Today, anyone would be mistaken for thinking that Edinburgh’s Caley Picture House is just another building purchased by JD Weatherspoon and converted into one of its thousands of UK locations, this magnificent building is hiding a history to which cheap drinks and a great-value curry on a Thursday can’t really do justice. All that remains of the original building’s presence on the internet is a mere few short articles and a Wikipedia stub barely 6 lines long, as well as various Tripadvisor reviews and lots of photographs of it through its history.
However, this building forms a significant part of the history of cinema, and a history that deserves to be displayed front and centre to all those that have a keen interest in Edinburgh cinema. This article hopes to fill any avid Edinburgh cinema-heads in on the history of this building that once had so much character. From its opening screening of 1922’s The Game of Life through to its hosting of notable performers during the 70s and 80s, through to its demise and comparatively brief period as a discotheque (back when disco was actually a thing), it is hoped that this article can do this wondrous bastion of Scottish cinema some justice.
Caley Picture House was built way back in 1922. It was designed by architects J.S. Richardson & J.R. McKay, with its style being typical of Beaux—Arts, an academic architectural style that hailed from the influential art school École des Beaux-Arts; this style was an important French architectural style spanning from the 1830s until the close of the 19th century.
The building’s doors were opened to the public in 1923 with a screening of The Game of Life, a silent film with a 100-minute running time. The film would have been gazed upon by up to 900 revellers, with this number being the auditorium’s original seating capacity.
Film history buffs will know full well that the first talking film, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, bringing with it somewhat of a revolution in cinema and attracting crowds across the UK. This mini revival of cinema meant an expansion for the Caley Picture House. In 1928 the building received a sizable entrance block to the right of the building, along with a wonderful stained-glass window and an expansion of the proscenium to a staggering 50 feet, all courtesy of architects John McKissack & Sons.
However, more importantly for the building’s success and enjoyment of its cinema-goers, the expansion of the building added an extra 1000 to the auditorium’s capacity, bringing its seating capacity up to 1900. The 1928 expansion allowed patrons to enjoy talking movies in style.
The 50-foot-wide proscenium also cemented Caley Picture House’s technical prowess too. This feature meant that this picture house was the first in the city to be capable of being fitted with CinemaScope during the 1950s. Now the cinema was capable of screening films in widescreen.
These films had been shot with the CinemaScope anamorphic lens series. Richard Burton’s The Robe was the first film using this technology to be screened here, opening in 1954. Many more films would be shot in CinemaScope, with The Robe being just the start. Other CinemaScope films include Lady and the Tramp, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Bridge on the River Kwai (see 10 films shot in cinemascope for more examples of films shot with this technology).
After a solid history of screening films for over half a decade, the Caley Picture eventually closed in 1984, and converted to a discotheque in 1985. The building was host to concerts and other live performances during the 1970s and 1980s. With a focus on live performances also came a renaming of the establishment. Following the building’s new concert-based focus, it became known as the Caley Palais. 1974 also saw Historic Scotland designated the Caley Picture House as a Grade B Listed building.
The Caley Palais saw a host of very famous names come through its doors to both spectate and perform. A quick glance at 45Worlds listings is evidence that New Order played here in 1985, but this isn’t the only example of fame to grace the Palais. Past performers here include Pink Floyd, Wishbone Ash, Queen, Beck, The Smiths, and AC/DC.
The history of what was originally the Caley Picture House gets more hectic from hereon in. As a discotheque, this building was in operation under the names of Century 2000 and Revolution, though these ventures also closed in the years following. After these closures, the building remained unused for a number of years until finally being purchased by the MAMA group who renovated it including new wood floors fitted by www.edinburghwoodflooring.co.uk. It reopened as a concert venue in 2008.
This venue operated as a concert venue until 2014, where the next (and at the time of writing, current) chapter of the building’s history would open. 2014 saw JD Weatherspoon group taking over the building and converting it into one of their thousands of pubs.
However, though one can’t escape the commercial nature of the JD Weatherspoon experience, stepping into the Caley Picture House as it stands today still yields visitors with a sense of how grand the original cinematic experience must once have been. The building, set over two floors, still retain a noticeable amount of its past. This refers not only to its grand decoration and high ceilings, but also a fantastic area near the building’s lift lobby where you will find a model of a vintage video camera underneath the building’s gold-tinged ceilings.
Top black and white photo is provided by Granola at Cinema Treasures.