Entertainment In Early Johannesburg

Entertainment In Early Johannesburg

by Marc Latilla                              Posted: 2015/01/04

Ever wondered what people did for entertainment in Joburg way back when? We delve into the world of traditional theatre, silent film and bioscopes.

There was a time before PVR, DSTV and even regular TV (only launched in South Africa in 1976), when entertainment was an event one actually dressed up and left the house for.

Progress and technology has, to a large extent, shaped the trends for popular entertainment and Johannesburg has been around long enough to witness it all. From the beginnings with traditional theatre, musicals and Vaudeville to silent films, bioscopes, radio, multiplex cinemas, TV, videos, satellite TV, and on-demand entertainment. Each amazing new invention, over time, lays waste to the previous. As such, once popular and endearing forms of entertainment like silent films, café bioscopes and Tea Rooms, Cinerama and radio dramas have all but disappeared.    

While there are still theatres and movie houses around, their numbers have dwindled compared to their heyday. 

The first form of organised entertainment (outside of the bars and barmaids) in the early days of Johannesburg was the theatre. The very first one was a portable structure set up in Market Street in 1887 called Theatre Royal. The first brick theatre was also named Theatre Royal and was on the corner of Commissioner and Eloff Streets. Gilbert & Sullivan musicals were the order of the day.

Johannesburg's first proper theatre came in 1891. It was called The Standard Theatre and was directly behind the Rissik Street Post Office. In the early 1900s, it was renovated and encased by shops. It ran up until 1946 when it was declared unsafe. It stood empty for several years until it was eventually demolished in 1957 to make way for a park. Throughout its existence, the theatre catered to the more discerning entertainment-seeker.

For many years, the Empire, His Majesty's and the Colossuem (all in Commissoner Street) were flagships of popular theatre entertainment from the 1930s onwards and often hosted visiting international artists as. They both operated successfully even though they were mere blocks away from each other.

Two of the oldest theatres still standing but not currently used as theatres are the Alhambra in Doornfontein (1921) and the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein (which was opened in 1951 as the Reps Theatre).

Windybrow, at the bottom of Nugget Hill, is one of the oldest mansions left in Johannesburg. It was restored and converted into a theatre in the 1980s. 

Just a few blocks away at 96 End Street stands a Herbert Baker designed building from 1906 that was the Adam Leslie Theatre back in the 1960s and early 1970s. In its lifetime, the building was also a school of music, a macaroni factory and after the theatre, three famous nightclubs: Mandys (1970/'80s), Idols(1980/'90s) and ESP (1990s). 

Today, there are only a handful of older and still operational theatres left, the main ones being The Civic, Market and the Wits Theatre.  Newer theatres like the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City and the one at Monte Casino regularly put on sell-out shows. 

From 1910, many silent movie houses and later, bioscopes too started opening up in town. In later years, movie houses also spread to the suburbs. Several of these still exist but are no longer used as movie houses. Examples are the Gem in Kensington, Regal in Troyeville, Piccadilly in Yeoville, and Scala in Melville. Only Avalon in Fordsburg and King in Alexandra are still running as movie houses.

The first multiplex cinemas came at the turn of the 1970s. Ster City opened in Claim Street in 1969 and the old Empire Theatre was demolished in 1974 to be replaced by the 10-cinema Cine Plaza. These old city centre cinemas eventually closed down as they were overtaken by the movie complexes in popular shopping centres in the suburbs as shopping and entertainment moved out of the city the late 1980s and early 1990s.   

Insert 'Ster City'

It's always interesting to see how times have changed and to imagine what will be next. Just think about it next time you're watching an illegally downloaded blockbuster.  

Click here for a more detailed history on theatres and cinemas in early Johannesburg. 
Ever wondered what people did for entertainment in Joburg way back when? We delve into the world of traditional theatre, silent film and bioscopes.


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