The other weekend, I took a tour of the Rio Cinema as part of the Open House London initiative, and learnt some new things about this familiar landmark in my neighbourhood. Meanwhile, when I was in New Orleans a little further back, I stumbled across a magnificent building that I had certainly passed before but had never properly seen, which turned out to be former cinema and now theatre and concert hall the Orpheum.
The Rio was built in 1909 and was then fronted in the 1930s with a cool white Art Deco facade topped with three neon bars that shed what I like to think of as benevolent blue light into our Hackney evenings, which are quickly darkening now that autumn is here. While the Rio seems like a little taste of Miami-esque modernism in London, the 1918-built Orpheum in New Orleans contains echoes of old Europe. This can be found in both its name, which recalls the tragic musical hero of Greek legend, and its beautiful Beaux Arts structure, with its layered flavours of both nineteenth century Paris and imperial Rome, among others.
Both buildings started life as cinemas but can boast a very mixed bill over their long lives. Between them they have housed drama, vaudeville, orchestral performances, talks, immersive theatre, independent cinema, gigs, video art, birthday parties, Mardi Gras balls, striptease and the odd crowd-pleasing blockbuster.
As you would expect, both very much have their stories – and their secrets. The Orpheum played a starring role in quintessential New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, being where lead character Ignatius J. Reilly, having persuaded friend George to guard his hot dog cart, went to watch a film. The Rio, meanwhile, is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its founder Clara Ludski, a enterprising émigré from Russia. It also, I discovered on my Open House visit, houses a spectacular hidden 1915 “ghost auditorium” under its roof, capped by a beautiful dome.
Restoring the Rio’s crowning glory would sadly be too expensive for its current owner, a not-for-profit charity, though a programme of restoration and improvements is planned for next year. This is part of the building’s ongoing structural and social journey – from ambitious commercial plans under Ludski’s entrepreneurial stewardship, down to a nadir that included time as a porn cinema, and then back up to today’s respectable bohemianism and valued status as a community resource – which closely echoes aspects of the story of the neighbourhood it is located in over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
The Orpheum has perhaps followed the fate of its environs even more intimately. After promising beginnings, its fortunes declined and it suffered from threat of demolition and financial crisis in the 80s. Having found some stability in the decades that followed, in 2005 it was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Bought out several times since then, it has now happily been restored – chandeliers, pink and gold paint, original elevator and all – to French patisserie levels of perfection, and had its reopening in 2015 celebrated by a special performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.
Cinemas might be palaces of dreams, but they are also a vital part of our real, waking lives in our neighbourhoods. If you have a building like the Rio or the Orpheum near you, visit it, cherish it and, just as it tells you stories, repay it by remembering and telling its own.