King Kong makes a comeback at the East End’s Troxy after 80 years

Troxy in Commercial Road

Troxy in Commercial Road - Credit: Troxy

King Kong made a timely return to the East End after eight decades with one of London’s most iconic art deco picture palaces of the 1930s celebrating its 80th anniversary.

Troxy... September 10, 1933, showing King Kong main 'A' picture

Troxy... September 10, 1933, showing King Kong main 'A' picture - Credit: Troxy

The famous Troxy opened in 1933 with the original King Kong black and white movie, starring Fay Wray as the damsel in distress at the monster’s mercy.

King Kong holds Fay Wray captive... original 1933 version

King Kong holds Fay Wray captive... original 1933 version - Credit: Troxy

The film hit the silver screen of the former picture house again on Tuesday for a one-off show marking the anniversary of the theatre which actually closed as a cinema in 1960.

The 400 guests included pensioner Eileen Kent, now well into her 90s and living nearby in Bromley Street—just a stone’s throw from the old picture house where she was one of the original usherettes on the night it opened on September 10, 1933, and has lived in the neighbourhood ever since.

The entertainment went through the venue’s history, first Benoit and His Orchestra and the Swing Patrol Dancers with a 1930s cabaret, then opera by diva Le Gateau Chocolat reminiscent of the Troxy’s time after the cinema closed as a Royal Opera rehearsal theatre, followed by music bingo reflecting the 1990s when it became a Mecca bingo hall.

Then came the Big Picture in glorious monochrome—King Kong circa 1933. Guests sat with gourmet popcorn and bags of classic pick’n’mix to watch in horror as Fay Wray is held captive by the giant monster who eventually meets his end at the top of New York’s Empire State Building.

The Troxy doesn’t do flicks any more, except one-off occasions like last Tuesday’s birthday bash. It opened 80 years ago as one of London’s most glamorous picture palaces of the day, when it seated audiences of 3,500.

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It cost cinema entrepreneurs Highams and Gale the grand sum of £250,000 to build.

“You can’t even buy a Docklands bedsit for that, these days,” said the Troxy’s events manager Will Pool. “There’s a one-bed flat going next door that cost more than that.”

Tickets on the opening night were 7d (3p) front stalls, 9d back stalls. But if you could afford it, the ‘posh’ circle was 1/6 at the back (one-shilling and sixpence, today’s 7p), or the really posh front circle for 2/- (two-shillings, today’s 10p), half-a-morning’s wage for most working class in those days.

The first night was opened by 14-year-old Stepney schoolkid Bridget Hughes, who lived in a terraced workers’ cottage at 6, Caroline Street, off the Commercial Road, which was pulled down to make way for the Troxy.

Then the National Anthem was played by the Band of the Scots Guards, while perfumes were poured through the ventilation fans to create a pleasant aroma.

A cartoon appropriately called ‘Opening Night’ was the first film screened.

It was followed by a Paramount Newsreel, the visual news of their day that enthralled cinemagoers week-by-week. Newsreel reports earlier that year include Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor and eventual dictator of Germany. At home, King Faisal of Iraq makes his first visit to Britain, seen greeted by King George.

Following the Newsreel was the Troxy’s ‘B’ film, ‘The Mind Reader’ starring Warren Williams and Constance Cummings.

Bobby Pagan gave a performance on the Troxy’s original Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ during the interval, before the Big Picture, King Kong.

Seven years on, the Troxy opens its doors during the war years to families in Stepney, with its basement turned into a makeshift air-raid shelter. Thankfully, this architectural art deco gem is spared in the Blitz, by luck. The Luftwaffe doesn’t manage to find it.

But it is the spread of television in the post-war years that kills off the cinema. The Troxy screens its last film in November, 1960, before being converted in 1963 into an opera rehearsal theatre for the next 20 years. It turns to Mecca bingo in the 1990s before even that is played out with the coming of home computers and electronic bingo.

Years of lying empty, boarded up and in danger of becoming derelict soon follow, before its rebirth as the glitzy events venue it is today, lovingly restored to its original art deco glory.

Will Poole and his staff are the custodians who look after this East End gem of a picture palace.

“It has a capacity up to 3,000 when we stage a show,” he says proudly.

“But I don’t know how they managed to squeeze another 500 back in the 1930s—there was no stringent health and safety like today.”

Will admits to being a film buff himself. He loves mainstream action and sci-fi like King Kong.

Nowadays, the Troxy is host to major events such as, appropriately, the annual East End Film Festival and the Limelight film awards.

This week’s anniversary also saw the unveiling of an original 1930s Mighty Wirlitzer theatre organ, though not quite restored enough to play yet.

It was by chance that restoration experts were looking for a home to place it and approached the Troxy.

“It had been stored for 20 years in a basement of South Bank University,” Will explains. “But the university wanted its space back, so the restoration society had to find a new home for the Wirlitzer they had rescued when the Elephant & Castle Trocadero was pulled down in the 1990s.

“It’s not just any Wirlitzer, but the biggest cinema organ anywhere in Europe—and we’ve got it. We were chuffed when they approached us.”

It is currently having its pipes restored to its former glory, ready perhaps for the Troxy’s 81st birthday bash next year.

Organist Bobby Pagan, who tickled the ivories on that first night in 1933 before the main King Kong feature, would be proud.

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