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Theatres and Cinemas

Incredible as it may seem today, Kirkcaldy was once self-confident enough to boast a greater number of cinemas per head of population than any other town in Scotland. A disputed claim, perhaps, but reflective of the town's reputation in the heyday of popular entertainment on screen and stage.

Port Brae Cinema.jpg

Our story covers the technical development of the 'silver screen' from its basic inception to the birth of the talkies, and reviews the social importance of the experience of 'going to the pictures' in Kirkcaldy. Not only film but also theatre and music drew huge audiences. Evocatively-named venues thrived during an era when the industry must have seemed so futuristic and when its demise could not have been predicted.


Like all blockbusters, Kirkcaldy's epic cinematic history demands a sequel and part two will follow next month - after the intermission . . . 


Theatres and Cinemas
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Kirkcaldy - it's Theatres and Cinemas

Kirkcaldy had a long and sustained relationship with cinema  commencing almost at the dawn of moving pictures. It was said that, at one time, Kirkcaldy had a greater number of cinemas per head of population than any other town in Scotland. This may or may not be  factually correct but the town certainly had a substantial number of these entertainment palaces which, at one time, stretched from  Gallatown  to the  Links.

In the early days films were mainly shown in temporary venues. Music halls, variety theatres and even fairgrounds, were pressed into service for the purpose. It was the 1909 Cinematography Act which created the rise of buildings being constructed for the exclusive purpose of showing films.

The Act was primarily intended to promote public safety in the cinema. At the dawn of the  industry, film contained the highly inflammable compound cellulose nitrate. Limelight was used to provide the illumination as it provided a very strong light. This was created by a flame, fed by oxygen and hydrogen, being directed at a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide). The term in the limelight is derived from this method of illumination. The use of limelight led to a number of fires and accidents – hence the Act.

Given that there had been several fatal fires one of the main provisions of the Act was to ensure that the projector itself  was housed within a fire resistant room. Also, any building showing films, where an entry fee applied, had to be inspected and licensed by the local authority.

Consideration was also to be given to the number of fire exits available but this became a more stringent requirement in 1929 following a fatal  disaster in Paisley. The terms of the 1909 Act led to many venues no longer showing films and, as mentioned previously, the rise of the purpose built cinema. Kirkcaldy had to wait until 1913 for its first but, not unlike buses, when one comes along a second invariably follows shortly afterwards.

The original intention of this Object was  simply to cover the early years of the buildings  primarily regarded by the public as cinemas. However,  films or, more accurately, productions  giving  an impression of movement had started earlier and it seemed only right to broaden the scope to include halls where the very earliest moving pictures were possibly shown.

Very quickly it became obvious that this would be a substantial narrative and therefore it is sensible to divide it into two segments. These will follow a rough chronological order and the intention is to cover both Kirkcaldy's theatre and cinema entertainment over the years and decades.

The earliest communal entertainment  was concentrated around the home with friends, neighbours and visitors, creating their own amusement via singing, playing instruments, or by what was colloquially termed - doing a turn. The church, and there were many of them in Kirkcaldy, invariably  had guilds and groups attached to them  catering for part of the social life of members of the congregation as well as their spiritual needs.

Clubs and societies unconnected with the church also played a great part in communal life in the town. Even the most casual glance at the local newspapers of the mid to late Victorian era disclose a myriad of opportunities to join in with like minded individuals in a wide variety of interests and purposes.

However, with the coming of the railway, combined with the activities of Michael Nairn and others, the town prospered and became an industrial powerhouse. It is difficult for the younger reader to appreciate the level of industry which was once prevalent in the town – it brought opportunity to  an increasing population leading to many having money in their pockets. Entertainment in the shape of theatre and music hall were now in demand – Kirkcaldy had to respond.

Kirkcaldy's first theatre was The Royal or The Grand which was housed in Kirk Wynd. Some sources claim that it was in operation from the 1830s but the earliest evidence unearthed by our research puts the date at around 1850. This theatre was of the variety hall type and was used by many touring companies, although serious plays and musicals were often featured. A visit by a notable dramatic actress of the time – a Miss Goddard – even saw the theatre attract Lady Harriet St. Clair's patronage. This theatre certainly had its ups and downs and was often closed for lengthy periods. During one such closure it was even used for evangelistic purposes. It went through a number of lessees but seemed to always suffer from the 1860 opening of the prestigious new Corn Exchange. It never seemed to quite recover from that buildings opening.

In 1888 it not only changed hands but also its name to The Grand which sadly  brought no improvement to matters. In December of the same year the building caught fire and was completely destroyed. However, the police soon discovered that the insurance had only recently been increased plus the owners had bought a barrel of paraffin the same day – the result was a jail sentence for two of the accused!

The theatre was rebuilt by its owner, John Hunter of St. Brycedale, and gifted to the Parish Church. It is still in operation today as the Hunter Hall – and is the home of Kirkcaldy's oldest amateur dramatic group – the Auld Kirk Players. Given it closed as a theatre in 1888 – there was no opportunity for the patrons to have seen true moving pictures.

The Corn Exchange in Market Street was an excellent multi-purpose building which the Town Council built in 1859/60. Its primary purpose was, as the name suggests, for agricultural purposes but it also saw a variety of uses with entertainment being one of them. As early as 1860 touring companies were showing panoramas. These were painted scenes which were on rollers and gave the impression of movement – the forerunner of moving pictures!

The Exchange was used extensively by touring companies and also many of the local societies, including the Kirkcaldy Amateur Dramatic Society and the Kirkcaldy Musical Society, who made good use of the facilities. The full narrative gives a flavour of the many types of entertainment featured over the years and homes in on a Pictorial Carnival of 1908 – this was certainly a true moving picture show! In 1915 part of the Corn Exchange was converted into a cinema named the Pavilion. The cinema ran until 1921 when another fire saw the Corn Exchange reduced to a ruin. It was sold off by the Council and for many years a bus company made use of the site. Yes, the Corn Exchange saw the advent of film but did not survive long enough to welcome the “talkie” era.

One little known theatre was Mr Duckenfield's Allied Theatre which, although of a temporary nature, took two weeks to erect! It used the site of the Victoria Artillery Battery on the Sands Road during the winter of 1883/84. It was a huge success and caused consternation in the Council Chamber, as it was so successful,  It had a dramatic effect on the takings of the Councils own Corn Exchange venue. Duckenfield was a real showman and regularly attracted audiences of between 700 and 1,000 per night. He made quite an impression during his short stay but again, given the period, no true films would have been on show.

The Adam Smith Theatre opened in 1899 and was the brainchild of Michael Beveridge which has certainly stood the test of time. From the very first it tended to be the home of a more serious entertainment. It was  also Council owned and the impression is created that perhaps the more variety hall style of entertainment remained in the Corn Exchange. The full narrative again gives a flavour of the early entertainments  featured in the hall and without question, in 1901, it housed the first true moving pictures shown in Kirkcaldy. This was courtesy of a visit by Walker and Company's World Famous Cinematograph. As well as showing films of general interest the huge attraction was that, prior and during their stay, Walker's had shot local films which included the Kirkcaldy Volunteers on parade and also  the workforce leaving the A.H. Mackintosh factory – a great way to swell the numbers attending!

Private enterprise finally appeared with the coming of the King's Theatre in 1904. This was built as a theatre although eventually it became exclusively a cinema. For such an expensive  and well designed complex it had issues almost from the off and closed in 1908. Again the story of its recovery, the many owners, and almost as many changes of name are covered in the full story. Its great claim to fame is  the fact that, in 1929, it brought the talkies to Kirkcaldy with Al Jolson appearing in the Singing Fool. It was also the venue on four occasions for the Freedom of the Burgh presentations.

Always innovative it was the first and only cinema in Kirkcaldy to feature multi screens but sadly it was also the last cinema to close in Kirkcaldy . In 2016 attempts began to restore the cinema and the Y.W.C.A. The group behind these ambitious plans have been very successful with the latter but only time will tell as to the fate of the former cinema itself. Despite its internal issues the building remains one of Kirkcaldy High Street's finest pieces of architecture.
The final building covered in this segment is the Port Brae Cinema.  This we believe to be the the first purpose built cinema in Kirkcaldy opening in 1913. We accept that the Palace was opened a few months earlier but it was initially a theatre. Again the history of the Port Brae is traced but the issue it always faced was  its capacity. It only held 641 persons and soon the massive Kings, Rialto and Rio, would dwarf that number. An attempt to increase the capacity was rejected by the Council and it became the poor relation of the High Street's cinema offering. It did manage to show talking pictures but it did not survive the War. It remains well known despite the fact it was demolished decades ago, as almost every old  photograph of the Port Brae includes the building with its iconic design and name emblazoned in large lettering.

This concludes part one of the Object and the full narrative reached from the icon on this page gives a greater depth of detail and is augmented by newspaper clips and advertisements. The second segment of this story will follow in April.


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