East End Memories

REMEMBERING THE EXCELSIOR, BETHNAL GREEN

THE EXCELSIOR - FROM SIMPLE SOCIAL CENTRE & KINO TO CINEMA & SHRINE

This series of stories is lovingly dedicated to my mother who always knew that this cinema was a gem and to Mr. Kevin Wheelan who in spite of finding it once it fell on hard times was able to see beyond its present state and recognized it for what it was ……. a true diamond.
 
It was early in November 1993 when I was in London.  This was my first visit to the city since my mother moved from England to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, here in the U.S.  She was seventy nine years old when she moved from her home of thirty six years in Langley in September of the previous year.  She was doing her best to fit in and managed to ease herself into her new life without too much difficulty, but did receive help from an unlikely source.  The Turner Broadcasting Service, TBS had a policy of showing the same programmes each day.  At precisely 12.05 p.m., each Monday through Friday, the company aired an episode of Perry Mason.  To say that my mother enjoyed this programme would be an understatement.  In addition, another of her favourite programmes, Hawaii 5-0, was also shown at a later time and on another channel

 

Hawaii 5-0 Then & Now

Left: Cast of the 1968 Series
Right: Cast of the 2010 Series

 

Perry Mason Cast

 
Both Raymond Burr and Jack Lord were great favourites of my mother.  She never referred to either actor by name, but rather as Her Man, a compliment which until then had been reserved exclusively for George Raft and James Cagney.  However, when she was feeling kind towards my father, he might likewise be referredNeither Perry Mason nor Hawaii 5-0 was ever taken lightly in our home.  In fact, should I be at home whenever Perry was in court or when surf was up and Steve was organizing Dan-O, Kono and Chin Ho, silence was du rigueur and one only spoke at one’s peril!  My mother tolerated none of my criticism of either programme when they were originally shown.  Should I ever dare to complain about a storyline or, God forbid, comment on Perry’s weight or Steve’s coiffure, it was suggested that I leave the room.
 

My Mother's Favourite Actors

Top Row, left to right: George Raft, James Cagney, Raymond Burr & Jack Lord
Bottom Row: My Father

 

My mother was very happy with our apartment and enjoyed sitting on the patio each day.  She liked her bedroom, which enjoyed the morning sun.  I had learned something very useful from a Gerontologist about how to help old people transition to a new environment.  The doctor said that older people often wake up in the night and may fail to recognize where they are thereby causing distress.  He suggested making their bedroom resemble that of their former home and so help avoid this disturbing situation.  This I did in my mother’s bedroom through the use of all kinds of knick knacks and bric-a-brac and by decorating the walls with pictures of people that were important to her.

One evening, after my mother had been living in the Chapel Hill for a few months, I remember that we began talking about where she had worked before retiring.  This was at Horlicks, the night time drink company.  My mother enjoyed working here and was saddened when the company was bought by Beechams in 1969 and she was made redundantSoon we were discussing other places and landmarks that meant a lot to my mother.  She spoke of St. John’s Church, Bethnal Green, where both my mother and I had been baptized and of the Excelsior, a little cinema much-loved by her.

 

The Horlicks Factory, Slough, Berks

 

St. John's Church, Bethnal Green

 

The Excelsior held special memories for my mother.  The building had been constructed as a local social centre and swimming pool, but later modified to be a cinema.  My mother’s father was killed during the First World War and once her mother remarried and had more children, her parents treated her harshly and made her to work hard.  My mother left school when she was eleven years old and sent out to work.  When she wasn’t working, she had to take care of the many brothers and sisters that she had.  She was never given any pocket money from her earnings and never allowed to enjoy the things that other children enjoyed.  She never once went to the pictures as a child and only went inside the Excelsior when she went to a party given there by the Bethnal Green Borough Council for children whose fathers had been killed during the war.  My mother said that this was the first and only party that she attended as a child.  Is it any wonder that the place held a special place in my mother’s memory?

Later that evening once my mother went to bed, I began to think that it might be nice to have some framed photographs of some of the places that held special memories for her and hang them in her bedroom and in the corridor leading to it.  Immediately I began to plan a trip to England.  I asked my mother if she wanted to come with me.  She declined, which surprised me.  She said that although she was not unhappy living in Chapel Hill, she knew that should she return to London, she would never be able to come back to the U.S.

 

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A.

 
I went to London in early November 1993 and after a few days of running errands and photographing Horlicks, I went to Bethnal Green.  I had not visited the area in a number of years and was soon to discover that a number of changes had taken place in the interim. 
Firstly, I was surprised to learn that the Club Row Dog Market was no more having been closed down by the RSPCA.  It had been alleged that the animals were inhumanely treated, as if we did not know that the puppies were starved so as their licking of the patrons’ fingers in their frantic search for food would be seen as friendliness.
 

Later, I discovered that Luigi’s, the coffee shop-cum-café was no more and the building had been renamed.  As I stood there, I felt a feeling of melancholia flood over me and the full impact of the loss of both Luigi’s and the Club Row Dog Market hit me.  Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories of visits to the market with my father, of the old bagel shop on the corner of Brick Lane and other places in the area that were no more.  I looked across the Bethnal Green Road hoping to gain some solace from something familiar.  I was disappointed as I saw that the old Police Station where drunks and petty crooks were held overnight before being brought up before the beck was now a Citizen’s Advice Bureau; Finklestein’s, my favourite fish ‘n’ chip shop, now not only had a new proprietor, but was offering kebab; and many of the public houses that clustered around the old Police Station were now specialized bars and clubs.

 

Top Row: left, site of Luigi's Cafe; right, building at extreme right was once the local Police Station

Bottom Row: left, site of Finkelstein's Fish 'n' Chip Shop and now the Regal Fish Bar

Bottom Row: right, the Tesco building at the left now occupies the site of Agombar's Shoe Shop

 
I continued my walk along the Bethnal Green Road on my way to Mansford Street.  All of the shops seemed to have new names.  Agombar’s shoe shop had gone.  Many of the small factories had also changed hands.  I felt like a stranger in a strange land. 
Despite being faced with the shock of seeing the changes to an area where I had spent much of my childhood, I remember feeling some excitement at the thought of seeing the Excelsior again.  The cinema was just off the Bethnal Green Road, at the junction of Mansford and Florida Streets.  As I walked, I remembered that last time I went inside the cinema.  It was in 1956 just before leaving Bethnal Green and moving to Langley.  I had gone to see Rock around the clock.  I have to confess that my last visit to the Excelsior was not out of sentimentality to see the cinema one last time before moving, but rather purely to see rock ‘n’ roll in action.
 
I remember feeling a lot better once I arrived at Mansford Street and about to turn onto the street just as I had done many times in the past.  Expecting to see the pointed spire of the roof and the building with its entrance on both Florida and Mansford Street and looking in need of some decoration, I was brought to an instant halt at what I saw and the earlier stab of melancholia was but a mere prelude to what I now felt.  For where once majestically stood my mother’s favourite cinema now stood a mass of double-decker town houses.
 

Site of the Excelsior Kino

According to the notice board (bottom right), 'the 701 homes comprising the Mansford & Avebury Estates
are being brought up to a decent, modern standard in order to create decent communities'.

 

I was stunned.  I could not believe my eyes.  As dramatic as it may sound, I felt as if a dagger had been plunged into my heart.  I remained frozen to the spot for some time and just looked at where the old cinema once stood.  I have no idea how long I stood there staring at nothing.  I remember being aware of people passing by and even of the traffic, but beyond that, I can only recall a feeling of deep loss.  It was as if I had suddenly learned that someone dear to me had died.  

Eventually, I must have regained my thoughts as I began to search for an explanation.  Perhaps I had turned into the wrong street and that this was not Mansford Street, as I supposed.  I felt almost joyful and quickly turned to retrace my steps back to the Bethnal Green Road.   But alas no, the name plate on the wall where once a board announced what’s on this week at the Excelsior clearly read, Mansford Street, Borough of Tower Hamlets. 

Again I was plunged into that bottomless pit of despair.  My mind raced as I searched other explanations for the absence of the Excelsior.  Perhaps I had been mistaken in thinking that the Excelsior was on Mansford Street.  Had I been confused all these years and that the cinema was on Canrobert Street or perhaps on Teesdale Street, both of which run into the Bethnal Green Road.  I started to turn onto the Bethnal Green Road but after a step or two, I stopped.   I knew that this would be a waste of my time.  The Excelsior had been on Mansford Street its junction with Florida Street and now it was no more.  I dragged myself back along Mansford Street and stared at the housing complex. 
 

After a few minutes, a man of about my age came walking towards me.  He laughed when I asked him what had happened to the old Excelsior.  He said that the fleapit had been pulled down years earlier and then walked on.  Again I felt a dagger plunge into my heart.  His manner of speech and his choice of his words were hurtful.  I would have hoped for sensitive words spoken in hushed tones and in a reverend manner.  Didn’t he know what had been destroyed so callously? 

I felt ill.  I held onto a wall and tried to regain my composure.  I could not believe that the Excelsior, that most treasured of cinemas, had been demolished to make way for these houses.  Just like that, with one swing of the wrecker’s ball, gone, lost, and I had no picture of it to remind me of it.

I looked at the houses.  I am one who can appreciate the need for people to have decent housing.  After all, hadn’t we once lived in a house that was condemned and slated for demolition and hadn’t we been moved out of Bethnal Green and into a new house?  Surely I could understand that Bethnal Green needed new homes?  Although I was upset and hurt to think that in the name of progress and change, the Excelsior, had been lost, I began to realize that it was selfish of me to begrudge others a decent place to live.

 

Paradise Row, Bethnal Green

Top right: Number 8, my home between 1953 and 1956

Bottom right: Number 3, once home of Daniel Mendoza, pugilist & author

 

As I stood there, I allowed myself to grieve the loss of the Excelsior.  I thought of my mother’s visit to attend her first party, of the visit of the old Queen Mary to attend the opera and of the many times that I had gone there myself.  I felt a tremendous sense of loss. 

And as I grieved for days gone by and events lived, I realized something important.  While I was busy leading my life and getting an education, travelling to far flung places and living in various places, places like the Excelsior, which I had not fully appreciated until then, had been lost.  And it was then that I realized that places like Bethnal Green, Stepney and Hoxton together with my memories of them were important to me.  The Excelsior had not only been a special place to my mother, it had also been special to me.  I had my own memories of it and these cannot be demolished.  Although the building was gone, my memories are still alive and vivid in my mind and will remain a part of me.

Later, once I regained my composure, I went to the Bethnal Green Library to ask about the Excelsior. I was told that it had been demolished in 1969. I was told no, they had no photographs of the building and that if I wished I could enquire further I should do so at the Borough of Tower Hamlets' Town Hall. I fear that I lacked the heart to look for the Town Hall during that visit. I left the library where years earlier my mother had taken me to join. As I walked aimlessly through the park, I remembered the first book that I had taken out. It was a book on Admiral Nelson.

 
 
 
I decided not to tell my mother about the fate of the Excelsior when I telephoned her later that day.  Some things are best told face-to-face.
 

I would like to thank Mr. Kevin Wheelen for providing  all photographs of the Excelsior used here. I am truly grateful to him for his kindness.

I would  like to thank Ms Bona Starkeson for her kindness, help and discussion in the writing of this story ....... mi hai dato dei buoni consigli, grazie.

 
 

READER COMMENTS

Dawson's Hotel  Webster Booth

Dawson’s Hotel in Johannesburg was once an establishment of importance in the life of the city and remains one filled with wonderful memories for me.  In its heyday, it was one of the city’s best hotels, with perhaps only the Carlton and Langham Hotels being grander.  In 1956 the British singing duo, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, moved to South Africa.  They spent their first three months in Johannesburg living at Dawson’s Hotel while they looked around for suitable permanent accommodation.  

It was in April 1963 that I first acted as Webster’s accompanist in their singing studio. At the time, Anne was away on a trip with broadcaster Leslie Green and I had been delighted and honoured when they asked me to take her place as studio accompanist.  During some free time in the studio, Webster asked me if I would like to have lunch with him at Dawson’s.  In turn, he accepted my invitation for him to have dinner with me and my parents at our home after we finished our work in the evening.

Tuesday was the red-letter day when Webster took me to lunch at Dawson’s Hotel.  After the final morning student lesson was over, Webster announced for the world to hear that “Jean and I are going to blow the family savings today.  I’m taking her to Dawson’s.”  The poor student looked envious and said, “Oh, I wish I was coming with you.   I have to go back to the office on an apple!”

As Dawson’s Hotel was just around the corner from the studio, we walked there. On our walk to the hotel, Webster seemed oblivious of the curious glances of the lunchtime throng doing double-takes as they recognised his famous face.  We were ushered into the sumptuous Edwardian dining room on the first floor as though we were royalty.  We were greeted by the head waiter who hovered around Webster and then directed us to the best table at the window.

Naturally Webster was at home in this setting.  After all, he had frequented the grandest hotels of Europe, the Antipodes and Britain and was used to being fussed over.  I, on the other hand, in a bottle green velvet dress, felt gauche and young, as indeed I was at the time.  After studying the menu, Webster ordered grilled trout and I ordered a fish dish also.  He had a gin before lunch and was quite disappointed when I refused anything alcoholic.  At that stage of my life, the only time I had drunk was an aperitif when my father poured me a thimbleful of sherry on special occasions.

During our meal Webster told me how he and Anne had lived at Dawson’s until they found their flat at Waverley, Highland’s North.  Sadly, he also told about several members of the hotel management, who had theatrical connections, and who for unknown reasons had seemingly turned against them.   

I enjoyed my fish dish and felt very much the grand lady having lunch with a world famous singer in that wonderful dining room.  Later, over coffee, we had petits fours.  Webster insisted I should eat as many as I wanted.  I found out later that they were soaked in brandy, so I did not go entirely without alcohol that day.

I remember coming out of that wonderful hotel into the afternoon sunshine and sauntering back to the studio.  Fortunately, there was only one pupil due that afternoon.  As we waited, Webster soon fell asleep on the couch while I sat in a chair a fair distance away reading Duet, their autobiography, which he had brought in for me to read the week before.

When Webster woke up, he put on one of the reel-to-reel tapes containing his sacred and oratorio recordings.  I remember listening to How Lovely Art Thy Dwellings, The Lost Chord, Abide With Me, and Sound an Alarm.  I was entranced and sometimes near to tears by the beauty of his singing.

Over the years, whenever I went back to Dawson’s Hotel with others, I could not but recall my first visit with Webster and remember our lunch.  Unfortunately, because of the high crime rate in central Johannesburg today, I have avoided going into the city for the past ten years. Imagine my sadness when I found Dawson’s hotel on a Google Street map recently and learned that it is no longer occupied.  The building is now but a shadow of its former self.  It has been abandoned, dirty and in a state of abject decay.  I suspect that it is now home to squatters and serves merely as a place of shelter from the elements.  What a sad end to an elegant hotel, which I will always remember for the happy time I spent there with Webster as a teenager.

A Reader – Johannesburg, South Africa

 

I have read your story about the Excelsior and find myself connecting with its emotional impact.  However a building does not have to actually disappear for there to be this type of response 

Several years ago, my mother was no longer able to maintain our family home. This left the house empty and, since we were not ready to sell, we decided to rent it out.  We found what we thought to be suitable tenants, however we were to learn that we had misjudged them.  Visits to the house for inspections during the tenancy were traumatic.  It had been turned into a pigsty and I was shocked to see that seemingly pleasant and educated people could live in this manner.  This was the place which for 65 years of my life was the ground of my family – my early home.

Although I did not particularly like many aspects of the house, it was, nonetheless, the place of most of my childhood memories and the place where I visited my parents once I left home.  My pangs of sadness were augmented on my parents' behalf – the sight of the house’s decay and disorder would have caused them mortal wounds.

A Reader – Sydney, Australia

 

Anyone who has lived in Hawaii will understand when I say that there is no place on earth quite like it.  The weather is barmy all year round with gentle breezes that carry the scent of the flowers into one’s home.  The mountains and the vegetation are remarkable.  I have never seen so many shades of green.  Walking on the beach was always an adventure.  Watching the waves come crashing to shore and feeling the surf about one’s feet was exhilarating especially at sunrise or sunset.

I lived in Hawaii for only a few years, but the memory of the island is indelibly imprinted in my memory.  Whenever I think of the island or here its music, I am immediately transported back there and calmness comes over me.  Before I left, I threw a lei onto the ocean and watched it as it was carried back to shore.  This is said to mean that I will return to the island once more.  I do hope so.

Aloha – Madame la Glisseuse

 

I was listening to a recording made in 1934 by the great organist, Reginald Foort, playing The Wee McGregor Patrol, on the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Regal Kingston.  This reminded me of my many visits to this cinema, which holds a special place in my memory.  I remember going there for the first time in the late 1960s.  I used to go there with friends.  In 1972, once I married, my wife and I lived only a mile or so from the Regal and we would often spend an evening there.  In 1976, it was converted into a Bingo Hall, but eventually closed in April 2010.  Sadly, since then the building has been left derelict.  The Regal is currently the subject of an inquiry, since changes were made to the interior, which is contrary to its Grade II status as a listed building.

Kevin Wheelan

 

 

 

Continue to part two - The Excelsior - History

Back to Home Page

Copyrightę 2011 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins