Just a quick thank you to everyone out there following, reading and commenting on this blog. Thanks also to the Heritage Portal, Past Experiences and Candice from Wyatt’s Hairdressing who have all either linked to this blog or mentioned it in some way.
This out-of-place post is the result of some research into theatres I was doing for a scene in the story. I had to find the right kind of theatre with some outside and inside photographic reference. It also had to be in the right part of town so the scenes that follow are believable. Here we go:
First theatre in JHB called Theatre Royal was in Market Street (east) and erected on 15 June 1887 by J. Mipping. The portable and demountable structure came from Newcastle.
Another theatre known as the second Theatre Royal was a corrugated iron structure on Commissioner and Eloff Street and in December 1888 it was used by leading impresario, Luscombe Searle. The first season opened with a play called Maritana the Bohemian girl. Musicals by Gilbert & Sullivan were also popular. Some sources put Searle’s theatre as the first.
Next, the Globe Theatre was built and opened on 24 June 1889 in 47/49 Fox Street but this brick structure was destroyed in a fire on 7 September 1889 after three seasons. It reopened in June 1892 as The Globe but degenerated into a second-rate music hall and eventually closed. In 1894 it re-opened as Empire Palace of Varieties on the 1st December 1894 and its bar became an informal stock exchange. It appears to have burnt down again in 1903.
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 as the Standard Opera House and 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 for of his famous ‘At homes’ in 1896. Wheeler also brought the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to SA.
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 iron work.
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 1956 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. 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 Gaiety Theatre 3/5 Kort Street between Market & Commissioner Streets was opened in 1893 and in 1894 its lease was taken over by the Empire Theatres Company SA (Ltd) who changed the name to Empire Palace of Varieties. The opening production starred well-known European actors WC Fields, Marie Lloyd and Kate Harvey. It was then taken over by Leonard Rayne in 1902.
A second Empire Palace of Varieties was opened in 135/7 Commissioner Street (corner of Kruis Street) in 1906. It was described as “a spectacle of Edwardian luxury with 18 boxes, plush upholstery and drapes in green and gold – the handsomest theatre in the subcontinent”. It was designed by McIntosh & J.A. Moffat with a capacity of 1200.
It appears Varieties was pulled down in 1935 to make way for the new Empire Theatre which opened in 1936. It was Johannesburg’s answer to Broadway.
The block it was situated on became too valuable (Carlton Centre is now across the road) and it was pulled down in April 1971. In 1974, the 27 floor Kine Centre Plaza (with 10 movie theatres no longer in use) went up in its place.
Ben Wheeler then opened his own theatre called His Majesty’s which opened in 1903 (demolished 1936/7). The site was originally the Goldreich building and was used as the post office until the Rissik Street post office was built before being converted into the 1100 seater.
A second His Majesty’s was built in Commissoner street between Eloff and Joubert streets and opened by General Jan Smuts on the 23 December 1946. The designer was Morris Cowen. The opening show was Phil Levard’s production of Robinson Crusoe. It was converted into a cinema in 1956 for The Ten Commandments. In 1978 it reverted back to a traditional theatre. In 1981 it was converted into a retail store. The last show was a production of Hello Dolly.
After the Boer war other theatres were built like The Bijou which was designed by Kallenback & Kennedy in Jeppe Street (165-7) in 1910. It was refurbished in 1919 and 1930 and finally demolished in 1958. 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 are the plans below which are the original and alteration plans for the Bioscope Theatre. The dates and site match that of the Bijou Theatre, but comparing the above picture to the plans shows a vast difference. The refurbishment in 1938 must have also included an extension as the facade doubled in size compared to the original plans.
A few blocks up the road in Loveday Street between Jeppe & Bree Streets once stood the old Assembly Hall of the Nationalist Party Club which was converted into a dance hall called Palais-De-Danse. The plan below shows a proposed conversion from dance hall to Cafe Bio in 1937. Whatever the conversion, the old building was pulled down and replaced by a highrise.
The Palladium from 1911 was originally the old stock exchange building and was situated on Commissioner Street bounded by Fraser and Simmonds Streets. The 1911 plan calls it ‘Coliseum Theatre’ but from 1912 it’s referred to as ‘Palladium’ The architects were the famous A.H. Reid and Walter Reid. It appears to have been demolished around 1936/7.
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
Plaza Cinema corner Jeppe & Rissik Street from 1931 was big with motorbike gangs on Monday nights and popular for its ‘skiet-en-donder’ type of films (shooting & fighting or action films). The Deco building also boasted the first cinema organ. It was designed by Kallenbach, Kennedy & Furner (and Werner Wagner) and was demolished in the early 1960s.
The Metro on the corner of Bree and Hoek Streets (Von Brandis Street today) was opened on 4 November 1932. Designed by Thomas W. Lamb (MGM’s New York architect), it was the biggest of its time with a capacity of 3000 and also had a massive Wurlitzer organ in addition to air conditioning. It was said that it had so many bare bulbs beneath its canopy that it warmed cinema queues in Winter. The building was demolished in 1972.
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. William Timlin, a Kimberly artist, designed the interior with its lit castle turrets and Spanish renaissance architecture. Galli-Curci and Richard Tauber performed there. It was closed and demolished in 1985 and a modern office block named Colosseum emerged in its place.
For additional information, 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. It was designed by Douglass Cowin.
It was closed and demolished in 1974 to be replaced by a single story block of shops (which seems a bit counter-productive since they demolished more to create less)
Cinerama was built in Claim Street and opened in April 1961. St. George’s Presbyterian church was originally on the site. 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 was state-of-the-art. It was still used a live venue into the 90s. UK death metal bands Carcass and Napalm Death both played there. It’s now a church again.
Other theatres were Tivoli, The Grand, The Carlton 1912 (demolished 1933), Astoria, Savoy, Broadcast House in Commissioner Street (1935), Monte Carlo, Starlite, Moncine in Bree Street and Ster City (1969).
The original Orpheum Theatre on the corner of Jeppe Street and Joubert Street opened in December 1911 (see featured image of this post). In 1919 it was converted into a double-storey. 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. Unconfirmed, but The Orpheum was pulled down in the 1935 to make way for the still standing deco mammoth Anstley’s Building. I’ve read that before the 20-storey building was built, it was known as Anstley’s 4-storey department store that had a top floor tea room frequented by the well-to-do ladies of Johannesburg. The conversion from theatre to store to building seems plausible but is only mentioned briefly via two sources.
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 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 the 10 March 1960 it was renamed Alexander Theatre after its founder and honorary lifelong president Muriel Alexander.
The Playhouse on Loveday Street between Jeppe and Bree was opened in 1925/6 and was originally known as the Afrikaaner club. Before its demolition in 1973 it was known as Playhouse cafe-cinema and had a popular bar called Langham Deep.
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.
Brooke Theatre in De Villiers Street opened on the 13th 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.
In 1961 United Artists (producers of the 1959 black musical King Kong) opened their own theatre called the Rehearsal Room in Dorkay House in Eloff Street Extension to cater for the growing number of black plays. The Bantu Men’s Social Centre established in 1924 was adjacent.
Plastic Theatre in Northcliff was run by Hugo Keleti and was closed down in 1957. It 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 popular weekend entertainment venue. It is recorded that during Jewish high holidays in 1955, the tea room where the services were held caught fire due to curtains blowing onto the burning candles. It appears the whole of Fred’s complex burnt down. Townhouses now mark the spot. Thanks to Tandi Weinstein from the Northcliff Hebrew Congregation for the additional information.
In 1967 the Academy Theatre opened 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 Adacemy). In 1984 after a management change it was renamed Siegfried Maynard Theatre but was damaged in a fire after a few shows. Intimate dinner theatre La Parisienne opened in 1986 but burnt down in early 1988.
Colony at Hyde Park Hotel in Jan Smuts Avenue evidently also hosted some theatrical productions but appears to be better known as 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.
Adam Leslie Theatre opened on the 27 August 1967 at 96 End Street. The Herbert Baker designed building was built in 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 a boot factory. Adam restored it to its former glory down to the interior and furnishings. The chandelier was from an original randlords mansion. The theatre opened with ‘Music Hall Revue’ starring Adam Leslie and Joan Blake and was directed by Anthony Farmer. In the late 70s it became Mandys Nightclub followed by Idols in the late 80s and finally ESP in the 90s. All were groundbreaking and successful clubs in their time. The building is sadly in a state of disrepair and probably not able to be restored. I’ve written a more in-depth piece on this majestic and historical building here
Club 58 in Pretoria Street in Hillbrow was a small theatre in an old two story 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.
Other theatres of note are Alhambra (originally a cinema designed by S.V. Mann and completed in 1921) and the Apollo in Doornfontein (1930), 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.
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 80s and 90s. 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.
The first moving pictures based on Edison’s Kinetoscope were shown at the Grand National Hotel on April 4 1895. Henwoods 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 cinemas that sprang up all over the suburbs like Curzon (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) 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 Cinerama (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 and Avenue (later re-named 7Arts and Rex) in Norwood; Avalon, Planet, Lyric and Majestic in Fordsburg; Odeon, 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, Oscar in Plein Street; Albert, Pigalle in Jorrisen Street (later named Classic) and Gaiety (1928 designed by Percy Rogers Cooke) in Braamfontein; Lake in Parkview; Jeppe Theatre (or Premeire?) in Jeppe; Malvern Kinema in Malvern; Star Bioscope in Denver; Metro 1 & 2 in Bedfordview; Century in Springs; Criterion in Benoni; Mayfair and Roxy in Mayfair; Scala in Melville; Taj Cinema in 17th Street, The Royal on 23rd Street and The Star on 20th Street in “Fietas” or Vrededorp; Mayfair Theatre in Mayfair (designed by Percy Rogers Cooke in 1931); Odin and Balansky’s in Sophiatown and the King Cinema in Alexandra Township.
Most of these buildings are long gone. With the introduction of television to South Africa in 1976 and 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 2nd 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. Jeppe Theatre building is still there as is the Alhambra which I’m told is used as storage by Peter Thorien who bought it in the 1980s. 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. Yes, 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.
Of interest is a recent find from a 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. It 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) that cost 8000 Pounds. Bell Rose was 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 performances.
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.
I also used pictures and info from Benjamin Arnold’s brilliant and sadly, out of print book, ‘Lost Johannesburg’.
Info and picture on The Star Cinema in Fietas came from ‘Fietas: A social history of Pageview 1948 – 1988’ by Nazir Carrim
Sketches and paintings are all from Philip Bawcombe’s ‘Johannesburg’
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.
Additional old photos and information on Brooke, Reps, 20th Century, Empire and His Majesty Theatres came from Howard at www.busvannah.co.za
The ever accurate and detailed Artefacts helped with various architects, build & demolish dates and old photos of the Plaza.