One of East London’s art-deco gems is being restored to its original glory as decades of clutter and mess are cleared away. This is the Troxy, built in the 1930s as a cinema, later an opera rehearsal site followed by two fat ladies as a bingo hall, and now being restored as a music and entertainment venue.
It also contains hidden depths that the public rarely get to see.
The Troxy was built on a block in Limehouse that was mainly occupied by the Commercial Brewery, with some houses at the rear and a pub on the corner. The Hyams Brothers bought up most of the land and in 1932 started building what was at the time, the UK’s largest cinema. It took 1,000 tons of steelwork, including a 110-foot long girder that needed a police escort to help it arrive from Barrow-in-Furness, 2.5 million bricks and 10,000 electric light bulbs to complete the building.
The Troxy opened on Monday 11th September 1933, with the opening ceremony by 14-year old Bridget Hughes, who had been born in one of the houses demolished to make way for the cinema. Back then, cinemas were more than just about the film, they put in a spectacle. The sort of thing that is returning to fashion now, with performers and stage sets for the films. To help this, the Troxy came with a large stage, that even included revolving sections in the main floor.
The opening night screening was King Kong, a talking movie. This is significant as the building was constructed only a few years after talking movies had become mainstream, so to cater for the still significant silent movies and other entertainments, it included a huge Wurlitzer organ that would be raised up through the stage on a lift. The decision to include the organ affected more than just the stage though, as the keyboard is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and huge spaces had to be included into the sidewall to house all the pipes and instruments that the organist would play.
It can be said that the cinema was built around the organ.
In its heyday, big names from the film and music industry were regular sights at Troxy, with stars such as The Andrews Sisters, Gracie Fields, Petula Clark, Cliff Richard and Clark Gable visiting it. However, the post-war population decline in the area saw it struggle, and it closed as a cinema in November 1960.
It then underwent probably the most unexpected phase in its life – it was bought by the Royal Opera House to use as a rehearsal space and training centre for new operative stars. They also made the first significant change to the interior, as the ground floor’s sloping surface for staggered seating was levelled to create a flat surface for practising on. That’s never been changed back, so underneath the floor that people walk on today, is still the stepped flooring for the old cinema.
The Royal Opera House remained in the building until 1978, and in 1991 a more conventional occupant of old cinemas took over – a bingo hall, and that’s how it remained until 2005. It was then that the current owners bought it, and it reopened in 2006 as a live entertainment space. An initial 18-month restoration took place in 2012, and just recently the second phase took advantage of an unexpected pandemic closure to carry out a major set of works.
The entrance has had the old ticket office removed from the front of the foyer and the bingo-hall carpet stripped back to uncover the original marble flooring that has been there since the 1930s. The original foyer used to be far taller, but at some point, an extra floor was added in, and that’s likely to remain as the extra room it created is useful.
Walking onto the ground floor with Dan from the Troxy, the big transformation is not immediately obvious unless you’ve been there a few times — they have a stage again. This may sound like an odd thing to say about a venue built with a stage, and one that visitors will have seen gigs performed on a stage, so what’s changed?
When the Troxy was being used as a bingo hall, they built a large kitchen on top of the stage, and the bingo caller used to be based in a small stage built on top of the kitchen. The stage that people used to see was in fact a small temporary structure in front of the old stage. Over the past year, the current owners have stripped out the kitchen and restored the stage and the fly tower to their original function.
Apart from now having a much bigger and nicer stage for the acts, the acoustics have been improved, and also the view from the upper seating is now better as it was optimised for the original stage not the temporary one in front of it. Commercially, no longer needing the temporary stage means more floor space for customers, although not at the moment as they need to increase the fire escapes and add more toilets before they’re licensed to increase their capacity.
Apart from being a restoration project for the old building, it’s the added flexibility that they’re after, as their events range from corporate shindigs to music gigs. In one week a while back, they hosted a political event, a corporate dinner, cagefighting, a religious meeting and a wedding. In one week.
The restored stage now in use, there’s something marvellous underneath — the original rotating platforms and stage lifts.
As a Grade II listed building, the old equipment, while not of much use, can’t be removed, so deep under the stage in very cramped, and occasional hard hat bashing spaces you can see the original 1930s rotating platforms and the motors that powered them.
Down here are also the original stage lifting gear, in a space that’s occasionally wetter than ideal thanks to the water table.
There’s also a long row of rooms, once used by the live musicians to warm up in, hence soundproofing in the rooms, but now being cleared out for other uses. Likewise, a staff kitchen and storage area could become the expanded toilets at some point in the future.
A lot is changing at the Troxy.
As we were on a visit to the bowels of the building, it’s appropriate to take in a look a the top as well, and above the ceiling are the huge, and recently upgraded because of the pandemic, ventilation systems for the hall below. Massive pipes run around the ceiling, and conveniently right over the walkway, so you have to duck right down to get past it. Newly installed motors help with the fly tower now that it’s been uncovered again, and an older lift in the middle can lower the huge art-deco chandelier that hangs in the hall.
Despite all the steel up here, there’s still an uncomfortable awareness that there’s just a thin layer of plaster between you and a very deep fall to the auditorium below if you were daft enough to get off the walkway.
They have a pretty good view from the roof as well, if you have the keys to a very solid door lock bolt, and don’t mind climbing up ladders.
When the cinema opened, it had a large Wurlitzer organ. Sadly, the original was removed in the 1960s, but the current owners were able to offer a home to one that had been removed from the Trocadero in Elephant and Castle in the 1960s, which is apt, as the Trocadero was built by the same Hyams Brothers who built the Troxy.
The Troxy’s Wurlitzer has 1,728 pipes measuring from as small as one inch to as tall as 16 feet that are housed in four separate rooms. It has four keyboards, one pedalboard and 241 stop keys.
High up behind the walls near the stage are two rooms on either side and inside is the massive modern fan machine that provides the prodigious airflow for the pipes. It took a lot of work to squeeze it through the narrow corridors that line the backstage areas, and in the corner, an old ventilation fan that’s too large to be removed — they think the fan was installed and the room built around it.
Running to the instruments are large grey drainage pipes carrying the airflow, so the whole space looks like a maze of oversized domestic plumbing, except this time they create music.
The Wurlitzer keyboard itself sits in a cupboard by the stage — with a glass window to show it off — to be pulled out for shows and performances. It’s very heavy, so it’s mounted on a hoverboard, that’s powered by four Henry vacumn cleaners. When they need to move the organ, they turn the vacuum cleaners on and they suck air in from a side pipe and blow it back out from below. They’re powerful enough that they can lift the Wurlitzer so that staff can move it around the room.
And I bet you never thought a Henry could do that.
Thanks to the management and Dan from the Troxy for the opportunity to share the behind the scenes photos of the venue, and to learn about how this art-deco gem is being restored for the 21st-century.