The Scala Returns To Glory
London’s cinema club the Scala started life in a building backed onto Scala Street near Goodge Street tube, with a tiny screening room and a cafe with plastic tablecloths. It was founded by my old pal Steve Woolley, who modelled it on the Nu-Art Cinema in Los Angeles, showing everything from Russ Meyer to Jacques Tati. Steve went on to set up the legendary Palace Pictures and produce countless films.
Two years later it moved into the old Kings Cross Cinema, which had been nearing completion when the First World War began. Instead it was used to manufacture airplane parts, and after 1918 as a local labour exchange for demobilized soldiers returning from the war.
It finally opened as a cinema in 1920. Seating over 1000 people, the auditorium offered a three-hour program, accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra. At the end of the twenties, under the control of Gaumont British Pictures, the cinema staged lavish free Christmas shows for local children – endearing it to a whole generation.
It was damaged in air-raids during the Blitz but reopened in 1952. The venue finally became a live, all-night, rock venue. Iggy Pop and Hawkwind played there, but in 1974 it all came to an end when its license was revoked. Five years later it became – ludicrously – the London Primatarium, with a stage like a forest and live primates roaming about (this was an era when there was also an equally sad and awful Dolphinarium in Oxford Street!).
The project mercifully failed and it returned as the Scala, featuring the 1933 version of King Kong on opening night in an auditorium that still reeked of live monkeys – that night I went home smelling of gorilla.
The Scala ran an eclectic – yes, I think that’s the politest word – menu of movies and events that blurred the line between classics, trash and porn. At that time King’s Cross was still the home of by prostitutes and drug addicts. ‘It was a thrilling experience,’ says former programme manager Jane Giles, now head of film and video distribution at the British Film Institute. ‘Part of that thrill was that you walked into the badlands of King’s Cross. The auditorium was dark and, at times, illicit. There was a frisson. A lot of the films were quite explicit, so there was a sexuality about the place that was unusual in cinemas. It all added up to an incredibly potent combination.’
Warner Brothers were tipped off about an illegal screening of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and sued (the film having been withdrawn by the director over so-called copycat violence). The Scala lost its battle against Warner Bros and plans to convert it into a multiplex failed. The increasing availability of transgressive films on video was meant that the cinema was no longer so special.
John Waters, the Scala’s recalls a visit. ‘It was like joining a very secret club, like a biker gang or something. I remember the audience was even more berserk than any midnight show I had ever seen in America. Maybe they were on ecstasy, I don’t know, but it was a really raucous audience. It was so great – but it was almost scary.’
It was finally reborn as a nightclub, which it still is, and has been fully refurbished and repainted, although I’ll sadly never see the inside now unless I want to catch Japanese DJs and bands with student fanbases (see below) that will render me the oldest person in the room.