The Brixton Astoria was the first in a family of London Astorias, designed by Edward A. Stone. Its opening in 1929 heralded the talkie era with a screening of Al Jolson's The Singing Fool, together with an elaborate variety show, part of which was broadcast on the radio. The cinema had 2982 seats and a stage 100ft by 40ft, together with a Compton cinema organ.
For the first half of the 1950s the Astoria was my local cinema, within a five-minute walk of my home, and I saw many first-release films here, including Chaplin's Limelight. Although by then it was getting a little bit tired-looking, one couldn't fail to be impressed once inside by the Italianate fake garden which stretched across the proscenium, with arches, balustrades, balconies and, I seem to remember, a fountain, together with statues in alcoves on either side of the auditorium, the whole confection illuminated with an admirable lack of taste by subdued coloured lights. At one time stars were projected on to the ceiling, an effect I can remember seeing, though possibly in some other cinema. The exterior of the Astoria is also etched on my memory, as my dentist's surgery was on the opposite side of Stockwell Road; I have vivid recollections of seeing the cinema's domed entrance through half-closed eyes as the drill sank into my unanaesthetised teeth.
The Astoria closed in 1972. The seating was removed and it became for a time the Sundown, a rock venue. This soon gave up the ghost and the theatre stayed dark for almost ten years, until, after restoration, it reopened in 1982 as the Fair Deal, another rock music house. This in turn closed down and the following year the building became a third music venue, the Brixton Academy, which has kept going up to the present day.
Mr. Phil Dansie writes: My father, Don Dansie, was Chief Engineer there for many years. In fact , I used to go to the Astoria after school to assist him during "changeovers", the intervals between films when the screen tabs were used and the stage lighting was needed. Sometimes I would close and open the tabs, (hard work for a young lad because they were hand pulled!) sometimes work the big Berkeley switchboard, high above the stage, fading in the float, battens and stage spots, in a variety of combinations and colours! ... Yes, my job was unpaid! Mind you, I was only too happy to do it, I felt really proud to be trusted to do things like that in front (so to speak) of a live audience, because the slightest mistake in such a lovely old theatre like the Astoria would have brought unimaginable shame on me, my father and the theatre itself.
I can recall a dreadful Saturday evening in the late forties when we were showing, "Scheherazade", starring Brian Donlevy, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Yvonne de Carlo. Now for the last performance of the big picture in the evening, instead of using the hand-pulled screen tabs, the magnifcent satin main tabs were used. These are right at the front of the stage and are bigger and heavier than the screen tabs, so were operated by an electric motor on a gallery above the switchboard where I was dimming the house lights. Dad was down below ready, with his hand on the motor controller. The signal light changed from red to green, indicating that the projectionist had started the projector and the Board of Censors Certificate was already showing on the Tabs; I began dimming the stage lighting, and Dad's hand swung the controller over. I heard the motor start up with its usual heavy whine, then, after a few seconds, it stopped!
After a moment's hesitation, I continued dimming the stage lights, it was bad form to have lights on when there was a picture on the screen. Amid increasing titters and murmuring from the audience, the Manager, assistant manager and as many as could be spared from the projection room, came running on to the stage. The motor had, of course, burned out, and the situation was only resolved by all and sundry having a good old "Yo-heave-Ho" on the cables until the tabs were fully open. I can well remember seeing Brian Donlevy's head on the screen in the gap between the slightly parted main tabs, a picture I can mentally visualize to this day!
There were rails on the ceiling on which clouds were driven slowly across during the evening and to heighten the "garden" effect, lights on the end of the seat rows shone onto crazy-paving patterned carpet along the aisles. Sadly, the stars and clouds were lost during the war when a bomb crashed through the auditorium ceiling, and were not restored when repairs were done, although maybe Dad did put in a few stars some time later. By the way, there were two Compton organs, one on the stage, on rails, and one in the orchestra pit on a hydraulic lift, (also destroyed in the air raid) and a double-ended grand piano on the stage, with one end being a dummy, so that a performer could sing at the piano even if he could not play it, the real pianist being hidden from sight behind the stage-side drapes!