I recently noticed a discussion about the Playhouse Cinema on the Facebook page Auld Peebles, which is a site devoted to pictures, information and simple nostalgic reminiscing about past times in Peebles, my hometown in the Scottish Borders. This inspired me to dig out the following entry, which I’d originally posted on this blog back in 2013. In it, I indulge in some nostalgic reminiscing of my own about my town’s old Art Deco cinema…
The photograph above this entry shows the Art Deco building at number 60 of the High Street in Peebles, my Scottish hometown. The building opened in 1932 as the Playhouse Cinema. Its architect was Alister G. MacDonald, a son of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Britain’s first Labour Party prime minister and served in office in 1924 and from 1929 to 1935. MacDonald Junior designed the cinema with a particularly wide auditorium and with stalls and a balcony that held a total of 802 seats. The name Playhouse was spelt out in a squiggle of neon along the top of its façade, although the roof behind was less glamorous, being made of corrugated iron.
The Playhouse showed films for the next 45 years and for a time, in modest-sized Peebles, it wasn’t even the only cinema. It had to compete against the Empire Cinema on the Bridgegate and the Burgh Hall, further up the High Street, which also showed films. By the 1970s, however, with just about every home in Peebles possessing a television set, only the Playhouse was left and it was struggling, to the point where it’d introduced bingo a couple of nights a week as a way of attracting extra custom.
I became acquainted with the Playhouse at a very late stage in its life. In 1977, when I was eleven, my family moved to a new home just beyond the outskirts of Peebles. The town centre was only 30 minutes’ walk away. Previously we’d lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and if I wanted to visit a cinema there, I had to talk my parents into driving me several miles to the nearest one and then returning to collect me afterwards. I was movie-crazy and having a cinema on my doorstep, as it seemed at the time, was a wonderful new luxury.
© Universal Pictures
I didn’t see any masterpieces in the Playhouse, but every film I did see seems to be engraved on my memory just because I’d seen it there. For example, there was Earthquake (1974), the big, rumbly disaster movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and George Kennedy. George Kennedy was a portent of doom in 1970s movies, having already appeared in two of the Airport movies (1970 and 75). If his craggy face appeared onscreen, you just knew a destructive earth tremor was going to strike the city or a Boeing 747 was going to fall out of the sky.
It was also in the Playhouse that I had my most disappointing cinematic experience ever, which was seeing Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake of King Kong. I’d really been looking forward to this, as I’d watched the original movie on TV and was desperate to see how they’d update all the fights that King Kong had with the dinosaurs on Skull Island. To my horror, there weren’t any dinosaurs on the 1976 Skull Island, so Kong didn’t have any fights with them. The only battle was an altercation between Kong (played by Rick Baker in a gorilla-costume) and a crap-looking rubbery giant snake. I’d like to think that a young Peter Jackson saw the same movie and shared my feelings of profound disappointment. For that reason, when he remade King Kong in 2005, he made sure his film was choc-a-bloc with dinosaurs.
Sometimes at the Playhouse you got to see a familiar feature of 1970s movie-going, which was a cinematic double bill. Among the two-for-the-price-of-one marvels I was treated to were Carquake (1976) combined with The Giant Spider Invasion (1975). Carquake was little more than a montage of car chases and car crashes and I suspect that the filmmakers had cast David Carradine in the lead role only because his surname started with the word ‘car’. Nonetheless, it seemed like a masterpiece compared with its partner. In The Giant Spider Invasion, the invading giant spiders were played by real-life tarantulas when they were babies, and played by giant wobbly-legged blobs of paper-maché mounted on top of cars when they were adults. One scene showed a tarantula clamber unnoticed into a kitchen blender. Then a character unwittingly blended it with some fruit and took a massive swig from the resulting Vitamin C / pulped-hairy-spider concoction. That was about the most revolting thing I saw in a film until Hugh Grant started making romantic comedies.
© New World Pictures
But I had barely seven months to enjoy the Playhouse, for on September 10th, 1977, it went out of business. It would’ve been fitting if the final end-credits to scroll up the Playhouse’s screen had belonged to a film that was memorable – Star Wars (1977), say, which was breaking box-office records at the time. However, the last film shown there was another one about cars, an unremarkable horror film simply entitled The Car (1977). This starred James Brolin and was about a rural American community being terrorised by a deadly, driver-less and demonically possessed automobile. In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King described it as “the sort of movie where you can safely go out for a popcorn refill at certain intervals because you know the car isn’t going to strike again for 10 minutes or so”.
Thereafter the Playhouse was derelict for a time. I seem to remember a report in the local newspaper at one point about it being broken into and vandalised. Then its foyer was converted into a shopping area and it became another High Street retailer. For a while, it served as the premises for Visionhire, a TV shop, which meant that films were being shown on its premises again (at least, when one of the televisions on display was switched on and tuned into a channel broadcasting a film). These days it houses an outlet for the cut-price chemist’s chain, Semi-Chem. Thanks to Alister MacDonald’s Art Deco design, it’s now a listed building and has been given a Grade C status by Historic Scotland. Incidentally, I’m only talking about the building’s front part. As far as I know, most of its back part, containing the 802-seat auditorium, was demolished to make way for a housing development.
Losing the Playhouse in 1977 was a blow for Peebles film-lovers because video cassettes and VCRs were still things of the future. If you didn’t have transport to get to a cinema in another town to see a film on its first release, your only option was to wait a couple of years until it turned up on TV. However, you still had a chance to see films, old and not so old, on a big screen if you were a pupil at Peebles High School. In the wake of the Playhouse’s demise, a teacher there, Dr Mike Kellaway, started up a Film Club and showed movies one evening each week with the school’s assembly hall acting as an auditorium. But Peebles High School’s Film Club is a story for another blog-entry.
© Auld Peebles / David Brunton