg . I read it a while ago and then came back to it having found an excellent article by Cyril Stoloff on the Old Theatres of Johannesburg written in the Student Forum of the South African Architectural Record vol 32 , May 1947 . Are you aware of this source ? Stoloff should be recognized for his pioneering efforts . He included a map of the Johannesburg city Theatres between 1887 and 1920 and covered the following Theatres : the Globe, the 1 st Empire, the Gaity , Palladium , his Majesty’s , Theatre Royal , Second Empire , Standard , Orpheum , Bijou , Oxford, Astoria, Carlton , Tivoli, Grand and Vaudette . He discussed all ( some briefly ) in his article . Stoloff drew on the Africana museum , African Consolidated Theatres archives ,and his own photographs which are now an historic source . Stoloff was also interested in the architects of Theatres .
Thanks for the kind words! I’m not aware of it. Is there some way I could access it? I recently got hold of an insurance map of JHB which shows exact positions of various buildings and businesses (1898 I think) and will be using that to validate some of my info. It includes theatres and public buildings. I spend a lot of time adding to and re-writing the old posts. Doornfontein is getting a re-vamp at the moment!
Thanks Katherine, I eventually got hold of that Stoloff article and have included the map!
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Marc, you are a star. Like so many other people I have rejoiced in the memories that you have evoked for us all and I salute you.
My “bioscope” visits as a lonely and unhappy boy in the late 1950s lifted me out of my misery for 1½ hours every week – the gay persecution was dreadful. My havens were the Odeon and the Parysia in Rosebank and later, too, the Curzon and Clarendon in Hillbrow. Palaces of enchantment.
Thank you so much.
Thank you! Glad to have brought back some happy memories
Hi Marc, been a while since seeing any new posts?? Do you or does anyone have any photos of Hillbrow in the early 1960’s? I am most interested to see Koetze, Pretoria and Twist Streets. Hope you are well and working on something wonderful for us to enjoy!! Thanks again for all you do!!…..It is a real treat!
Wonderful, really enjoyed this page, I was looking for the theater that I saw Nico Carstens playing his accordion in, in the late 60’s or early 70’s, because I believe he passed away today. I think it was His Majesty’s but could have been the Colleseum? such a lovely atmosphere it was..I loved the aura of those days…:) thank you for this informative page.
Thanks Dale! Glad you enjoyed it.
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Fantastic blog,everytime I read it I wish I could travel back in time to see these places in their prime.I adore your blog because I’m a sucker for history
Thank you for reading it!
Fabulous reading and memories. Thank you
Absolutely incredible article. Wow, I was born in the wrong generation and I cannot believe how many theatres popped up and were demolished or burnt down. I had the privilege of photographing inside The Alhambra Theatre on Sunday, It has not been used for 20 years and it was a pleasant surprise to find it in very good condition. Thank you for the extremely interesting article.
Thanks Meghan! I saw some of the interior pictures on FB from the weekend. They look amazing – like a time capsule. I hope to see it for myself sometime
Thanks for this amazing pages.
Looking to find info of a Store that was in President Street called Paramount Stores
Specifically looking for the History of a token I have , Text on it reads – ‘Paramount Stores Johannesburg’ 10% Discount Tokens” Circulation in 1931 … Hoping you would have some more info.
An amazing and valuable collection, to be treasured. A great city arose from the gold discoveries, populated from all corners of the globe.
I remember during the war years (WWll) that the re-building of His Majestys was stopped and at street level, all boarded up. After the war when it was finished and re-opened with the panto Robinson Crusoe, we all thought we were literally seeing a palace.
Sorry I sent you a copy of the Bijou Cinema without checking that you already had one.
Thank you so much for bringing back all those awesome memories of old Joburg. Seems like only a few years ago I was watching the ‘flimsy in the dark with such relish and anticipation.
Thanks for reading Clifford!
Really enjoyed this amazing journey .It is surprising how many of the places and shows I remember.
Nice to be reminded.
You mentioned the installation of cineama organs in some theaters, but no – one has mentioned the drama of the Mighty Wurlitzer covered in coloured lights , like a giant juke box rising through the floor of the stage of the Plaza bioscope with John Massey ( I think) playing tremendous chords .
What about Charles Manning and the Coloseum orchestra ?
Nothing like his impassioned conducting the Can Can music Orpheus in the Underworld, with his athletic lunges and strides about the stag , and that long white hair tossed backwards and forwards !
You also got more for your money with African Mirror and Ons Nuus newsreels as well as the trailers of Forthcoming Attractions.
African Mirror was also a part of Johannesburg with studios in Killarney
TV news has certainly killed that sort of magazine program as entertainment , and the only supporting program today is a series of adverts and, of course, Forthcoming Attractions.
When I was ( a lot) younger there were still people around that referred to Britain as ‘Home’ and there would be applause in the cinema when a member of the Royal Family appeared .
In those days there was only ONE Royal Family .
Of course , at the end of the show everyone stood for a few bars of ‘The King’ and a clip of a waving Union Jack, before leaving .
I also seem to have missed mention of a small theatre in DE Villiers Street – apologies if I have missed it . The name escapes me but I still have vivid memories of seeing ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ by Pirandello with powerful performances by Siegfried Mynhardt and Bernadine Groenewald .We were in the second row and the action included the audience so It made a terrific impression . I was about sixteen at the time and was the guest of an older cousin .
I also saw Hamlet there and to my surprise found myself being taken home on the back of an enormous motor bike driven appropriately by one of our schoolmasters who had been a Cheetah Pilot in Korea .
Graham has mentioned the Pantomime Robinson Crusoe . For me the highlight was The Storm Scene where the stage action was suddenly replaced with a dramatic large screen movie picture of a storm – tossed raft.I still think that it was very ingenious for the time.
Please feel free to edit my spelling and errors of fact.
Thanks for sharing your memories Leo! Very interesting, especially the Wurlitzer.
The small theatre in De Villiers Street was probably the Brooke Theatre, Leo.
As my 90th birthday present and to thank all those wonderful people who create entertainment and to anyone interested I scanned my book which has been out of print for about 20 years and now is can be read free of charge at http://www.smashwords.com. The book “Just the Ticket’ is nearly 700 pages so we had to divide it into 3 sections. I believe it can also be purchased from Amazon at a small fee. It will give all the answers to some of the questions in this wonderful website. Percy Tucker
Your excellent book is one of my most prized possessions, Mr Tucker. Congratulations on your 90th birthday. I remember you from the early days of Show Service!
This is an essential website for any tourist guide in Johannesburg who likes research & to expand their knowledge of the city’s past. I use it a lot. Thank you!
Wow, Totally Breathless. Outstanding research and accuracy. I recall so much and so many of the venues featured here. You mention ” Le Club”, the one owned by Mannie De Canha?
I was involved in the installation of the sound and lighting. Also revamped his brothers club, The Goblit in Hillbrow in the mid 80’s. Thank you for an awesome trip down memory lane.
Hi Jeff, the Le Club I know was in Market Steet near Small Str. It was owned by Frank and Josie. Previously it was Decodance run by Shayne Leith. Below it was King of Clubs
Paramount Stores discount tokens – President Str – JHB – Can somebody help with any information as we are conducting all SA tokens history for future generations.
WOW!!! Absolutely amazing!! My late dad was a projectionist and worked at many bioscopes throughout JHB in the late 60’s – 80’s as you have mentioned. Perhaps you could add more bioscopes such as : Rio and Cine 303 (JHB CBD), as well as Lotus and Rino Cinemas in Newclare, and Luxmi Cinama in Lenasia. Thank you for the memories!!!
Thanks Adrian, I’ll add those that I’m missing. I’ve not come across them on my travels.