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Central Cinemas - Page 2

Allan Jackson - March 2009

I recently received a letter from Joan de Jager in which she mentioned her memories of the Durban cinemas. She wrote:

“I am an old Durbanite (90). I remember the old bioscope in Gardiner Street near to the railway station -- we could pay seven pence for a matinee, and after the show -- walk over to Model Dairy for an ice cream or milkshake.”

“Tennison Burrows was next door -- and if we had any pocket money left -- we could buy our comics there. I remember the dead man's tree with funeral notices (white edged with black) nailed to it. Then almost next to the Post Office in West Street were the Town Baths -- my old gran and myself would take a Turkish bath for threepence and that included a good scrub by an attendant -- I remember the old Criterion [Theatre] on the Esplanade and much more.”

The note prompted me to take a look in my archives where I found the accompanying photo showing one of the very cinemas mentioned by Joan. I then forwarded her message on to Gerald who had this to say:

“It is always interesting to read an old timer's recollections because they knew Durban when it, possibly, was in its prime, with many fine buildings that no longer exist today. Both the cinemas that Joan mentions were before my time but a cousin of my wife's, the late Eric Mack, was an avid movie goer and his knowledge of cinemas and their location in Durban could not be questioned.”

“He recalled the Criterion as being on the Esplanade and this is confirmed by Barbara Maude-Stone's excellent book 'Dear Old Durban' which shows that the cinema was on the corner of Field Street and the Esplanade. Eric also used to mention going to a cinema behind the Post Office, which he called the Empire.”

This picture shows the Empire Cinema referred to by Joan de Jager which was
sharing a building with the Durban Municipal Tramways. On the right outside the
Central Post Office is Dead Man's Tree where, as she also mentions,
Durbanites traditionally posted funeral notices.

Click picture to view enlargement.

In a later letter she wrote:

"If I remember correctly, the bioscope was called the Empire** and the cost was 7p for matinees, pocket money at 13 years of age was a shilling a week. Next door was a narrow lane behind the post office where the Durban Municipality had an office "lost and found" where we could pick up brollies or other parcels we had left on the tram."

** She was quite right as you'll see in the picture above. Ed.

Read more of Joan's Durban reminiscences here.

ADDED 11 March 2008. Honor Rorvik responded to my recent article on Durban cinemas in the Kwana newspaper. She wrote:


Going to the bio on Saturday afternoons was the weekly treat, not only for kids, but for mums who had a break from the youngsters' demands. It cost sevenpence for a ticket to Princes bioscope where the Playhouse now stands. The first half was concocted of news, a sing-along with a ball bouncing along on the words, maybe a travel item, the trailer of next week's film, and ALWAYS a cartoon which began with a sigh of anticipation from the young audience.

At interval we all trooped outside, clutching a hoarded tickey (threepence) or sixpence, clustering round the ice-cream cart parked beside the pavement. Between the shafts stood a patient old donkey wearing a straw hat with two holes in the crown for its ears. From a cold metal cabinet at the back of the cart the ice-cream man would pull out long narrow drawers of oblong treats like vanilla wafer sandwiches and Eskimo pies which cost a bit more.

If you first licked all round the edges of your wafer it would soften and seal its contents so that the ice-cream was safely contained and you could suck on it, turning and turning until you finally swallowed a small, soft, creamy pillow. Then back inside for the big film. Black and white of course. (I remember reading that the average film ran for about 70 minutes, unlike today's marathon productions.) And it went without question that it had a happy ending. Coming out into the late afternoon sun, satisfied and chattering, we trailed to the big Post Office to board a home-going tram. And the trams - they're another story...
Honor Rorvik

ADDED 10 January 2010.

Dave Baird wrote:

I just read the reminiscences of the Alwial Street and Smith Street cinemas. It struck me that the old Princes Cinema mentioned by Gerald, must have become the Coliseum Cinema in my time - right next door to the Playhouse.

The chemist next door to the Metro was indeed Khans. The 20th Century Cinema which Jack also mentioned, became the Cinerama - it had a curved screen, and was conveniently close to the Kings Coffee Bar - great pie, curry gravy and chips... The Metro had a Saturday morning club where kids got in for (I think) 15c. I saw some great old movies there - mostly B movies.

ADDED 10 January 2010.

I received the following great 1952 picture Etienne Du Plessis, showing the front of the Playhouse and beyond it on the corner of Aliwal Street, the Metro.

Courtesy Etienne Du Plessis - Click picture to enlarge.

ADDED 10 November 2010.

I have received a short contribution from Malcolm Barker with his reminiscences of the Playhouse and a picture of a 1946 ticket from the theatre. Read it here.

ADDED 18 November 2011.

I have received a really nice picture of cinema land in 1953 from Pat Sligo.

Click picture to enlarge.

ADDED 5 December 2012.

My informant Derrick Willet recently sent a great picture of the Metro, where he worked as assistant manager for the last two years of its life. He wrote:

For some reason most correspondents have doubts of where the Metro stood. This may be because it was one of the first of the larger cinemas to fall to the Demolishers hammer with the impending advent of television.

It did indeed have lace curtains on the front doors and it had a phone number 212312 which we sometimes jocularly used as two dozen three dozen. I attach a photo oft he Metro Durban taken shortly before she closed in 1971. I was assistant Manager there for the last two years of its existence.

Picture courtsey Derrick Willet.
Click to enlarge.

Regarding what stood on the corner opposite as far as I can remember it had operated under several names:- Twentieth Century , Cinerama, Kine 500 and the earliest of then all the Cameo. Somewhere amongst my trash" I have a photograph which I obtained from the local History Museum, I have as well the 1937 opening night programme.

ADDED 4 February 2013.

Gerald Buttigieg compiled the following list of cinemas which existed in Durban in 1938"

The 1938 Lawrie's Directory lists the Cinemas in Durban under the heading Bioscopes and Theatres. I would assume that there were no bioscopes in the suburbs or "districts" as they were called then as nothing is listed.   I would also venture to say that some of the older bioscopes that are named would have been structurally changed some time after 1938.  I have also done a bit of research on the ones which were demolished by indicating which building replaced them. So here is the 1938 list of cinemas and some comments.

  • Alhambra   cnr Berea Rd / Warwick Ave.   Still existing but I would say today's structure is post 1938.
  • Avenue Cinema   201 First Avenue.  Not listed in 1968 directory nor is 201 First Avenue shown as the address. I do recall it being in existence in the early 60's as a corrugated iron building near where the Queen's Tavern is.
  • Cameo Cinema   cnr Smith and Aliwal Streets.  Probably the predecessor of the 20th Century Cinema which stood on the same spot. The building was probably revamped after the war. 
  • Cinema Lounge,  Kenilworth, Beach.   This was in the building at the Beachfront now demolished. I know it was a tea lounge originally, there are postcard views of it but in the early 60's it had been changed into a "cheapo" amusement park with dartboards,  swaying head of clowns you put golf balls into their open mouths, hoops you had to throw at short posts, and tin can alley you had to knock down with hard filled tennis balls. There were "What the butler saw" viewing scopes against the front wall and there was also a disc printing machine which allowed you to print so many letters on  a round aluminium disc as a memento. My wife still has her one.  
  • Criterion    119 Esplanade (cnr Victoria Embankment and Field Street). There are postcard views of the Criterion.  Demolished and replaced by Bay Towers, a 12 storey block.
  • King's Theatre.  Aliwal Street.  This one is unknown to me but probably was on the site of the present King's Hall building, 76 Aliwal Street.
  • Metro   cnr Smith and Aliwal Streets.  Probably only a few years old then.
  • Palace Cinema Tea Room.   362 West Street.   The only "bio cafe" of that time.  Demolished and replaced by African Life Building and African Life Arcade. This building is adjacent to London House.          
  • Playhouse   cnr Smith St and Albany Grove.  I was under the impression that the Playhouse was built after the war but it is listed so it must have been there in some form.
  • Prince's Cinema   237 Smith Street.   Still existing but today part of the Playhouse complex.
  • Theatre Royal    566  West Street.   Was still operational in the early 60s but then closed down and converted to a retail store and office building for Beare  Bros.

Leave your cinema comments and reminiscences here.


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