Finsbury Park’s Musical Heritage 2: Cinemas and the Rainbow

Following my previous post about the St Mellitus church organ, Finsbury Park’s famous recording studios and Topic Records, here we’ll look at some of the area’s iconic music venues. 

The former Astoria/Rainbow in Finsbury Park, now a church. (Photo Ewan Munro – CC BY-SA 2.0)

There used to be several cinemas 50 metres or so from Finsbury Park station, and the cinema experience was a key early 20th century form of entertainment. Where Lidl is today on Seven Sisters Road, was the Finsbury Park Cinema and Rowans began as a roller skating rink, but developed into a cinema in 1913

The most visible survival is the Rainbow Theatre, on a road island just on Seven Sisters Road – now rescued from dereliction in the 1990s  by the Brazilian Church of God UK, a charismatic Christian denomination. 

Initially sound came from cinema organs, which came on the scene just about the time that the St Mellitus organ was being installed in 1920. When the talkies came  along they took on the role of solo musical instruments. Cinema-goers would often find the music of the Mighty Wurlitzer (or Compton or Christie) as exciting as the movie and the theatre organists themselves became stars.

Radio and records brought the same thrilling sounds to the home and the music of the theatre organ became part of everyday life. Theatre organs are real pipe organs, but they’re much more versatile than church organs. Robert Hope-Jones, the innovator who set the ball rolling at the turn of the century, called them ‘Unit Orchestras’, instruments that really can cope with everything from classics to big band. The rich, spine-tingling sound of a mighty theatre organ is something you’ll never forget.

On a theatre organ, the part of the organ containing the keyboards (or manuals), pedals, stopkeys and other devices was usually connected electrically to the rest of the instrument by the main cable containing many wires. The console may be fixed, or mobile on a wheeled platform, or on a lift  as was traditional in 1930s cinemas. 

The original boxy designs of consoles gave way to curves, multiple forms, etched art moderne patterns and vase-like shapes complete with hanging dew-drops in solid glass. The combination of curved, non-reentrant forms and bright colours gave rise to the nickname ‘jelly-moulds’. The image of the theatre organ console rising from the depths is deeply ingrained in popular culture.

In 1926, the Finsbury Park Rink Cinema replaced a 1915 Thomas Jones pipe organ with a Wurlitzer organ, only the ninth built outside of the United States. It was a 2 manual 8-rank Model F.  In World War II the organ was dismantled, and later used for parts, the cinema itself closing in 1958. Happily a Wurlitzer installed in the Palace Cinema in Tottenham survives today in Rye College, East Sussex.  

The Finsbury Park Astoria was not the first cinema to open in Seven Sisters Road, but it was part of the new wave of cinema experiences. The Compton organ inside was a central part of the experience, as well as a full size orchestra. The permanent console  for the organ was above the proscenium arch of the stage, and the music entered the auditorium through three windows above the stage. 

Cinema organists had to be able to play all kinds of music, from jazz to classical to bebop, taking account of the audience for individual films and shows. It is one of those professions which has simply vanished today.

Sadly the Compton is long gone, sold for parts. Most cinemas sold their organs when buildings were being multiplexed or closed. Only a handful of organs remain in cinemas in Britain. The rest have found their way into town halls, clubs, churches, schools, museums, places of commercial entertainment and private homes.

Luckily the Astoria building survives, including most of its interior, and is now Grade II*listed. The illusion of being outdoors on a balmy Mediterranean night was an essential part of the design. Audiences could feel that they were seated in a Spanish Moorish courtyard and this was made complete with a ceiling of twinkling stars, a safety screen depicting an ornamental garden and, to the left and right of the proscenium arch, an uneven line of quaint old fashioned houses. 

From the early 1960s, the Astoria began to be used for concerts. In 1971 it was renamed The Rainbow when it became exclusively used for gigs. The venue excites so many memories for rock fans in the 1960s and 1970s and recordings of live performances are cherished today. 

All big name acts played here. Examples from the 1960s include Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix sharing the bill on 31 March 1967. This was the first time Hendrix burned his guitar on stage, and had to be taken to hospital with minor burns. The Hollies and Kinks  played on 2 May 1964 and Otis Reading on 17 March 1967. Beatles hysteria broke out at the legendary 1964 Christmas shows, with 20 separate performances in a fortnight.

The biggest names in black music were regulars. On 22 March 1969 Stevie Wonder played The Astoria. Also on the bill were The Foundations, The Flirtations, The Big Movement and The Coloured Raisins, the compère was Emperor Rosko.

In the 1970s  there was a mixture of established acts and then up-and-coming punks, like Clash in 1977 but also Bob Marley. Sadly new licensing requirements and extra costs led to its closure in December 1981. Elvis Costello and The Attractions, played the last concert ever performed at the theatre! During the mid-1990s it was  rescued from dereliction by United Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), which set about restoring the auditorium and foyer. The former cinema is now the main centre for the UCKG in Britain. Sadly opportunities to view inside are rare.

In my final blog post, we’ll explore the diversity of Finsbury Park’s musical heritage. 

This blog is based on a podcast for the St Mellitus Organ Project I developed with fellow Islington & Clerkenwell guide Susan Hahn. You can listen to the podcast here.

You can find out about Oonagh’s upcoming guided walks via Eventbrite and can follow her on Twitter @CapitalWalks. Find out more about other upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.