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Central Cinemas - Page 1

Allan Jackson - January 2009

I recently received an email from Jenny Pache who raised the question of the location of cinemas in the Smith Street / Aliwal Street area. She wrote

"Gee, how you've brought back times - and memories!

My mom and I were arguing tonight about what was on the corner of Aliwal and Smith Street, before Shell House. She said there wasn't a cinema, and I said I knew there was one, so did a little research. Now, thanks to you, I know it was the METRO. She also said the Embassy was on the corner across Aliwal Street, heading towards the beach, which I knew wasn't the case.

This is thanks to a little stunt which happened in 1967 or 68 - I was a bridesmaid to a wedding, at the time the "GRADUATE" (Dustin Hoffman) was playing at the Embassy, and we (the wedding party) happened to pass the Embassy (walking), in all our wedding finery, to the reception - at a coffee bar whose name I cannot any longer remember, but should do, because that is where my co-bridesmaid and best friend worked!!

It was underneath a famous Nightclub (Maybe you could help me out there too?) But it was just past the Embassy going towards the beachfront. The name might have been something like the "Cockatoo". And the nightclub actually had it's entrance in the little road between just a few shops past Embassy and the coffee bar.

Anyway, the press caught us, thought we were doing an advertsing stunt for the movie, (the wedding and all!!) and we were in the Daily News Newspaper the next morning. (What a fiasco!!) But I can say I had my moment of fame ! Although I still can't be sure it was actually the Embassy or the 20th Century where the movie was playing."

Gerald Buttigieg then replied with some memories of his own about the cinemas in the area.

"Theatreland at Night" taken about 1954. The Embassy did not exist then. The Princes would have been on the extreme right of the photo so unfortunately cut out. Aliwal Street runs across Smith Street between the 20th C and the Metro. The Metro had a big lighted noticeboard indicating what was showing and who was starring.

Picture courtesy Gerald Buttigieg.

<== Click for enlargment.

Right opposite the Durban Museum/ Art Gallery in Smith Street was the Princes which in those days you walked up stairs to the entrance. On the left was the Princes Milk Bar which was a typical 50s type milk bar with rotating stools and on the counter spaced every so often were the music selection boxes for the juke box. This music selection box for the want of a better name was a square metal box with about 20 tabs on which was typed the record and the artist. It was lit inside. At the top was the money slot where you inserted your money for the play which you selected by pushing a button next to your selection. The actual jukebox/record player was mounted at the back of the milkbar. On Saturday mornings all the young children flocked to the Princes for the 10 o'clock matinee . Before going in to the movie they had a comic swapping frenzy on the steps. This only happened at the Princes.

Taken about 1980s showing the Prince's on the right when it was about to be incorporated into the Playhouse which is on the left. The entrance to the Prince's has been altered. The three openings at pavement level were alterations. Steps used to lead up the middle and on the left was the milk bar. Between the Prince's and the Playhouse you will see a little gateway. This was an alternate exit path from the Playhouse cinema to the pavement when the show ended. The rounded windows belong to the Mayfair Hotel and the vertical sign is just discernable. The building next to the Mayfair with the multiple levels on the LHS of the picture is the complex built on the Metro Cinema site and the ground floor used to be the local office of SA Airways. 

Picture courtesy Gerald Buttigieg.

<== Click for enlargment.

Right next door to the Princes was the Playhouse. As you approached the Playhouse the entrance was also up a few stairs. A portcullis was mounted directly overhead the top stair as if you were entering a castle. You entered into a large lounge area which had black slate flooring. On the left in the corner was a bandstand and a trio would play music. Dotted in this area were tables and seating as well as two dove cots but no live doves inside. This lounge area was cut in two by the passage leading to the cinema foyer directly ahead. on each side were staircases leading upstairs to a viewing balcony and the entrance to the upstairs seats.

The whole decor was castle like with little turret windows, loop holes, undressed stone blocks and back lit windows. Woodwork beams were black. From the upstairs balcony you could view the people downstairs. The ticket booking office for the Playhouse was down Albany Grove opposite the Art Centre which housed speech training centres, music teachers. Again you climbed a few steps to get to the booking offices, there were two windows left and right hand side and then you advanced into the cinema foyer. So if you bought your tickets the night of the show this was the way you normally entered. The cinema had a very steep rake upstairs right at the back and the seats were uncomfortably close.

Then you crossed Albany Grove and the Mayfair Hotel was on the corner of Albany Grove and Smith Street. The Albany Grove Bar was a few steps further down and its entrance as well was a step or two up from the pavement. On a Saturday night, right at the time when cinema patrons were converging on the cinemas, you would occasionally get an inebriated individual exiting the bar, mistiming his footing and the step and sort of taking a headlong plunge into the masses who parted like the waters of the Red Sea.

Then you came to the Metro Cinema which had large folding glass doors in front which I vaguely remembered were lace lined. There was a notice to the effect that for the late evening shows jackets and ties had to be worn. The ticket office was to the left of the doors so the queue would wind round the corner down Aiwa Street. In actual fact, there was a chemist shop on the corner of Smith and Aliwal Street so the Metro was not physically on the corner. I seem to recall the chemist was Kahn's Chemist and the shop windows had vertical chrome burglar bars. You entered the cinema via the glass doors and the ticket collectors in their appropriate uniforms with stripes down their trousers and a peak cap normally only opened a single door so as to prevent freeloaders. You then entered a large foyer and there was a staircase on the right leading upstairs. I may be wrong but I seem to recall that when exiting there were additional exits leading to Albany Grove behind the Albany Hotel.

Then came Aliwal Street. If you walked down Aliwal Street on the left hand side facing the Bay you came across a lovely stone church which I think was Presbyterian*** (it was later converted into an antique shop), then there was a multi floor parking garage (could have been the other way round) and then you came to Kempster Sedgwick Motors. Right next door to this was the Piccadilly Cinema. A smaller cinema than the others and with no upstairs but a raked floor. The booking office was at the front on Aliwal Street and then you walked down a passage of the cinema to the entrance with a sweets bar on the left.

*** Added 9 September 2012: My informant Pat Sligo informed me that the Church mentioned by Gerald, above, was the Congregational Church. Pat remembers being a member of the boy scout troop (26th Congregational Troop) based there in 1945/6.

I distinctly remember that on each side of the big screen, there were two large paintings one of Piccadilly Circus and the other of shipping tied up in the Thames. These pictures would glow in the semi dark light. I have clear memories of seeing the Tommy Steele Story there as well Cliff Richard in the movie, Summer Holiday in the late 50s and early 60s. Virtually opposite the Church was a restaurant whose name I cannot remember. I thought it was the 67 but I have knowledge that the 67 was in Albany Grove. All I seem to recall is that the maitre d' / chef's surname was Codeghini. His son was at the same school as I was.

Then back to the corner of Aliwal and Smith Street. Here stood the 20th Century Cinema. Again entrance in Smith Street. Booking office was on the pavement. Outside, facing the City Hall the cinema had a big expanse of wall and on here was erected a large 20th in neon lights. The cinema had an upstairs as well. The 20th Century was one of the older cinemas. I cannot recall the date but I know it suffered severe damage in a fire. On the pavement part of the frontage was given over to a photographer who had his studio there. He was well known as a wedding photographer I cannot recall his name. Lucey rings a bell but I am not sure.

Then right next to the 20th was the Embassy which if I recall was the last cinema to be added to the strip. Possibly early to mid 1960s. Again booking office on the pavement and it too was glass fronted. The inside was modern decor and if I remember the interior ceiling had a huge oblong shaped piece of ceiling hanging from struts. Directly above it the ceiling had a big gaping hole and I always wondered whether they had cut that piece out and hung it below. Within the ceiling were the house lights which lit up the cinema. If I recall in the 1980s on Sundays, the cinema became a venue for a charismatic church.

Jenny then speaks about a night club just past the Embassy. The closest one was The Roma and I think this is the one she remembers. Its entrance was just round the corner in Mona Road. ( Mona Road was the location of the Post Office Customs Branch. All overseas parcels were collected here as you had to pay customs duties). The Roma was upstairs in the building on the corner and down stairs under the nightclub was a car dealer specialising in exotic European cars. The Roma was one of the "better" night clubs at the time.

Going to the movies was a very swish affair on Saturday nights. Every one dressed up for the occasion and when the 007 movies first came out, the crowds were enormous. The Playhouse was the venue for Cliff Richard and the Shadows' visits to Durban which were about mid 1960s. I was about 20 then and it was one of the few occasions that young Durbanites could partake in the Rock 'n Roll mania that was all the rage in the UK and The USA at the time. When the Beatles movie Hard Day's Night played at the Playhouse it was booked out weekend after weekend. The noise in the cinema as The Beatles played their famous hits was ear shattering. Great days to remember!
Gerald Buttigieg.


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